LEADERS AND LEADERSHIP

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 10-15 minutes)

What makes leaders good or bad ones? How much power should a leader have? How should they conduct themselves? How do we know when they are no longer leading us well and what can we do about it? The following piece discusses these questions and seeks to answer them.

 

Most people think human beings need leaders and revolutionaries and insurgents in general are no exception. There are some political-social groups who state that they are autonomous and do not need leaders but it has been my experience even in some of those groups that they do indeed have leaders and that in general they act under that leadership. It seems to be a human trait for groups to accept leadership and to follow leaders and indeed all social animals we may observe have leaders. Nevertheless, the question of leadership historically has been fraught and that is as much the case for human society in its various stages as well as for revolutionary organisations.

Statue in the Louvre, Paris, of Spartacus, leader of the great slave uprising against Rome 73-71 BCE. He is here represented as a thinker.
(Photo sourced: Internet)

RESPONSES TO LEADERS – HEALTHY & UNHEALTHY

RESPECT

          If our leaders have proved their worth to our endeavours then of course we should respect them. We should not respect them because of their class or family background. It is what one does that makes one worthy of respect, not the social class in which one was raised. And if that class background gave certain advantages in education, in leisure time to study and learn, then those are advantages we value and seek for all, which is far from respecting someone merely because they were raised with those advantages.

As to family background, it seems to me that we are haunted with an old way of looking at human society. It might have seemed natural in ancient times to give the offspring of a valued leader special respect and even to choose the successor from among his/her offspring. It does seem to be the case that some talents and traits are inherited through genes and it is also true that such a family background can familiarise one with some principles of leadership. However, history has provided us with many examples of ineptitude, malice and even madness in leaders who have greatness in their family background. It has also provided us with examples of people who rose from obscurity and from a family background of no particular note to lead masses in historic deeds.

Since we speak of respect, we should talk now about what that means. Of course, when leaders seeks to lead us, to advocate some action or policy, we should listen for if we do not, how can we benefit from what they have to say to us? We listen with respect.

But respect is not the same as servility, nor blind acceptance. We should consider what we are being told and feel free to ask questions and to challenge what we may perceive as assumptions. Further, we should accept that others also have that right, even if we ourselves are convinced in the leaders’ words. Our leaders are not infallible and nor are we.

We said earlier that it is upon what we do that we earn respect and that is so for leaders too. Every judgement on what we do must inevitably be based to some extent on an action in the past, even if it as recent a past as earlier that week, the day before or an hour ago. But one’s past does not grant infallibility and one who took correct decisions in the past can all too easily take wrong ones today or tomorrow. History has also shown us many such examples. Therefore the expectation of any leaders or of their followers that we should accept what they say mainly on the basis of their having been correct in the past is completely unjustified — however emotionally satisfying it may be to some people — and we should resolutely reject the premise.

If we are entitled to question and even challenge leaders there also comes a time when that right should be put aside for awhile. At some point it is necessary to act and endless debate does not lead to action. Nor is the entitlement to question and challenge a justification for ceaseless exercise of that right and it is also the case that such practice will in time devalue future criticism and challenge, perhaps when they are valid and should be most needed. The point at which debate needs to come to an end and a decision made, by the accepted procedures of the group, is ruled by the necessities of the situation and not by simple declaration.

CONDUCT OF LEADERSHIP

          Firstly, led us observe that while it is an impossibility for everyone to lead simultaneously, everybody is capable of leadership at some time in some circumstance. Every time one of us suggests a course of action or expresses a criticism in a group, we are in effect offering leadership to others. The one who says “I think we should …” or “Why don’t we …..?” or “Maybe we could ….” are all offering leadership at that moment. Whether it would have been effective leadership or in any case is accepted or not is beside this point.

Spartacus statue in Sandinski, Bulgaria. Here his military leadership is emphasised.
(Photo sourced: Internet)

RESPONSIBILITY

          We all of us should take responsibility for our actions and their effect. In practice that means weighing up positive and negative aspects before action (should we have time to do so) and afterwards evaluating once again its negative and positive aspects. Should we be constantly hesitant or paralysed by fear of failure we cannot be effective in anything worthwhile, therefore it is necessary that we are prepared to risk making mistakes. Then we have a responsibility to learn from our mistakes which implies a responsibility to admit to them.

Leaders at any level must take responsibility not only for their own actions but for those of their followers also. The leader too must be prepared to make mistakes but should endeavour to ensure that they are not too serious, that the consequences are not too disastrous. This is a heavy responsibility which implies the need to think things through in advance and not to merely react or act mainly out of emotion. And yet, the leader must be prepared to be decisive when that is what the situation requires.

Too many individuals accept leaders as a means of abrogating their own responsibilities. All of us have responsibilities in any endeavour we join together: responsibility in sharing work, risk, and thought. If we leave consideration of the negative and positive aspects of a proposal to others, not only are we shirking our responsibilities but we are hardly justified in complaining later about the actions of our leaders.

SHARING LEADERSHIP

          Some leaders are seen to take on multiple responsibilities and many tasks. In capitalist endeavours this has been judged to be wasteful and ineffective in the long run, leading to inflexibility, slowness to react and “micro management”, among other faults. An insecure leader does not trust others and seeks to keep all tasks and initiatives under his/ her control. And yet, shit happens, as they say. Nothing can be completely controlled.

Louise Michel, life-long anarchist revolutionary and one of the leaders of the Paris Commune 1871 and other revolutionary initiatives later.
(Photo sourced: Wikipedia)

In revolutionary leadership this tendency to try to control everything by an individual or individuals has also been seen, with harmful consequences that include stifling initiative and learning among the group or organisation. Once this becomes established, the absence of the leader(s) mean the paralysis of the organisation and a similar effect occurs while waiting for them to make a decision. In addition, if they enemy subverts the leadership, the whole organisation and struggle becomes destroyed or at least greatly damaged.

