By Jim Gibney
Last Friday tens of thousands of workers from the public and private sectors marched in protest demonstrations in many centres across Ireland.
The ICTU-organised protests were designed to send a message to the Irish and British governments and the north’s executive that they face industrial action if they try to impose cuts on public services.
ICTU organised the demonstrations on an island-wide basis to highlight the impact of the economic recession on the people of Ireland.
Reading the weekend press reports about the protests you could be forgiven for thinking that the unions and the workers in the public sector are responsible for the economic crisis that besets both parts of Ireland.
In recent times it has become increasingly clear that the Irish government intends pursuing an economic strategy which is essentially ignoring the advice from the unions and appears to be on a collision course which could result in widespread industrial action.
There was a time when the Irish government actively sought the help and advice of the unions in developing its social partnership model of cooperation between the government, unions and business.
It is rarely referred to these days but the roar of the Celtic tiger had as much to do with the decisions taken by unions as it had to do with the government or business decisions.
There was not enough recognition of the contribution workers and their families made to the levels of prosperity during the years of the Celtic tiger and now those sacrifices are a distant memory clouded by the fog of fear and uncertainty generated by the recession.
The partnership approach has been abandoned and in its place is a policy which rewards those in the financial world who created the mess and punishes those less able to absorb any more financial hardship.
In a week when the Fianna Fail/Green Party government announced it was borrowing a staggering e54 billion to bail out the banks it also demanded e4 billion cuts in the month of December.
The e54 billion will preserve the privileged position of the bankers and the financial elite while the e4 billion will be got by cuts in child benefit, social welfare payments, investment in schools, hospitals and public transport and teaching and nursing jobs.
And while Brian Cowen’s take home pay exceeds that of the British prime minister and the German Chancellor - he earns e232,572 a year - his government will be cutting Christmas social welfare payments by half this year for those on long-term social welfare.
Compare Cowen’s salary with the average salary of more than three-quarters of those who work in the public sector e50,000.
Equally harsh measures are facing the health service in the north with the British government demanding what it euphemistically calls ‘efficiency savings’ of some 700 million pounds over the next three years.
This could result in the loss of 3,000 jobs, including more than 700 nursing posts.
Sinn Fein ministers in the executive have made their position crystal clear in opposing any attempts to cut front-line services or introduce privatisation measures or water charges.
It was therefore disappointing to hear union leaders at the rally in Belfast accuse all the parties in the executive of being in favour of cuts to public services when they know of the efforts Sinn Fein ministers have made in opposing such measures.
The unions would be the first to complain about union-bashing and rightly so if their position was being misrepresented.
Political parties are entitled to the same accuracy in commentary about their policies.
Individual ministers in the executive have a considerable degree of freedom in deciding which services to fund.
Whatever savings can be made should be made and what is saved should be used in support of front-line services and the protection of jobs.
ICTU is right to organise in defence of the gains that working people have made before and during the boom years.
The turnouts across Ireland show that workers are up for the fight. They have no other option but to stand together to protect their interests - the Irish and British governments are looking after the bankers; the workers have to secure theirs.