[Fwd: Striking Train Drivers in Ireland (fwd)]
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Subject: Striking Train Drivers in Ireland
The following is a critical response to Fintan O Toole's populist piece
"Train Drivers Mystique No Longer Makes Sense" published in the Irish Times
on August 15, 2000.
Fintan O Toole as host on Today FM assisted in whipping up further hysteria
against the courageous ILDA workers who are entering their ninth week on
strike. In a piece published in the Irish Times, which is the subject of
this response, he continues his attack on this small relatively isolated
group. He achieves this by means of false claims, a dearth of evidence, and
empty rhetoric. Doubtlessly Iarnrod Eireann will be quite pleased with him.
Fintan's interwoven network of rhetoric, claims, conceptions and analyses is
based on an idealist misconception that capitalist society is an inherently
progressive society in which reason prevails. What he does not understand it
that capitalism is an inherently contradictory society, a historically
limited society, that is class based and exploitative. Consequently there
can never exist a society in which the needs of the proletariat are met. The
ILDA workers, with afterbirth and all, constitute a concentrated heroic
expression of this fact. They are the unrecognized heroes of the struggle
against the increasingly dehumanized Irish society. In a way they express
all that is best about Irish society. They are perfection in an imperfect
form: the only way perfection can exist under capitalism. In a contradictory
sense they are the romantic heroes that Fintan, perhaps in his own way, may
be seeking. He cannot find them. His eyes are not open.
Fintan O Toole: Forty years ago, if you asked any 10 year-old boy what he
wanted to be when he grew up, "train driver" would have been up there with
"cowboy" and "astronaut" as likely responses. Even now, ageing corporate
executives play with fabulously expensive train sets, fantasising they are
in the cab of a mighty locomotive hurtling down the tracks at 90 m.p.h. No
other group of workers retained an aura of romance, adventure and power for
as long as train drivers. Airline pilots may have prestige, but who writes
ballads about them? Ship captains somehow faded from the popular imagination
as figures of glamour. Yet somewhere in the dream life of men over 40, the
locomotive driver forever rides the rails. Casey Jones, the Irish-American
train driver killed in a crash in 1906 became one of America's first
indigenous folk heroes. John Ax, the English train driver who sacrificed his
own life to save others in the 1950s, was immortalised by Ewan McColl in
songs and a radio documentary. When he wanted an image of urban romance for
Cypress Avenue, Van Morrison chose "the railway station/ Where the lonesome
engine drivers pine". The notion of the man controlling the mighty iron
horse and delivering his passengers safely and on time lingered long after
the romantic age of steam had ended.
This image encouraged a kind of noblesse oblige among the drivers, who
regarded their membership of an elite as conferring responsibilities as well
as rights. The public benefited from a strong safety culture among the
drivers, and the cost of undercutting that culture by crushing the rail
unions, as Margaret Thatcher did in Britain, has become painfully obvious.
But the image of train drivers as an aristocratic elite within the labour
movement has its drawbacks, and many of them have become apparent in the
dispute between Irish Rail and the Irish Locomotive Drivers' Association
which has played havoc with public transport over the last month.
Karl Carlile: The above purple passage constitutes the empty musings of an
author in search of an argument. Neat rhetoric, devoid of any theoretical or
analytical substance, does not constitute an argument nor add to argument.
Fintan: At the heart of that dispute is an attempt by ILDA and its leader
Brendan Ogle to reestablish the special status of the train driver in a
context where the old mystique no longer makes much sense.
Karl: The above claim is an abstract assertion that amounts to no more than
rhetoric. No evidence is furnished in support of the claim. ILDA has made
its demands categorically clear. None of them have anything to do with train
drivers being "an aristocratic elite within the labour movement". Fintan's
Leninist theory of the aristocracy of labour assumes the form of caricature
here. He attacks the action of the rail drivers by idealistically
attributing to them a false programme. This distracts attention from the
reality of the situation creating an abstract universe that has little
concretely to do with the strike.
One could just as easily attribute a thousand and one different reasons for
the many strikes that have taken place in the world since the emergence of
industrial capitalism. Indeed among the fictitious reasons that have been
often offered for many strikes has been the infamous one of "the communist
plot". In Fintan's case, it has to be said, the cause of the ILDA strike is
not the commie plot but "special status". Special status now assumes the
mystical qualities of the communist plot. Fintan's politics are the politics
of idealism. Fintan reverses the causal relation by presenting abstractions
as the source of concrete material reality rather than the reverse. As he
does not understand why the ILDA workers are on strike he invents one. But,
not unfortuitously, his causal image is one that serves the interests of
capitalism and undermines the interests of the working class. But, then,
this ultimately is the way of contempory forms of idealism.
Fintan: ILDA claims the new arrangements agreed with the two main unions in
Irish Rail, SIPTU and the NBRU, will be detrimental to the safe operation of
the railways. Yet it is not easy for any objective observer to see how a
shorter working week and more time off will undermine the ability of drivers
to work safely. And if rail safety really was the nub of the matter, ILDA
members would hardly have engaged in the kind of encroachments on level
crossings we saw last week.