Good leadership encourages the development of different areas by different individuals within the group and spreads participation in — and responsibility for — the decision-making. This model is often called collective leadership but within that itself there are different models too.

It would be very damaging if every individual were to act within an organisation according to how they might feel at different times and to represent the organisation externally without consulting the group. After matters are discussed and collective agreement has taken place, members of an organisation should not represent the organisation in a contrary way to what has been agreed. This is a difficult area with tensions between the right of expression of the individual and of responsibility to the organisation, one which I am unsure has ever been completely resolved.

Collective leadership is usually exercised through a committee or temporary working group and allows for different individuals taking a lead in different areas. One might note that person A regularly calls people to the overall task in hand and pushes for a monitoring of progress, while person B concentrates on developing a specific area, person C looks to the recording of decisions and person D to some external relations. There are of course formal positions in organisations and committees such as Chair, Secretary, Treasurer etc but even without formal elections one finds that successful groups develop areas of responsibility for separate individuals even without the existence of such elected offices. Furthermore, a particular responsibility may fluctuate between individuals at different times. A good argument exists for not entrenching anyone in specific roles over long periods of time. Rotation of roles and encouragement to take up new responsibilities can help broaden the experience and capabilities of members of the group or organisation and also prevent the growth of cliques and controlling leaderships.

Monument under continuing instruction to Crazy Horse, a chief of the Lakota Oglala, who with Sitting Bull led the struggle against the USA’s expansion and confiscation of his people’s traditional lands, including the great defeat of General Custer’s military invasion at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. He was murdered on 5th September 1877 in US Military custody. The statue is finished but the monument on land in Dakota includes the carving of the rock bluff seen in the distant background.
(Photo sourced: Internet)

WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR

          Their are certain traits which may be observed repeated in unhealthy leadership and it is well to be aware of them, both for those who follow them and for people put in positions of leadership themselves. The following list does not include timidity, hesitation and prevarication, which are also bad traits of leadership.

The leaders

  • clearly enjoy issuing orders

  • direct others to do tasks they would not undertake themselves
  • monopolise speaking time

  • push for an end to debate without demonstrable necessity for the organisation

  • dismiss out of hand opinions opposed to theirs

  • expect agreement with whatever they say and resent question or challenge

  • regard question and challenge as treasonous, mutinous

  • hold grudges against those who have disagreed with them and seek to have them ignored, ostracised or demoted

  • seek or accept control over multiple areas of work

  • lie outright to their following

  • or do not tell their following the whole truth

  • call upon their past record in order to justify their actions or direction in the present

  • call upon their family background to justify their actions or decisions

  • surround themselves with a group who support them without question

  • accept flattery

  • flatter particular people (as distinct from commending when appropriate)

  • never commend any of their followers when deserved or choose only some to commend

  • criticise others unfairly or out of proportion to what is deserved

  • consider themselves entitled to special consideration above others in physical and emotional comforts

  • believe that rules that apply to the majority do not apply to them by virtue of their position or imagined personal superiority

Also, among the group or organisation, those who:

  • Always agree with the leaders or

  • Constantly disagree to no apparent concrete purpose

  • Constantly praise the leaders in private or in public

  • Praise a leader or leaders while ignoring or downplaying the contribution of others

  • Deny leaders have committed errors or wrongdoing in the face of evidence to the contrary

  • Make excuses for wrongdoing or errors of the leaders

  • Use the past record or family background of the leaders to justify actions in the present

  • or to imply that the leaders should be followed without weighing up their actions or what they advocate

  • criticise anyone who criticises the leadership rather than dealing with the point of that criticism
  • try to justify leaders having special consideration above others in terms of physical and emotional comfort

CONCLUSION

          The exploitation of working masses and their resistance to that has been going on since ancient slave societies and has led to outbreaks of revolt down through the centuries. The Paris Commune of 1871 was the first time that the working class succeeded in taking a city and holding it for a period, developing its own instruments of making decisions and carrying them out. At little over two months it was a short-lived experiment and fell to the bloody suppression of Prussian armed forces at the invitation of deposed royalty and dispossessed bourgeoisie.

It was not until 1917 that the working class was able once again to overthrow its oppressors and this time it did so not just in a city but in an entire state, also defeating invasions to overthrow its power. But where is that today? The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 but had been crumbling within from long before that and, some would say, the working class had lost control in the early years immediately following the Revolution.

The question of leadership and how to handle it by everyone is an important one in an organisation but, for revolutionaries, is essential. It is essential not only for the conduct of the struggle but perhaps even more so for managing society after a revolution. The seeds of that management in the future must be sown in the present.

End.

 

POSTSCRIPT

          I base the above on my personal experience of decades, my reflection upon them and on reading of history.  My personal experience has been mostly in unpaid social-political struggles in trade unionism, housing, political groups on a number of fronts, solidarity committees, community and education groups but also employed in few NGOs for a shorter period.  I have been either a follower or part of leaderships and have erred in both on occasions while on others acted correctly.  I hope that I have learned from them all — and certainly from my mistakes.

In order to concentrate thinking on the general principles I have refrained from giving particular examples of recent leadership, which might have tended to give rise to discussion about individual cases rather than the principles as a whole.

FRONTLINE ESSENTIAL WORKERS – VULNERABLE BUT NOT CONSIDERED

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 5 minutes)

We hear talk from time to time about essential frontline workers, a discussion the origins of which can be traced to the call on the Government to shut down all non-essential work. That of course raised the issue of what is essential work and therefore, who are the essential workers. High among the category considered essential were health practitioners and their rate of infection, when statistics were published, was exceeding 25%. But there is another group of workers who are essential and vulnerable and although most members of the public are in contact with them on a weekly basis at least, nevertheless they are given little protection and rarely mentioned.

