Gama, racism and class struggle

Issue 27 (March 2007) opened with Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh drawing lessons from the strike of workers in Gama.

Mick Barry, We are Workers not Slaves: The Story of the GAMA Struggle (Socialist Party)

This pamphlet’s claim that the Gama workers in 2005 wrote “one of the proudest chapters in Irish labour history” (p 3) contains not an ounce of exaggeration. The way they stood up to a powerful multi­national and its friends in high places should teach a lesson to a labour movement that has literally lost the plot. With a legal frame­work biased against them and a union leadership sitting on its hands, they fought the way Irish workers used to fight.

The support they received from Irish socialists is testimony to the need to return to the way unions were originally built up. The accounts here of throwing leaflets over fences, trying to overcome language difficulties, working outside official structures describe methods that, while desperately unfashionable to today’s unions, will be needed in unionising the growing unorganised sectors of the economy. They also show sustained patient work without immed­iate gains—where others would have given up and fluttered along to some other more promising campaign—paying off in the end.

The Gama workers were SIPTU members, but saw nothing in return for the subs deducted from their pay packets. In fact, their nominal presence on SIPTU membership rolls gave Gama a veneer of respectability. At the union meeting where they were first signed up, SIPTU even allowed the company to provide the translator. This kind of thing was no accident but, as Barry points out, a logical outcome of “Social partnership and the social partnership mindset” (p 9).

The company paid its Turkish workers €2.20 an hour (as against a national minimum of €7 and an industry minimum of €12.96), spiriting the rest into dodgy bank accounts under its own control. The strike put an end to this, and won back some of the stolen pay. This Labour Court award, says the pamphlet, “represented only a fraction of the monies due to the men” (p 49), and the company was later granted further lucrative state contracts. So why the claim that the workers “secured a smashing victory” (p 55)? The wonderful achievements of the Gama workers are impressive enough in their reality: trying to paint a partial victory as an outright knockout only gilds the lily.

The author presents the Gama strike as if it were business as usual in the class struggle, a straightforward clash between employ­ers and employees, albeit on a grander scale than usual (p 39):

GAMA was merely a particularly ruthless example of the world­wide tendency of bosses to maximise profit at workers’ expense. The only difference between GAMA and most governments and key corporations in the world today is (in some cases) one of degree.

But there was another factor ever-present in this story, another aspect of the class struggle that doesn’t appear in every other fight: racism. Unlike Irish workers, the Gama workers were not free to move to other employers. They were working under permits granted to Gama, with no right to work for anyone else. Their right to live in Ireland lasted only as long as they were employed by that company. The problems this places before any attempt by such workers to improve their conditions cannot be overstated, and this makes their position qualitatively worse than that of Irish workers.

It is not that Barry fails to recognise the problem (p 6, 28)—

The work permits policy of the Irish state was to greatly facilitate GAMA in their plans to super-exploit the men.… A decision to take industrial action is a very serious decision for any worker at any time. How much more so when you are a stranger in a strange land working for a powerful and vicious employer who controls your work permit?

But he never draws the obvious conclusion, one of the biggest lessons of Gama: that the work permit system should be abolished. If work permits exist at all (and they shouldn’t) they should give a worker permission to work in Ireland for whoever they choose. But nowhere in the 64 pages of the pamphlet is this simple lesson drawn. All kinds of laudable demands are made, from Polish-speaking union officials up to socialist revolution, but the abolition of the permit system is forgotten about.

The author advocates that immigrant workers should be recruited into active trade unions and paid the full rate for the job. They should of course, but the added component of racism means that this traditional response is inadequate on its own. Where racism, and especially state racism in the form of discriminatory laws, is used to exacerbate the exploitation of some workers, then we need to specifically oppose that racism. To overlook that is to miss what was new in the Gama struggle, the fresh lesson it held for working-class activists.

The only other section of the working class in a worse legal situation than the bonded labourers on work permits are asylum seekers—the only workers who are legally banned from working. As well as encouraging racist prejudice, this means that when asylum seekers do work, they do so with no rights or protections. Alongside the permit system, this creates a reserve army of cheap super-exploited labour which can be used to undermine the position of all workers. But again, you will search this pamphlet in vain for the obvious demand that asylum seekers have the right to work. Pat Rabbitte’s sickening anti-immigration remarks are deplored, but nowhere countered with the basic demand for an end to deportation and immigration control.

Now, the author may well agree with such demands. If he does, the question is: why does he keep that to himself? It is not good enough for socialists to espouse correct theoretical positions in the safety of their own branch meetings, if they don’t come out and argue for them in front of the working class.