Karl: Now here Fintan really gets enveloped in the fog of abstractions. He
now purports to be claiming that the ILDA workers are striking against "a
shorter working week and more time off". So, for Fintan, the corollary is
that ILDA are on strike for a longer working week and less time off in the
interests of rail safety. What idealism!
Fintan: The trend within the trade union movement for decades has been for
consolidation, with the old guild-like craft associations being submerged in
large general organisations. SIPTU and NBRU are, in different ways, prime
examples of the trend. SIPTU resulted from a merger between two big general
unions. The NBRU, once regarded as a breakaway union as ILDA is now seen,
illustrates another aspect of this same consolidation process. Under Peter
Bunting it has moved ever closer to the rest of the trade union movement and
will probably be fully integrated into the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.
Karl: Significantly the above narrative fails to inform the reader that
trade union mergers were encouraged by the capitalist state. The state has
provided financial assistance to encourage trade unions to merge together:
the merging of the ITGWU and the FWUI into SIPTU is a case in point.
The issue is not whether the "trend within the trade union movement for
decades has been for consolidation". The issue is the basis on which that
trend has been taking place. The issue is whether that trend has taken place
in the interests of the working class or the capitalist class.
Consolidation, as Fintan calls it, has been taking place in the interests of
capital and not in the interests of the working class. The "consolidation"
of the trade union movement is the form by which capitalism can more
effectively constrain the class struggle. It is the institutional form by
which it can control and regulate the struggle of the working class within
limits that prevent struggle from threatening the capitalist economic
system. The trade union leadership has been a decisive force in effecting
this process. ILDA constitutes a form of organised resistance to this
process. For that reason alone it must be supported in its struggle. Without
the services of the petty bourgeois trade union leadership it is highly
unlikely that the bourgeoisie could have effected such a development. It
needs this kind of trade union leadership to sustain the existence of
capital as a social relation of production.
Evidence of the growing deterioration in the conditions of work and wages of
the working class abounds. More and more labour power is non-unionised. More
and more labour power is casualised. More and more labour power is
unorganized in relation to resistance to the bosses. For this, and other
reasons, the value of labour power has been steadily declining. This
condition is forms part of the basis for the existence of what is dubbed the
Celtic Tiger. The Irish economy has been experiencing high growth rates
because the value of Irish labour power has been declining on such a scale
as to render it a more attractive location for foreign capital.
The convergence of SIPTU and the NBRU is a reflection of the growing
passivity of the Irish working class rather than a reflection of a growing
unity. The emergence of the NBRU was an expression of the combativity of
sections of the Irish working class and their awareness of the failure of
the trade union movement, as it stood then, to satisfy its class needs.
Fintan: In the negotiation of the deal for train drivers, SIPTU and the NBRU
co-operated with remarkably little friction.
Karl: This co-operation is an expression of the quiescent and passive nature
of the working class. It is because working class passivity that these
leaderships can relate to each other in a more frictionless way. It is
because of the lack of class consciousness among workers that these union
leaderships can jointly co-operate in the betrayal of the interests of the
Fintan: On the ground within Irish Rail, this process of consolidation has
manifested itself in deals that tend to treat the workforce as a single
unit, albeit with various particular concerns. Since this has resulted in
concrete improvements for all, most workers have been happy to go along.
Karl: Deals that tend to treat the workforce as a single unit are, as I have
already intimated, based on the current docility of the working class. Such
developments rather than being a expression of positive developments within
the working class movement are a reactionary reflection of its
There is no evidence to suggest that "consolidation" has resulted in
concrete improvements that the working class have been happy to go along
with. The industrial unrest recently experienced in the area of public
transport would suggest otherwise.
Fintan: For some train drivers, however, the whole process threatens their
self-image as a special group. Hence ILDA, a body whose very title
("locomotive drivers" rather than "train drivers") stresses the elevation
and nobility of its members' calling. While the rest of the Irish trade
union movement has become subtle, sophisticated and, in the broadest sense,
political, Brendan Ogle has driven his campaign with an old-fashioned tunnel
vision. He has done what very few union leaders would now dream of doing -
lead an industrial dispute as if it was only about the workers and the
Karl: Fintan's criticism of ILDA's use of the adjective "locomotive" is
hardly an argument -a trivial criticism of no significance.
Fintan: From long and bitter experience, union leaders like Des Geraghty of
SIPTU and Peter Bunting of the NBRU know that an industrial dispute,
especially in the public sector, is also a battle for the hearts and minds
of the public.
Karl: What Des Geraghty and Peter Bunting know is anybody's guess and of
little, if any, political significance. It is the political character of the
actions of prominent figures within the leadership of the labour movement
that is of significance. To use the psychological and epistemological state
of mind of prominent figures within the labour movement as an argument is to
clutch despairingly at straws.