          Essential workers include, apart from healthcare workers, those maintaining our supplies of clean water, electricity and gas, sanitation, agriculture, production of necessary equipment, public transport, transport of essential supplies, fire-fighting, telecommunication (but not commercial call centres), postal services …. All of these should be in the first rank of consideration for protection from the Coronavirus-19, because they are vulnerable and for the selfish reason that we need them. But much more exposed on a daily basis to a greater number of people are the shop and supermarket workers.

Customer and staff both wearing mask and gloves in a foreign supermarket
(Photo source: Internet)

They are the most numerous of the essential workers in daily contact with the public, which puts them at risk and, if they become infected, puts the general public, the shopping customers at risk too. And yet, their levels of protection organised by their employers are very poor overall. Despite this, we rarely hear them mentioned in public discourse, they do not receive particular attention from the Left and even their own trade unions are inactive on the issue.

WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN DONE

          Let us take a moment to consider what should have been the measures put in place for these workers and for the public coming into contact with them:

  1. Immediate training program in prevention for all staff, with regular refresher or reinforcement measures

  2. Immediate supply of protective clothing, disposed/ washed after each break and shift, this to include face-mask and gloves

  3. Hand-sanitiser at every work station

  4. Wrap-around screens at all checkout points

  5. Disinfection routines for all work stations at shift changes

  6. No shelf-filling during hours open to the public or non-essential interaction between public and staff inside of six feet distance

  7. Staff in necessary close proximity to members of the public, including security staff, to be given special protection in clothing and in shift arrangements and testing

  8. Safe social distances enforced by restrictions on numbers of customers in store at one time

  9. Safe social distances marked for queues and enforced

  10. Regular disinfection of automatic checkout machines

  11. Supply of hand-sanitiser at all entrances/ exits and checkout machines for the public

  12. Prevention informational visual and audio prompts for public and staff

  13. All companies obliged by Government to publish their protocols so as to educate staff and public and also give a point of correction if either feel that the protocols are not being adhered to.

Some readers may protest that management had no previous experience of a pandemic, that some of these measures were implemented but a delay was inevitable and some measures are too extreme. I would respond that any group of reasonably intelligent people, knowing the danger and typical transmission routes, sitting down to think of precautions, would come up with a similar list. Companies are supposed to carry out risk assessments of their procedures.  Trade union officials and representatives would be trained in how to assess levels of risk and how to employ measures to eliminate or reduce the level of risk as much as practicable.

Should anyone consider any of those measures excessive, they should be able to point out which and to say why. Or likewise justify the claim that late implementation was unavoidable.

Notice on screen in one shopping chain.
(Photo source: Internet)

WHAT WAS DONE

          Let us now take a moment to review which of those measure have been implemented, how and when.

  1. I am not in a position to give a definite answer on whether staff were given intensive training in avoiding infection or not but from my observation while shopping of staff in a number of supermarkets I would feel confident in saying that they had not or, if they had, that the required practice was not being monitored by management.

  2. Even to the day of writing this piece, in only one workplace, Eurospar in Fairview, have I seen all the staff wearing face masks. Workers in a number of other companies have told me that they are not supplied with them.

  3. Hand-sanitiser was supplied to work-stations in some supermarkets (possibly all) but weeks after the pandemic hit Ireland (though it had been raging abroad for many weeks before that and covered in news reports).

  4. No screens were in place at work-stations until weeks after the arrival of the virus and even now are rudimentary in many places. Single screens with spaces between permit staff and customers to position themselves in the open spaces, which I have seen both do at times. A number of cashier screens with an open section for customers to receive and load their checked-out purchases are well inside six feet of the staff member.

  5. Whether there are any such shift-change disinfection routines at any supermarket I cannot say but in some supermarkets I have seen staff leave or take up work at a station without any evidence of its disinfection.

  6. I have seen frequent shelf-filling during-open-to the-public hours in Dunnes, Tesco, Centra and Aldi (I have not been in a Lidl since the virus arrived) and even without gloves; also unprotected staff moving among customers on other pieces of work, including stacking and removing empty baskets. Even this evening in a Tesco outlet, although at least they were wearing orange (?) gloves, staff were attending to shelves (and without face-masks, as was the staff member stationed near the automatic machines).

  7. In addition to the above, staff maintaining queue lines, including security staff: every single one without masks and all being passed by customers at distances inside of six feet. The most shocking case was of a security guard in Tesco Drumcondra being passed by customers at distances of between one and three feet – he had no mask and only his company uniform, which he probably takes home to his family and puts on again next day. As to testing, given the long waiting times reported for testing and even longer for results, along with the general level of care for employees shown by the companies, how likely is any are being regularly tested?

  8. Yes but in at least one case, I saw that the security guard on the door monitoring numbers was absent for awhile. Of course, there are calls of nature but shouldn’t the protocols require the temporary replacement of the person at this post? Would we wish to be the ones who were infected because this probability had not been foreseen and provided for?

  9. The safe social distances for queueing customers – but not among staff — are now being enforced in most supermarkets, weeks after the arrival of the virus (but I noticed today that the separation is actually less than the advertised two metres).

  10. I have very rarely seen disinfection of automatic machines.

  11. In a local Centra, the first I saw to erect perspex screens, there was a sanitiser dispenser at the entrance with instructions. On at least one occasion it was empty and I have seen customers pass it without using it or having it called to their attention. I saw none in any other chain supermarket, although in Aldi a spray was provided by the baskets with instructions to use it on the basket handles.