Photographs of the 2005 May Day march in Dublin illustrate what is rightly characterised as “a de facto support rally” for the Gama workers (p 44), whose presence made it the biggest and best for years. Clear-cut demands that oppose racism and serve the interest of all workers were made on that march: an end to the permit system, to deportations, and to the ban on asylum seekers working. But it was anti-racist activists, immigrant workers and asylum seekers themselves who handed out those leaflets, rather than socialist groups as such. The traditional left prefers to force issues like these into a conventional economistic mould, leaving it to others to fight the anti-racist battles that are now an inseparable part of class struggle in Ireland.

The union leaders who let down the Gama workers have got no better in the meantime. Their main contribution to the debate is to raise a panic about “displacement”—which is only a polite way of saying ‘foreigners are coming here to take our jobs’. With the spectacular exception of Irish Ferries, workers from other countries are generally taking up jobs that Irish workers now find too badly-paid or unpleasant. If anything, there is far too little displacement going on, with hundreds of immigrant workers stuck in dead-end jobs and denied a fair crack of the whip at better work. As the Irish Examiner reported on 23 January, “immigrants are earning one-third less per hour than Irish people”.

The union leaders’ hype about displacement is at best an accommodation to racism, and at worst a respectable cover for racist prejudice. Anyone under any illusions on that score needs only look at where it has led: to the leaders of the Labour Party and the country’s biggest union calling for the work permit system to be extended to EU citizens. In what seems a choreographed move, just days before the government moved to exclude Romanian and Bulgarian workers last October, SIPTU’s Jack O’Connor ‘called upon’ them to do so, actively advocating racial discrimination against workers from other countries, condemning them to the same treatment the Gama workers got.

This is usually dressed up, of course, in patronising talk about protecting helpless immigrant workers, bearing the white man’s burden. The partnership agreement Towards 2016 (why didn’t they go the whole hog and call it To Infinity and Beyond?) was supposed to deal with such exploitation. It announces firstly that “The employ­ment permits system has an important contribution to make in the protection of individual workers’ rights and supporting employment standards.” That’s right: the ICTU put their name to a deal proclaiming that the permit system protects and supports workers!

After this, it’s no surprise that the measures proposed are worthless. Workers will soon be allowed hold on to the permit themselves—but this had already been proposed in a government bill published before the partnership negotiations. Although it has been trumpeted as a major concession, giving a prisoner a copy of his sentence is no consolation. Towards 2016 promises “adequate safeguards”—and thinks it perfectly adequate not to specify what they might be. In cases of “unfair treatment”, workers on permits will be allowed to transfer to another employer. This still restricts them to one named employer rather than giving them a free choice, and “unfair treatment”, while it presumably covers a scandal as big as Gama, does nothing about the unspectacular intimidation that immigrant workers face daily without getting into the papers. In January, the permit system was ‘reformed’—not to allow workers free movement, but to make it even more difficult for them to enter.

That IBEC, the government and the ICTU agreed to do nothing for workers on permits should come as no surprise. What does surprise is the response of the campaign against the partnership agreement. It seems that none of its leaflets or statements high­lighted this betrayal of immigrant workers or instanced it as a reason to vote No. Of course, not everything can fit on a leaflet, and you have to concentrate on the most important points. But this should be one of the most important points. The fact that a section of our class is forced to work under feudal and racist conditions is more important than, say, the sell-off of Great Southern Hotels, and should have a more urgent call on our solidarity.

The reference in the deal’s title to the Easter rising centenary may confirm the suspicion that nothing short of insurrection in the GPO can free us from social partnership now. But we could do worse than look at the nearest case to us of partnership being broken. In Britain in the 1970s, a Labour government signed a ‘Social Contract’ with unions and employers to restrain strikes while inflation, unemployment and cutbacks proceeded apace. It collapsed spectacularly in the 1978-9 ‘winter of discontent’, but the first breach came in 1976 when a group of mainly Asian women workers in Grunwick photo laboratories fought a long, hard and bitter battle. Those overlooked, pitied or patronised by the labour movement ended up showing it how to fight.

We could well find a similar story ourselves. Gama workers from Turkey proved more militant, more determined, more in­spiring than any group of Irish workers since the Dunnes strikers took a courageous lonely stand against apartheid. Their experience of political upheaval at home contrasted with the bland and peaceful political climate Irish workers have settled into. Like workers from Nigeria or Poland, they carry fighting traditions that the Irish labour movement has let slip into disuse. Freer from the mental restraints born of a generation of partnership, they can play a forward role here such as Irish workers have previously played in the British or American movements. The shot in the arm they provide can enrich and strengthen the working class of Ireland.

So Rabbitte and O’Connor couldn’t be more wrong: we need more immigration, not less. And socialists have to understand that explicitly fighting for the rights of workers from other countries cannot be an added bonus any more, but must be a priority inte­grated into the very forefront of our work.