OPINION

Greek vs Irish unions, 20-0

Since May 2010, when the troika’s adjustment program came into effect, there have been 20 general strikes in Greece. In Ireland, which has also been forced to apply harsh austerity, there has not been one, as an Irish government official commented to Kathimerini’s Brussels correspondent Nikos Chrysoloras. I telephoned an Irish colleague in Dublin and asked: “Why don’t the Irish strike? Are your unions not organized?”

“On the contrary,” he replied. “They are super-organized. They developed a very elaborate machinery over the past 35 years. This came to a climax during the boom years with the social partnership. Trade unions got very used to dealing directly with the government. I think there was a sense that with a strike things would be very difficult for members without achieving a result. People have a lot to lose – credit card debt and mortgages.”

The Irish labor movement is very different from its Greek counterpart. The unions are affiliated to the Labour Party, which is part of the coalition government. In Greece they are headed by a number of party affiliates, which tempts the various factions to try to outbid each other in militancy. The Irish union leaders are using the contacts they built up over the past years as part of the social partnership. “It started in 1988 during the recession, with the program for national recovery – industrial peace in return for protection of workers. It created stability; the same people are still there,” my colleague noted.

There may have been no general strikes in Ireland, but the stakes are high as the government and unions negotiate a new round of austerity for public sector workers. The troika of creditors wants a further 300 million euros in cuts, which the government is threatening to impose if it does not achieve them through negotiations. They have no choice, because, as in Greece, the troika is looking over their shoulder. The chairman of the Congress of Trade Unions has commented that it’s easy to start something but not so easy to finish it. “There are people on both sides who would love a general strike, to clear up the air, but consensus is that it’s best to negotiate their way out of the crisis,” the Irish journalist said.

It seems that perhaps the greatest difference between the Greek and Irish unions is that the Irish negotiate on the basis of specific issues and do not use the weapon of last resort to make abstract declarations, and all the protagonists are afraid of a general strike’s cost. They fear losing. In Greece we often act as if there is nothing to discuss, as if we have already lost, as if there is nothing to fear. And we strike, with no positive result.