  12. Prevention information posters may be seen but usually of the most generalised kind (like those from the HSE) and asking for staff to be treated with patience; graphic posters very rarely, film and audio prompts never. In other words, the means supermarkets use when they really want something, like mood enhancement, customers aware of bargains or special promotions, urgent attention to a checkpoint machine or stores about to close – are precisely those that they are not using for promotion of infection prevention.

  13. The Government has not obliged companies to publish their protocols (not even suggested that they should do so) and the companies have not done so themselves.

Customers in a supermarket (none seem to be taking any precautions other than perhaps social distancing. (Photo source: Internet)

CONCLUSION

          This is a serious lack of care provision for a large section of essential workers and with a potential collateral effect on most of the public. First in line of responsibility for this failure must be of course the companies but their main motive has always been profit. Next in line must be the Government, which has the power to implement emergency measures (and used it recently with giving extra power to Gardaí an courts to employ against individuals) but our governments have always been primarily in the service of capital. Who do I personally blame most for this area of neglect? Those whose very publicised reason for existence is the protection of workers and the promotion of a just society – the trade unions and the Left.

Among the statistics that are published on rates of testing positive and deaths attributed to the virus, there are breakdowns into age and gender groups and, at least in the earlier days, of healthcare workers. We never see, among those statistics, any for shop workers. Or for those who might in turn have been infected by them. The largest statistic given for route of infection is that of “social contact” and presumably that’s where they are, hidden. We remain uninformed and the low level of protection continues, with no real effort being made to change the situation.

End.

PS: Readers may wonder at the absence of information directly from the workers themselves.  The reason is that personally I am unaware of anyone in my acquaintance working in this sector and did not wish to cause the workers more stress than they have to deal with already.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

For focus on steps trade unions and the Left failed to take, see article titled WHAT DID NOT HAPPEN in Rebel Breeze.

Death of a cashier: https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-health-coronavirus-france-supermarket/after-death-of-a-cashier-french-supermarket-staff-work-in-fear-idUKKBN21K1VH

 

Diarmuid Breatnach Political Agitator Part 1

Mick Healy interviewed me about a number of my experiences in revolutionary work over the years and this is Part 1 (Part 2 will shortly be published), nearly all about some of my three decades in London. It contains a number of errors by me, for example the apartheid rugby team was South Africa’s one which were not called the “All Blacks”, that being New Zealand’s. Also I believe the giant Hunger Strikers solidarity march in London was to Michael Foot’s home, not Tony Benn’s. Still, here it is for what it’s worth with many thanks to Mick.

irishrepublicanmarxisthistoryproject

Diarmuid a long time political agitator was active in London from 1967, in interview part one, he talks about his involvement with Marxism-Leninism-Anarchism. His involvement in the Vietnam and Rhodesia solidarity campaigns, Anti-fascist mobilisation, solidarity Ireland, family squatting. In addition the campaign against the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the 1969 Peoples Democracy march from Belfast-Dublin.

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WHAT DID NOT HAPPEN

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time main text: 10 mins.)

One of the clerical staff knocked on the door of Patrick, the boss of the Irish health worker’s union. “Come in!” called out the latter.

Eh, Boss, lookit this here,” he said, waving a computer printout.

Why don’t you summarise it for me,” suggested Patrick.

It’s about that epidemic in China.”

Coronavirus-19,” replied Patrick, who prided himself on keeping up with world news. “What about it?”

It’s coming here,” replied the clerical worker.

What! Who says? Where does it say that?”

Boss, it’s spreading all over Italy and ….”

Yes, well but Italy is far away from here!”

Not as far as China is from Italy.”

Patrick thought about that but the clerical worker continued: “And the Ireland rugby team is playing there and nobody stopped Irish fans going there …. or coming back.”

Patrick sat silently, the enormity of the situation dawning upon him, then reached out for the computer printout. Among other things, it showed the steep climbing graph of confirmed cases of the virus in Italy.

Badge design of the FÓRSA union, the largest public service union in Ireland.
(image sourced: Internet)

After the clerical worker had gone, Patrick rang Michael, the President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Then he rang a number of union general secretaries: Brigid, of the shop and distributive workers, Barry of public transport, Jim of post and telecommunications, Josie of the clerical municipal workers, Colm of the manual municipal workers, Jan of construction ….

Two days later they all met in Liberty Hall, Dublin – thirty people, including chiefs of all the main trade unions in Ireland and of a few sub-divisions, along with their note-takers or advisers. By the end of three hours they had a position statement, including demands of the Irish Government, ready to go the moment the first case of the virus was confirmed in Ireland. They had ruled out issuing it until then because they feared it would not have enough effect.

A delegation was chosen to meet the Ministers of Health and of Industry. And pieces of work including research and requirements specific to some branches of the workforce had been distributed, with those responsible noted in the minutes and deadlines given. It was nearing the end of February.

The following day, the first case was notified in Ireland, a person returning from Italy.

Logo of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, to which most Irish trade unions are affiliated
(image sourced: Internet)

ICTU PUBLIC STATEMENT

          That afternoon, the President of the ICTU phoned the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Irish Government to alert him to the joint trade union statement and to push for an early meeting with the Ministers of Health and of Industry.

By midday four days later, the 1st of March, the updated statement had been emailed and faxed to all union branches, newspaper, radio and television news media and to a number of bloggers, most of which displayed it prominently, especially as that day the second case in Ireland had been diagnosed:

The Coronavirus-19 epidemic in Italy has now reached 1,694 confirmed cases of contagion with 34 deaths and only four months ago the first case of this virus was diagnosed in China. It has now reached Ireland and more cases will soon be reported here. As trade unions representing workers including those in front-line services of healthcare, food sales and distribution, public transport, post and communications, municipal services …. We call on employers and Government to ensure the following steps are taken as a matter of great urgency.

