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Speech by SIPTU General President, Jack O’Connor at Biennial Delegate Conference of the union in City Hall Cork, 2nd October 2017

Date Released: 02 October 2017

Welcome to conference 2017 – the centenary year of the Russian Revolution. Since our last Conference here in Cork two years ago, a great deal has changed in the world. History has moved on and many of the old certainties have been challenged, if not yet dismantled.

We have already entered the 4th Industrial Revolution - the age of digitalisation - which, if things remain on their current trajectory, will see a scale and pace of change unprecedented in all of human history. Yet, in parallel with this, mass migrations of biblical proportions of people fleeing oppression, persecution and war continue. Simultaneously, the consequences of 300 years of unsustainable exploitation has come home to roost, in the form of environmental degradation and climate change, threatening the future of the human species and the very eco system itself.

The politics has also caught up with the economics of austerity and tens of millions of people are rejecting neo-liberal orthodoxy.  The citizens of the UK voted to leave the EU and those of the US have elected the most openly far right President in modern history.

We have also seen the dramatic rise of the Front National in France and xenophobic nationalism in several developed northern and central European countries while blatant neo-fascism has re-emerged as a significant force in Eastern Europe.

Notwithstanding the rejection of neo-liberalism, these are not progressive developments.  It is not the first time that tens of millions of working people and those rendered hopeless by the impact of austerity have lurched into the embrace of their deadliest enemies. We all know the lessons of the tragic history of the Europe of the 1930s. 

It is only in those countries where the Left has been able to present a united front, that the agenda of the Right has been successfully challenged. This was graphically highlighted in the recent General Election in the UK.  There, because of the first past the post electoral system, all those on the Left have been forced to stay together in the Labour Party, avoiding the endless splintering that afflicts us in many other countries. 

As a consequence and under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, a Democratic Socialist, uncontaminated by the compromises of the recent past, they were able to offer inspiration and hope to tens of millions of people, particularly among the young, on the basis of a solidly traditional Social Democratic manifesto. 

Similarly, in Portugal, the Socialist Party, supported by the Left Block and the Communist Party, has managed to continue to govern, gradually rolling back the damage inflicted by the austerity agenda, rebuilding the economy and offering hope again.  In France and Spain and indeed in Greece, vibrantly electrifying new forces on the Left have emerged, but unfortunately they are focused too much on the destruction of the traditional Socialist parties, thus leaving the field open to the Right. 

A modest economic recovery appears to be gathering some momentum in Europe and employment and economic activity levels in the United States of America have reached pre-crisis levels, but smug assumptions about the sustainability of capitalism could well be ill-placed. 

A decade of quantitative easing has left the big Central Banks owning a fifth of global public debt - and they now hold $15trn in assets - a level unprecedented in history.  The next trick is unravelling it – with all its contingent implications for the sustainability of sovereign and corporate debt, growth and inflation.

Here in the Republic of Ireland we are still only emerging from the most serious economic collapse experienced in any developed country in the World since the Wall Street Crash of 1929.  We in this Union, along with others in the Labour Movement, were forced to adopt a very difficult and unpopular rear-guard strategy to defend jobs, conditions and the basic social and economic infrastructure as much as possible.

We did not embrace that strategy lightly, or because we thought that one-sided austerity was fair or that it was a good idea, or that it was by any means the best way out of the crisis. We came to it only reluctantly, when we ultimately realised, that we were faced with overwhelming odds.  Then we did what any intelligent army does in those circumstances. 

It retreats a bit, erects whatever fortifications it can and organises behind them intending to re-take the ground lost when more fortuitous conditions develop. In short, when we were faced with the choice between making noise and making a difference – we chose to make a difference for working people.  It wasn’t for the fainthearted! 

In this regard, I want to emphatically reiterate our appreciation to all the thousands of Shop Stewards, Activists and individual members who stood with the Union, whether they agreed with us or not, throughout what has been the most difficult period in our economic history.

I am glad to say that the Report which is before you for consideration over the next few days, clearly demonstrates that we have been regaining ground. We have been winning pay increases across the Private and Commercial Semi-State sectors.  The process of pay restoration in the public service which began with the Lansdowne Road Agreement in the middle of 2015 has continued with its extension this year. We have also begun to utilise the provisions of the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2015 to win pay increases, which are legally binding on the employers, across whole industries, as well as new recognition Agreements in a number of individual companies.

Delegates, in two years’ time we will celebrate the centenary of the Democratic Programme, which was adopted by the first Dáil and on which the War of Independence was fought.   

