The heckling of union leaders at marches is a serious issue that needs far more discussion on the left. To cheer-lead it is very mistaken. Yes, a factor is a genuine angry response from “ordinary workers” to the lack of action, and indeed past actions, of the trade union leaders. Union leaders who have been on the receiving end of heckling and booing need to realise that there are consequences attached to their “brave” decisions to support unpopular cutbacks and climb downs. They need to end their aristocratic outrage at being crudely criticised by the Democracy. But by what proportion has this factor (the noble mob) featured in the actual incidents? Among the most active hecklers, even where leaders from the left sought to defuse the heckling, there were some political activists and members of left organisations.

For the organised left there are two questions: how can we call on the union leaders to take actions and when they do support a march, put money into it, and join the platform, then tolerate, support or even encourage a verbal barrage against them on that occasion? Furthermore, how can we co-operate with all stages of the organisation of a march, jointly organise a march in fact, and then tolerate, support or even encourage a verbal barrage against some of the speakers agreed as part of the organisation of the march? What game is being played?

Secondly we need to ask if it is a good thing that we now have a situation where trade union leaders – of any hue – cannot address a public rally without being shouted down? To begin with, the recent barracking, at the CAHWT National Stadium rally and at the 24th November anti-austerity march, was the product of, or plugged into, an ignorance of the trade union movement, its configuration and its recent history. The speaker in the first case was Mick O’Reilly (a supporter of CAHWT) and in the second was Eugene McGlone. As it happens both together were the joint subjects of a high-profile case of victimisation by their own union leadership, with the possible involvement of figures outside their union, related to supporting workers in struggle and their general oppositional stance in the movement. Barracking Eugene McGlone as if he was a centrally influential member of the executive of the ICTU was like pillorying the robbed rather than the robber. That educated socialists should collaborate with this ignorance is disappointing.

In any case, the substantial question for the left is whether it is a good situation or principle that trade union leaders effectively cannot speak in public in Dublin at this time without being barracked? Let’s leave over–the-top talk of fascism aside. The question does touch on a growing contention that the union leaders are the enemy, or an enemy (the main facilitators/agency of privatisation and austerity), rather than a conservative bureaucracy within the workers’ movement subject to pressure from the members below as well as from the employers and the state. Presuming the latter, as I do, means that, especially in a phase like the present when independent action at shop floor level is unlikely, moving or persuading or assisting union leaders to lead the members in some kind of fight back is important. The involvement of the leaders, and therefore of the official structures, authority and resources of the trade unions, is to be worked for, not their banishment from the streets. Rather than quietly smiling at the hectoring or even egging it on the left needs to tackle it among its members and supporters and provide some tactical and historical education to its followers. Rather than the shallow but ineffective satisfaction of shouting down union leaders in O’Connell Street the left should, as it does only sporadically, challenge union leaders where it matters, in the unions, at union branches, general meetings and conferences, organising majorities, or influential minorities, to overturn the uninterrupted dominance of officialdom.

DD 20-01-13