  • All front-line workers in essential services be issued with HSE information on the known dangers of the Coronavirus-19 and be updated regularly

  • Those workers to be issued with hand-sanitiser gel, gloves and face-masks

  • The term “essential services” to be applied to the following (the list is not exclusive):

  • general health workers and auxiliary services with special emphais on those to the elderly, disabled etc

  • emergency services in health, fire-fighting, public order, rescue services

  • workers in production and maintenance of power supplies for heating, lighting and cooking
  • workers in water purification and supply
  • workers in food production

  • workers in outlets providing food and essential supplies

  • delivery workers to the above and of these to homes

  • public sanitation workers

  • postal and essential telecommunications workers (i.e not commercial call centres)

  • Those workers to be where possible isolated from members of the public by appropriate measures such as withdrawal from duties requiring contact with the public, placing of transparent screens between staff and the public, recourse to audio and video communication, etc.

  • All covered public spaces, in particular those supplying essential services such as food shops, to be supplied with hand-sanitiser dispensers and notices exhorting the public to use them to prevent or restrict the spread of the virus

  • All companies to publicly display the measures they have taken to protect staff and the public

  • The closure of borders, airports and ports to travel to or from abroad, quarantine measures being enforced wherever arrivals are currently taking place

  • Should the virus continue to spread, all non-essential services should cease. This measure is not only for the protection of staff and public at the place of work but also in the travelling of workers from their homes to the place of work and back again

  • The above measure to be announced by the Government through public statements and to be enforced strictly wherever non-compliance should be observed

  • The Government to urge the public through repeated public announcements to self-isolate and to remain indoors where possible, urging responsible adults to ensure the same with children

  • The Government to freeze by decree all evictions, all actions for non-payment or arrears of rent or mortgages

  • likewise with actions pursuing non-payment of bills for utility services
  • The Government to oblige all companies that can afford it to pay workers they lay off

  • and to supply all smaller companies and businesses that cannot afford in full such payments, the necessary assistance to meet their obligations to the workers

  • The Government to set aside an adequate sum to pay all unemployed or on pensions a weekly sum sufficient to meet normal weekly expenses

  • The Government to propose for Oireachtas approval an emergency law authorising the appropriation of any buildings, private facilities, companies and property necessary for healthcare, production of prevention materials, production and distribution of food etc. 

Wherever we find the necessary measures are not being taken, we will instruct our members to take appropriate action, including withdrawal of their labour, picketing of the offending company or service along with providing comprehensive information to the public on the reasons for our actions and the risks to which they are being exposed through failure of the companies or services to take the appropriate action. We will not be negligent in the face of danger to our members and to the general public.”

View of the title of SIPTU, the largest union in Ireland, on its Liberty Hall HQ.
(image sourced: Internet)

ACTION

          Two days later, after the employers and Government had failed to respond in the manner considered necessary by the trade unions, strikes, walkouts and pickets were called at many branches of all supermarkets, postal service depots and public outlets, call centres, public transport depots, construction sites, local authority manual and clerical services, pubs and hotels. The unions of the health service workers, a workforce under-staffed, under-funded and under huge pressure already, maintained a rota picket with placards and leaflets in front of major hospitals and the Department of Health in Dublin. Lawyers and barristers picketed the courts, calling for them to close. All pickets wore surgical-type face masks and disposable gloves, and had with them a mobile stand with a hand-sanitiser dispenser.

Workers on successful 10-day strike against the Stop & Shop supermarket chain in the USA last year.
(image sourced: Internet)
(image sourced on Internet and cropped)

By the end of that week, the public pressure on the supermarket chains was such that all had provided sanitiser dispensers for staff at work stations and for customers at entrances and exits, glass screens separated all staff work-stations from customers, staff needing to work in the public area were all wearing face-masks and gloves and a big badge asking people to keep a safe distance. Shelf-filling and price-tagging duties were confined to hours when no public were present. Queue lines were marked out with spacing between customers and periodic announcements instructed

(image sourced: Internet)

customers on safety precautions. Numbers of shoppers inside were restricted at any one time and lines outside marked required spacing for people queuing outside. All staff were being given health precautionary instructions for a half-hour daily through interactive screens.

Furthermore, all main employers had published a list of their precautionary measures and were updating them in response to representations from unions, the general public and Government instructions or recommendations.

Workers in all main public services had been issued precautionary instructions, face-masks, disposable gloves and hand-sanitiser and workers in some particular conditions had protective suits.


CONCLUSION

          That is what could have happened and would have had an early restrictive impact on the spread of the virus to the public and to workers who provided a public service. The unions had the organisational and communication capacity to to do that. They didn’t do it – it didn’t happen.

Many of the measures indicated above – but by no means all – were taken but weeks later — and none at trade union initiative: unofficial workers’ action, voluntary company action and government order were the means by which they came into being. By that time, many front-line workers and members of the public had been infected.

The trade unions in Ireland, having already failed their members and the working class in general through two decades of “social partnership” (when a healthy “social distancing” would have been more appropriate!), followed by failure to resist (and collusion with) austerity measures, failed once again in anti-virus protection of their members and of the public.

Some left-wingers say we should not mention these shortcomings since average trade union membership is low and this kind of discourse will hardly help union membership recruitment. But if unions cannot or will not respond adequately and in timely fashion to the needs of their members in particular and to working people in general, why should people be expected to join them? Trade union membership is falling for a reason.

Perhaps these left-wingers feel that the current unions should not be criticised, without a viable alternative having being put in place first. But what are they doing to provide that viable alternative? The answer is clearly nothing, or as near to that as makes no effective difference.

Logo of Unite the Union, operating in Ireland and in Britain.
(image sourced: Internet)

THE FORBIDDEN DISCUSSION

          There is silence on this question from the broad Left, including those parties claiming to be revolutionary. When individuals raise the issue, it is not addressed or the individual is censored.