To claim, as Fintan purports to, "that an industrial dispute, especially in
the public sector, is also a battle for the hearts and minds of the public"
is to entirely misconceive the nature of industrial disputes and the nature
of capitalist society. The "public" as a category is a conception that
includes members from all social classes. It includes individuals that are
working class, petty bourgeois and bourgeois. To claim that a strike is "a
battle for the hearts and minds of" people who are working class, petty
bourgeois and bourgeois is to fail to understand that a strike in defence of
living standards and working conditions constitutes a form of resistance to
the very classes that stand in opposition to it. Consequently influential
constituents of the public, capitalists and much of the petty bourgeoisie,by
virtue of their class position, seek to smash such strikes rather than lend
them support. The concept "public" is an abstract fuzzy notion that
transcends the class character of contemporary society. It is for this
reason that it is often put to ideological use in the struggle to maintain
the working class in an oppressed condition. However as an authentic
explanatory concept it is of little, if any, use.
Fintan: Now and then, some groups of very powerful workers can afford to
rely on pure muscle and ignore public opinion. But ILDA is not one of them.
If it was to win a struggle that is as much against SIPTU, the NBRU and its
fellow train drivers as it is against Irish Rail, ILDA needed sympathy from
the Government. And this would only result from the obvious presence of a
sympathetic public. The bus drivers led by the NBRU showed how to do this a
few months ago.
Karl: The above remarks are further evidence of Fintan's reluctance to face
reality. To claim that the ILDA struggle constitutes a struggle against its
"fellow train drivers" is to absurdly falsify the nature of the ILDA strike.
It is to misrepresent it as an anti-working class strike -a scab strike. It
is to present it as the very opposite of what it is. It is to interchange
opposites by presenting the SIPTU/NBRU leadership as serving the class
interests of the workers and ILDA as serving the interests of the capitalist
class. Again Fintan's idealism runs like Ariadne's thread through all these
constructs of his.
The central point that Fintan fails to draw attention to is the absence of
democracy in the decision making process entailed in the implementation of
the Iarnrod Eireann proposals. The train drivers, as a totality, have been
denied the democratic right to vote on the issue of the new proposals.
SIPTU, NBRU and the state, in the form of Iarnrod Eireann, participated in
the denial of these rights to the train drivers. The train drivers were
never offered the opportunity to vote as a locomotive grade within Iarnrod
Eireann on the issue. ILDA was the subject of discrimination by being
deliberately excluded from the entire decision making process. ILDA's
struggle is a struggle against the denial of the democratic right of all
train drivers to vote on the proposals that are being currently implemented
by Iarnrod Eireann. Consequently Fintan's suggestion that the ILDA strike is
a struggle against "fellow train drivers" is malevolently misleading. Had
these democratic rights been observed there would have been no strike. When
workers in China struggle for democratic rights Fintan applauds them. When
workers in Ireland struggle for democratic rights Fintan, a la Caliban,
joins in with the Black Hundreds to attack them.
Fintan suggests that "ILDA needed sympathy from the Government" and,
purportedly, the sympathy of the public. But if state and public sympathy is
the necessary ingredient required to win a struggle then it follows that the
best way to win sympathy, "especially in the public sector", is by eschewing
industrial action altogether. But the very reason workers take industrial
action is because no amount of sympathy is a substitute for direct action.
There was great public sympathy for the plight of the nurses with regard to
their inadequate income levels. Yet this sympathy, after many years, made
little, if any, difference. The nurses were consequently forced to take
strike action only to be betrayed by the union leadership.
Fintan: ILDA has provided an object lesson in how not to do it. With the
weeks without pay having their effect on morale, ILDA's members struck out
in desperation at the nearest available target - the travelling public. It
raised the profile of the dispute, certainly, but at the cost of alienating
most of the public and undermining the union's credibility on the very issue
it claims to be most concerned about - rail safety.
Karl: By this logic any strike action by public transport workers,
including bus drivers, are striking out "at the nearest available
target -the travelling public." Then all such strikes must, for Fintan,
logically entail "the cost of alienating most of the public and undermining
the union's credibility". Given this public sector strikes are, for Fintan,
a false means by which public workers struggle to defend their living
standards and working conditions.
Fintan: It was also to kill off whatever remains of the Casey Jones
mystique. It is doubtful that very many 10-year-olds, slogging home on foot
or waiting for a train that never came, would have answered the question of
what they wanted to be when they grow up with "a train driver".
Karl: Well this should please Fintan given that he does not wish to see
train drivers re-establish their "special status" and the mystique that "no
longer makes sense". The ILDA actions have played a progressive role for
Fintan since, according to him, they have assisted in ensuring that the
train drivers do not succeed in re-establishing themselves as an
"aristocratic elite" -after all we cannot have workers getting notions about
The chances are that the intrepid ILDA workers are going to be "starved"
back to work. It looks like the bourgeoisie are going to use the ILDA
workers as a warning to other workers. When all is said and done Fintan has
done a good day's work, as agitator and propagandist, for capitalism. He
will have assisted in the crushing of the ILDA workers by his modest
contribution to the ferocious and sustained attack on ILDA by the forces of
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