Contributed by Brian Hanley
This Tuesday, 24 November, will see a nationwide public sector strike in protest at the government’s plans to implement cutbacks as part of their strategy of dealing with the economic crisis. The strike will see also historians joining picket lines at universities and colleges. For Irish Academics to take industrial action is rare (Marie Coleman’s history of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) tells the very interesting story of their first strike at Maynooth during 1977) and the fact that they are doing so now has caused some adverse comment. Aside from those who agree with the government’s strategy and therefore see no reason to protest against it, there are others, and I’ve had plenty of discussions on these lines myself, who believe academics are too highly paid anyway, work very short hours and have no real reason to object to cuts. Opinion among students is also divided, with the Students Union at Maynooth reportedly advising their members to pass pickets and attend college. Without a doubt there are those in academia and in university management who have been very well rewarded and are highly paid by any standards. Historians are also lucky enough to work at something we enjoy, and be able to research and write about things that interest us. But, as readers of this blog will probably know, high wages and secure contracts are far from the universal picture, particularly for younger academics, who face short term contracts and long periods of part-time work or unemployment with little prospect of a permanent contract. The view (sometimes fostered by throwaway comments from senior academics) that we are all on the pig’s back is mistaken in my opinion, though it’s understandable that some people working longer hours and doing harder jobs than us might think this.
I personally am fully in support of the strike on the 24th and would hope that most people, including post-graduates, will respect the pickets. I am less concerned with the impact that the budget may have on my wages than with what the government’s strategy symbolises. In my view it is an attempt to make the majority of the workforce pay for a crisis that was caused by bankers and property developers. There has been a year long media offensive to promote the idea that ‘we’ lost the run of ourselves during the years of the Celtic Tiger, along with a highly effective campaign to divide public and private sector workers. During that time we have heard one of the people responsible for the mismanagement of the banks in the first place describe regulation as ‘McCarthyism’ and call for drastic public spending cuts. Journalists earning far more than the majority of public sector workers have sneered about ‘teachers with villas in Croatia’ from the pages of newspapers owned by tax exiles. Owners of exclusive resturants have called for reductions in the minimum wage while trying to convince us that we weren’t being overcharged in their establishments over the last decade. Commentators have waxed lyrical about the need for ‘pain’ and ‘short sharp shocks’ seemingly oblivious that ‘pain’ for them will mean something very different than ‘pain’ for those on social welfare or low wages. Others have come over all nostalgic about the budget cutbacks of 1987-88 and how they alledgedly laid the basis for our economic boom, without considering the social impact of those cuts and the argument that our health system has still not recovered from them. We have seen the setting up of NAMA, with it’s potential to place a generation in debt and so far reaching a measure that it should have been subject to a referendum. Historians will look back and wonder at how few critical voices there were to all this and how public commentary was dominated by those who screamed that there was ‘no alternative.’ The ICTU are far from having all the answers but the strike is at least offering an opportunity to show opposition to the government’s plans. Despite what some may believe, or wish, historians do not live in ivory towers and they should join their fellow workers across the public sector in this protest.
Brian Hanley works in the Department of History, St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra. His latest book (with Scott Millar), The Lost Revolution: the story of the Official IRA and the Workers Party, is published by Penguin Ireland.