It is time to end this self-censorship on the Left and to proclaim loud and high that the trade unions in Ireland, despite the presence of many genuine activists, are generally not fit for purpose. What do we do instead? First, admit the problem and its scale – then we can discuss possible remedies. The patient cannot be cured if we refuse to admit the illness and the stage it has reached.

(image sourced: Internet)

Some of the left-wingers are now saying that this crisis has exposed the unsuitability for society of the capitalist system and that when it is over, that lesson must be put into practice and essential services become national public services. Apart from the weaknesses in this solution, one must ask: who is going to make this happen? If the capitalist system opposes this change, how will the capitalists and their State be overcome? A social revolution without a mass working class organisational base is not possible.

 

End.

APPENDIX

Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU)

There are currently 55 trade unions with membership of Congress, representing about 600,000 members in the …. (Irish state). Trade union members represent 35.1% of the Republic’s workforce. This is a significant decline since the 55.3% recorded in 1980 and the 38.5% reported in 2003. In the Republic, roughly 50% of union members are in the public sector. The ICTU represents trade unions in negotiations with employers and the government with regard to pay and working conditions (from Wikipedia)

Main trade unions

SIPTU: “… is the largest Union in Ireland with over 180,000 members.

SIPTU represents workers in both the public and private sector in almost every industry in Ireland and at virtually every level. SIPTU caters for full-time, part-time, permanent, contract and temporary workers, as well as retired and unemployed members.” (from SIPTU website)

Fórsa is Ireland’s newest trade union with over 80,000 members. …. represents members in the public service, as well as the commercial sector, state agencies, some private companies and in the community and voluntary sector.

Fórsa is the second largest union on the island of Ireland and by far the largest trade union voice in the Irish civil and public service.” (quoted from Forsa’s website)

The Connect Trade Union is the largest Engineering Union in Ireland and the second largest in manufacturing representing up to 40,000 workers.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), founded in 1868, is the oldest and largest teachers’ trade union in Ireland. It represents 40,633 teachers at primary level in the Republic of Ireland and 7,086 teachers at primary and post-primary level in Northern Ireland. Total membership is 47,719 (August 2019).

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland represents over 17,000 teachers and lecturers in Ireland engaged in Post-Primary, Higher and Further Education. The Union is made up of 62 branches in 19 areas. (quoted from TUI website).

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is a democratic, affiliate-led federation recognised as the world’s leading transport authority. ….. connecting trade unions from 147 countries …. We are the voice for 18.5 million working men and women across the world” (ITF website).

Mandate is a union of over 40,000 workers across Ireland.” (Wikipedia)

Unite the Union, commonly known as Unite, is a British and Irish trade union, formed on 1 May 2007, by the merger of Amicus and the Transport and General Workers’ Union. With just over 1.2 million members, it is the second largest trade union in the UK (Wikipedia).

James Connolly on St. Patrick’s Day

The National Festival

by James Connolly

From Workers’ Republic, 18 March 1916.
Transcribed by The James Connolly Society in 1997.
Proofread by Chris Clayton, August 2007.

James Connolly poster by Jim Fitzpatrick.
(Image sourced: Internet)

The question often arises: Why do Irishmen celebrate the festival of their national saint, in view of the recently re-discovered truth that he was by no means the first missionary to preach Christianity to the people of Ireland? It is known now beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Christian religion had been preached and practised in Ireland long before St. Patrick, that Christian churches had been established, and it is probable that the legend about the shamrock was invented in some later generation than that of the saint. Certainly the shamrock bears no place of any importance in early Celtic literature, and the first time we read of it as having any reference to or bearing on religion in Ireland occurs in the work of a foreigner – an English monk.

But all that notwithstanding there is good reason why Irish men and women should celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. They should celebrate it for the same reason as they should honour the green flag of Ireland, despite the fact that there is no historical proof that the Irish, in the days of Ireland’s freedom from foreign rule, ever had a green flag as a national standard, or indeed ever had a national flag at all

Shamrock for sale in Moore Street last year, one of the few times in the year they are permitted to sell something outside the vegetable-fruit permit. They were not finding many buyers during the past week.
Photo: D.Breatnach

The claim of the 17th of March to be Ireland’s national festival, the claim of St. Patrick to be Ireland’s national saint, the claim of the shamrock to be Ireland’s national plant, the claim of the green flag to be Ireland’s national flag rests not on the musty pages of half-forgotten history but on the affections and will of the Irish people.

Sentiment it may be. But the man or woman who scoffs at sentiment is a fool. We on this paper respect facts, and have a holy hatred of all movements and causes not built upon truth. But sentiment is often greater than facts, because it is an idealised expression of fact – a mind picture of truth as it is seen by the soul, unhampered by the grosser dirt of the world and the flesh.

The Irish people, denied comfort in the present, seek solace in the past of their country; the Irish mind, unable because of the serfdom or bondage of the Irish race to give body and material existence to its noblest thoughts, creates an emblem to typify that spiritual conception for which the Irish race laboured in vain. If that spiritual conception of religion, of freedom, of nationality exists or existed nowhere save in the Irish mind, it is nevertheless as much a great historical reality as if it were embodied in a statute book, or had a material existence vouched for by all the pages of history.

It is not the will of the majority which ultimately prevails; that which ultimately prevails is the ideal of the noblest of each generation. Happy indeed that race and generation in which the ideal of the noblest and the will of the majority unite.

In this hour of her trial Ireland cannot afford to sacrifice any one of the things the world has accepted as peculiarly Irish. She must hold to her highest thoughts, and cleave to her noblest sentiments. Her sons and daughters must hold life itself as of little value when weighed against the preservation of even the least important work of her separate individuality as a nation.

