There was once a time when Irish trades union officials were fire and brimstone men, ready to take to the pickets at the drop of a differential payment. Then along came Social Partnership, and they went from being fellas standing outside a factory huddling around a burning steel drum to sauntering up the steps of Merrion Square like ex-officio members of the cabinet. Today’s trades union official is a paragon of reasonableness, the 1970s wrapped up in 21st century empathy and the need to “engage.”
His, (Yes, they’re still primarily men. The comrades are all for women’s rights as long as they don’t have to elect them. ) langauge has changed too. Occasionally, there’s still the odd poseur whio throws in a “comrade” or two and talks about “working class solidarity”, but mostly it’s language that wouldn’t sound out of place in a meeting of The Guardian’s editorial board. Social solidarity, the need to “upskill” and the endless “call for more resources” are now the phrases du jour. They don’t even attack capitalism anymore, the smarter one’s knowing that battle is well lost, even in these dark times. Instead, “neo liberalism” is the new enemy, a broad, vague and slightly fashionable phrase that menances even when uttered by those young “Che” wannabes as they listen to the iPods that neo-liberalism spawned.
The key is to be reasonable. Don’t defend public sector pensions, attack the lack of them in the private sector, even though it is private sector taxes that fund the public sector ones in the first place. And the golden rule: Do not, for the love of God, let the private and public sectors be seperated in the mind of the public. That’s the emperor’s new clothes right there. Instead, talk about social solidaity pacts and “dividing” ordinary working people. Remember: The private sector may generate economic capital, but the public sector generates social capital! True, public sector workers won’t accept their pensions in anything but economic capital, but that’s not the point!
Despite the rhetoric, the truth is that the closest today’s union leaders get to Marx is Marks. And his good friend Spencer, which is kind of complimentary, in that whilst his private sector members can’t afford to do their shopping there, they can at least stack the shelves for him when he does.