The primary objective of anyone or any group who want to promote a new way of seeing the world in which they live, of effecting change, must be to galvanise support, to rally citizens to the cause, to bring not just a moral force to bear on an issue but to show that a numerical force of citizens exists in support of the argument advanced for change.
One of the contentious positions occupying the Occupy movement, and particularly, it seems, the Occupy Dame Street pioneers, is that of whether to allow an involvement in the protest by various groups, from political parties to other pressure groups including trade unions. That is not surprising given reasonable fears that attempts may be made to ‘take over’ what has been begun by a collective of individuals who have roused themselves to make a stand and have shown courage and commitment to do so when others who might have been expected to live up to their own rhetoric failed to recognise the opportunity and step forward themselves.
There are sound reasons for being wary of political party involvement. It would be ridiculous if the three main parties, Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil, were to show up to pretend support for the aims of the occupiers of the Central Bank Plaza, given their support for the very institutions and ideology that the Occupy movement opposes (and Labour is no different on that to the other parties other than possibly on the scale of neo-liberal inspired austerity).
There is a case to be made, however, not to exclude other parties who have a track record in opposing both the power of the same institutions, and capitalist ideology – of which neo-liberalism is a particularly pernicious form, especially those parties that have advanced proposals to restructure politics, the economy and society in favour of the mass of ordinary citizens and who have expressly opposed the various world and regional bodies such as the IMF and ECB and their policies. Ground rules could be laid down for the inclusion of supporters of these various parties, such as on the use of party banners and on the issue of the right of the Occupy Dame Street pioneers to control their protest themselves and the ground they occupy, without any attempt by any third party to take over on either front.
There is another body that represents a massive number of people on the island, the vast majority of whom are ordinary citizen-workers (and by extension their families and dependents). The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has a combined membership across the island of over 800,000, with in excess of 600,000 in the 26 Counties. A significant percentage of those members, and their dependents, are suffering from the effects of the insane policies of various right-wing governments from the 1990s to today, with many suffering very badly.
There are valid criticisms to be made of the way trade unions operate. But it must be pointed out that there has been a sustained campaign in the right-wing corporate and state media against the trade unions and against trade union leaders, much of it grossly unfair and unreasonable, all of it inspired by an anti-worker agenda fuelled by vile neo-liberalism, a regressive, brutal ideology that seeks to reverse the gains made by workers through trade union activity over the past century or so.
The reasons for that campaign are obvious. After all, without the unions it would be very easy to drive ordinary workers’ pay and conditions down even more than has been the case over the past four years, thus enhancing the wealth of the corporations and the privileges that those who enjoy high salaries and perks – the professional class – enjoy. The freedom to fire those who do not enjoy the protection of a trade union is exemplified in the case of the Talk-Talk workers in Waterford, whereas the Aviva workers, with trade union representation have at least had some concessions to their dignity and their rights as workers. There are many more examples on both sides. Without the backing of a trade union the power relationship between the employer and the worker works entirely in favour of the employer.
On the issue of criticisms of trade union leaders, there is certainly a case to be made that union leaders should receive a salary commensurate with the work they do as leaders of large organisations but in tune with the pay that their members receive – much as should be the case with public representatives in the Dáil and Seanad – the parliament, and with public servants on the higher scales. Contrary to the picture painted of them, most in the leadership of the trade unions, and the Congress, are good and decent men and women, whose ethics and standards compare more than favourably with those of media owners and their hacks, and politicians, business leaders, bankers, bishops, lawyers and other members of the political class.
Another point worth bearing in mind when considering criticism of trade union leaders is that they, in theory at least, are the servants of their membership. Who are their members? Contrary to what one might imagine, their members are not, in general, left-wing by nature, although many are. A significant number of trade union members support, and may even be members of, right-wing parties such as Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, and of Labour which has consistently enabled right-wing parties to achieve power. It is right to expect trade unions to be radical, and left-wing – since that is consistent with their origins and their expressed ethos – but the leadership is not autonomous, it must have the support of the membership from which it cannot alienate itself.
What the trade union movement can bring to the Occupy Dame Street campaign, and other affiliated campaigns around the country, is a numerical backing that protests and marches need for public impact, and also a valuable and free publicity machine to spread the essential message of the Occupy campaign to a wider audience in the absence of a media that is fair, balanced and interested in real democracy. The unions may also offer practical assistance on-site and with printing and distribution, etc. They should be asked to do so.
For the Occupy Dame Street pioneers to succeed in bringing about change it is necessary to make their movement a mass movement. Nothing will be achieved by avoiding worthwhile publicity and consciousness-raising among the wider population who, as citizens, deserve to be made aware of the arguments being put forward by the campaigners for revolutionary change. If the movement does not expand by gaining the support of a mass of people it will wither on the vine, to the delight of the political class. That is what they are hoping for, far preferable from their PR point of view than sending in state police to clear the site.
There are other organisations who would also be helpful, including community groups, unemployed workers’ groups, various anti-poverty bodies and those who work for the rights of older people (whose capacity to protest successfully is proven), etc. These are well worth encouraging to become involved. They represent citizens, after all, and citizens who might be very sympathetic to the cause.
Decisions on these matters are entirely for the pioneering campaigners down at the Central Bank in Dame Street to resolve. Anyone who believes in what they are trying to achieve will hope that the decisions they make will be wise and will lead to success. Occupy Dame Street owns the Dublin campaign at the moment. The decisions they make will decide if they can sustain that ownership into the future.
All revolutions start in the imagination, all begin with a small body of committed revolutionaries. But all successful revolutions depend on the support of a significant mass of citizens who come to the ideas that the revolutionaries originate and develop. For that to happen then dissemination of those ideas and the arguments that support them is vital, using every available medium.
Occupy The Citizens!