Therefore we honour St. Patrick’s Day (and its allied legend of the shamrock) because in it we see the spiritual conception of the separate identity of the Irish race – an ideal of unity in diversity, of diversity not conflicting with unity.

Magnificent must have been the intellect that conceived such a thought; great must have been the genius of the people that received such a conception and made it their own.

On this Festival then our prayer is: Honour to St. Patrick the Irish Apostle, and Freedom to his people.

James Connolly monument, Beresford Place, Dublin.

COMMENT:

I seem to recall that Connolly wrote something else about celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, perhaps when he was living and working in the USA but can’t find it now.  For similar reasons to what he lays out here, I supported and indeed organised public celebration of the feast day in London.

And I might have agreed with Connolly in the case of Ireland at the time he wrote it: the whole country under British occupation, in the middle of the First World War with thousands of Irish casualties in the British armed forces and coming up to the 1916 Rising.

But now?  I don’t think so, neither with what it celebrates nor how it is celebrated, which always makes me want to get out of Dublin.  Republic Day, which Connolly was party to creating but could perhaps not have anticipated being a national festival day, is what we should be focusing on now, I think.

 

REFERENCE:

https://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1916/03/natlfest.htm

 

A LIFE CELEBRATED – SOCIALIST, REPUBLICAN, TRADE UNION ACTIVIST

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 10 minutes)

A packed function room at Club an Múinteoirí (Teachers’ Club) in Dublin last night heard speakers, including Arthur Scargill and the Cuban Ambassador, praise some of the highlights of the life of irish activist Des Bonass (died 26 September last year). The meeting was chaired by Colm Kinsella of Unite.

          Strangely, up to yesterday afternoon, many socialist, Republican and trade union activists seemed unaware of the event, organised by Bonass’ branch of the trade union Unite. I only learned of it myself when Arthur Scargill and Nell Myles stopped at our weekly Save Moore Street From Demolition campaign stall earlier in the day and explained that he was in Dublin in order to speak at an event that evening.

Section of capacity crowd at event
(Photo: Labhrain Ní Dhúgáin)

The event was scheduled to begin at 7.30pm but by that time there were less than a dozen people present, arousing fear in some quarters that the attendance would be poor. As time went on, the side room leading off the main room was closed and the chairs removed. Some more people arrived and then as if by magic by 8.30 the room was packed, with extra seating being made available for people who arrived even after that.

IRISH TRADE UNIONISTS AND CUBAN AMBASSADOR

          John Douglas (former General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, currently General Secretary of Mandate trade union) spoke of how he had come to know Des Bonass when Douglas was a member of the Amalgamated Transport & General Workers’ Union (now part of UNITE), a section catering for bar workers which at the time represented a great many in the trade. He related how the bar workers would come off late shift and go to a union meeting around midnight, a meeting that sometimes would not finish until five a.m! Bonass had asked Douglas for a space to address the union members in support of the British miners, after which he had come away with buckets overflowing with financial contributions from the barmen.

John Douglas of MANDATE speaking.
(Photo: Labhrain Ní Dhúgáin)

Douglas also related that Bonass was in support of women’s right to choose abortion at a time when that would not have received popular support in Ireland and went on to speak about the strike against TESCO and how Bonass had brought Scargill to a number of picket lines around the city, raising their morale and drawing media attention.

Des Derwin (Executive Member of Dublin Council of Trade Unions and Vice-Chair of SIPTU Dublin District Council) gave what seemed a comprehensive list of the activities of Des Bonass down through the years, including how he had actively supported the struggles in the H-Blocks in the Six Counties and of the Palestinian people, as well as the struggle of the Dunne’s Stores strikers. Unknown to many, perhaps, Bonass had been a founder of People Before Profit and the Unemployed Workers’ Movement.

Des Derwin of SIPTU and DCTU.
(Photo: Labhrain Ní Dhúgáin)

When the Irish Labour Party conference had voted to go into coalition government, Bonass and Matt Merrigan had walked out together, after they had seen Noel Browne leave the room. The media thought Bonass and Merrigan had led a protest walkout, whereas they said they had followed Noel Browne. When Brown appeared in the lobby, the reporters asked him why he had led the walkout, which he adamantly denied, saying he had only left the conference to go to the toilet!

Subsequently Bonass and Merrigan had founded the Irish branch of the Socialist Labour Party. The Dublin Council of Irish Trade Unions had been another of his areas of activity and Bonass had been President of the organisation; he had also been active in Unite the union.

Also a supporter of internationalist causes, Bonass had been against such as the Chilean coup, for Nicaragua and Cuba, against the South African Apartheid regime and the invasion of Iraq.

Cuban Ambassador speaking at event.
(Photo: Labhrain Ní Dhúgáin)

          Hugo René Milanés, Cuban Ambassador to Ireland, expressed his gratitude to Des Bonass for the latter’s support for Cuba and in particular “against the Yanqui blockade” and for working for socialism throughout his life.

SCARGILL, BRITISH TRADE UNIONIST

          Arthur Scargill, ex-President of National Union of Mineworkers (Britain) spoke about Des Bonass’ support for the NUM, particularly those of South Wales, when they were in the big strike of 1984-’85 and how Bonass had agreed to receive money from the NUM to keep it safe from the British State’s sequestration. At first, the money had been couriered by Nell Myles, an NUM official (who was present at the meeting) and delivered to the ATGWU office in Parnell Square; on one occasion she had been mugged on her way but the money stolen was her personal money and not the union funds, which were safely delivered. Six months later, Scargill himself came to Dublin and Des Bonass accompanied him to a Dublin branch of a bank with a holdall stuffed full of a lot more money but the alarmed branch manager referred them to the bank’s head office, where the money was safely stored.

Scargill speaking
(Photo: Labhrain Ní Dhúgáin)

Des Bonass brought Arthur Scargill around to many Dublin pickets during the TESCO strike organised by the MANDATE union, which had been welcomed by the strikers and which had lifted their spirits. He had been happy to attend, Scargill said and related a journalist asking him about his reaction to a bomb threat against TESCO. To laughter and applause from the meeting’s audience, Scargill related his response to the journalist, that neither he nor the TESCO strikers could have anything to with any such bomb inside as they would never cross a picket line! Des Bonass had also got Scargill a spot on the popular Gay Byrne show, where he had been confronted with a Margaret Thatcher impersonator.

Bonass had been a founder of the Irish branch of the Socialist Labour Party which Scargill had founded in Britain as founded by James Connolly.

Paying tribute to the moral and practical support of the Irish people for the NUM’s struggle, Scargill said that their support in ratio to union members in Ireland had been the highest of all and went on to reveal that he and Nell both had Irish ancestry on both parental sides, referring also to the history of oppression of Irish people by the British State. Scargill talked about the financial contributions but also how Irish families had taken in miner’s children for holiday breaks, as British trade unionists had wanted to take in Irish children during the 1913 Lockout.

Later on in his speech, Scargill declared himself a firm follower of the “11th Commandment: Thou shalt not cross a picket line!” (loud applause) and went on to talk about the determination of the Thatcher Government to break the NUM and its leadership. Thatcher and Government personnel had claimed at the time that they had not intervened in the strike, which was allegedly between the NUM and the National Coal Board but Scargill stated that was a lie and the truth had emerged in documentation over the years, available on the Internet to anyone who wished to check it. “Unjust laws have to be broken” he said also because “if we hadn’t done that, women would not have the vote; we would not have trade unions!” He paid tribute to the Levellers, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Suffragettes.

Scargill emphasised that the best way to celebrate the life of Des Bonass and to honour his memory is to continue the struggle for the principles that Des Bonass upheld, then finished his speech to a standing ovation from those present.

Scargill and myself after the formal part of the evening.
(Photo: Labhrain Ní Dhúgáin)

Colm Kinsella then welcomed the last speaker, Ciarán Bonass. Ciarán announced that he was the son of Des Bonass and talked about what the family had learned from his father as they had also supported him in his activism. Thanking all the speakers and all others present on his family’s behalf, his mother Eileen and sisters Mairéad and Deirdre, along with in-laws and grandchildren, he ended his contribution to loud applause from the attendance.

Colm Kinsella announced that their branch of Unite was now named “the Des Bonass Branch of Unite” in Des Bonass’ honour, thanked all the speakers and the attendance and invited people to partake of refreshments while listening to labour and other songs performed by Richie Brown (of Unite) and friends.

End.

Des Bonass at European Day of Action Against Cuts protest 2010 (Photo: Paula Geraghty in Indymedia)

LET THEM GO, LET THEM TARRY

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 3 minutes)

Why doesn’t SF just step back and wait for whatever government is formed, hammer them from the opposition benches and wait for the next General election (which might well be in the Autumn)?

Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald and Micheál Martin, leader of Fianna Fáil.
(Images source: Internet)

          There are 160 seats in the Dáil, the Lower House of the Irish Parliament. Mícheál Martin, leader of the Fianna Fáil party (38 seats), tells Mary Lou McDonald that he won’t go into coalition with her party Sinn Féin (37 seats) and she rages at him. Fine Gael (35 seats) wants to go into coalition with Fianna Fáil – but at a price. Eoin Ó Broin of SF admits the numbers don’t add up for a coalition of the Left (couple of surviving TDs from Left parties and independents led by SF) which was clear before Sinn Féin (and some on the Left) even started talking about it.

The main reason for the weakness of the Left in the Dáil is that the Irish Labour Party, founded by Connolly, Larkin and others, has degenerated to a remarkable degree. Another reason is that as a result of centuries fighting colonialism and concentration on the national question, there has never been a substantial nationwide party or grouping of the Left in Ireland. Also some left-wing TDs (members of the Dáil) actually lost seats in the general election this month.

On Monday I think it was, the Guardian published and I shared what I thought was a brief and fair analysis of the results and of the possible coalition governments and even suggested that SF would be wise to let the established parties flounder in government and beat them in the next election. After all, most commentators seem to agree that if SF had fielded more candidates, they would have got even more seats, an error they can remedy next time.

A LEFT COALITION NEXT TIME?

          Of course, that might not be anywhere near 81 seats, the number for an overall clear majority – but a Left coalition majority would be more possible then. Besides, they could form a Left platform to go into the next election, which would give a lot more transfers of votes and possibly get more people elected from the Left too.

But instead, Sinn Féin are chomping at the bit and their eagerness to get into Government right now, even in coalition with neo-liberal capitalist and neo-colonialist parties, is disturbing.

Why do I care? After all, I am not a SF supporter, nor even of any of the Left parties – a revolutionary, in fact, not a reformist. But that doesn’t mean I would not welcome some reforms nor, more to the point, that I don’t see how the people are crying out for them. Like an immediate building program of public housing and an effective overhaul of the health system (both linked to youth training and employment). A defence and development of our natural resources and services. Saving Moore Street from “development” by vultures. Abolition of the no-Jury Special Criminal Courts (which SF seems to be retreating from already before they even got a Government coalition offer).

I could list many more but what’s the point?

If what we get is a coalition government led by Fianna Fáil or even containing Fine Gael – forget it! And if SF is not prepared to play a longer game and the Left is not prepared to put together a platform package, then the longer-term hope of revolution becomes the only viable one for the shorter term.

End.

Leinster House, location of the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament). (Photo source: Internet)