Although its declarations were watered down before adoption, it still offered a truly egalitarian and inspiring vision of an independent Ireland based on the primacy of the common good.  And now, because we have managed to survive the crisis we can actually make real, measurable and sustainable progress by the centenary of the foundation of the State in 2022, towards the realisation of those aspirations. This is due to the dynamism of our economy and the fact that we will emerge from the structural deficit in 2019.

Of course, the tragedy of Brexit could derail all this potential. We certainly do not underestimate the challenge it presents, but we are hopeful that it will not play out as badly as some anticipate - because too many countries, including the UK, have far too much to lose.

Accordingly, the National Executive Council has placed Motion No. 33 on the agenda.  It envisages the attainment of decent housing for all our people, the rebuilding of our public health service, the re-development of one of the best education systems in the world, the establishment of the long awaited mandatory 2nd Pillar Pension System and full Collective Bargaining rights for all workers. 

I very much hope you will endorse it as the kernel of our policy for the years ahead. However, this egalitarian vision will not be achieved on the basis of the current trajectory. For it seems we are back to “business as usual” in this country. 

We are again playing by the rules of the self-interested value system that precipitated the crisis in the first place. It’s back to looking the other way, while exponentially growing inequality reasserts itself in our domestic and social affairs. Let us say it as it is, delegates. It is absolutely unforgivable that thousands of our children are homeless, in the aftermath of the collapse of a credit fuelled property bubble. 

It is appalling to think that this is happening within twelve months of the celebration of the centenary of the insurrection of 1916, which was fought on the basis of a Proclamation which declared the establishment of a Republic which would cherish all the children of the nation equally.  And while this is unforgivable in itself, it is absolutely obscene that our major political parties are again promoting a tax cutting agenda while children are homeless, in this, one of the wealthiest countries in the world 

Of course, to be fair to them, they are competing for votes on the basis of the prevailing values in our society.  These reflect the outlook and priorities of those who emerged victorious from the great counter revolution that was the civil war. They reflect the interests of the William Martin Murphys and his kind as against those of Jim Larkin, James Connolly, Constance Markievicz, Rosie Hackett and the great mass of working people and their families.  Thus, sadly, in the Ireland of today there is no contradiction between decrying homelessness on the one hand and promoting tax cuts on the other. 

The tax cutting narrative reinforces deeply ingrained and carefully cultivated misconceptions of individual self-interest.  However, it is not in our actual self-interest as individuals at all. 

It is not in any of our interests as individuals that young people have to pay multiples of the cost of building a house to put a roof over their heads, due to the absence of a properly funded public housing programme.  Neither is it in our interests as individuals that people have to waste their scarce resources paying ever escalating private health insurance premiums, due to the absence of a properly funded public health service.  It is not in our interests as individuals, either, that people do not have access to the best education, training and re-skilling facilities in the world, due to the absence of a properly funded education system. 

And it is certainly not in our interests as individuals either, that the potential productivity and growth of our economy is compromised by inadequate public investment. 

No Delegates, it’s a con job!   What’s actually being perpetrated under the guise of ‘promoting the incentive to work’ or ‘rewarding people’ is a different thing altogether.  It’s the criminal degradation of our public services, in order to facilitate the wholesale robbery of the people by a veritable army of land hoarders, speculators, licensed drug peddlers and corporate money lenders! 

It’s time to wake up and smell the roses delegates, because instead of paying tax to fund our public services, together as a community, we’re actually ending up paying twice as much and more to these legalised bandits. 

That is why we are advancing the proposition that all available resources should be focused on the primary national project of housing our people, caring for the young, the elderly and the ill, supporting our people with disabilities and educating, training and re-skilling our people in order to build a decent society for everyone who lives on the island of Ireland, between now and the centenary of the foundation of the State in 2022.   This would be a laudable project around which we could mobilise as a people, and forget about cutting taxes until then. 

The bottom line is that we must have decent public services and it is far better that we fund them together as a community, through taxation, rather than allowing ourselves to be ripped off by private predators. Those advocating tax cutting, which inevitably disproportionately benefits the better off, conveniently ignore the fact that Ireland’s public spending, as a share of gross national income, is joint bottom of the list of EU countries and one third less than the average EU member state.

It’s not for all the difference that the amount of money available in this year’s budget will make, either in terms of public investment, or tax cutting for that matter.  It’s more fundamental than that.  It’s about our priorities as a society.

There will actually be a great deal more available from 2019 onwards, after the structural deficit is eliminated.  However, it will still not be enough to achieve the dramatic improvements required. We will also have to adopt a more flexible interpretation of the EU fiscal rules, as advocated by our own Union and indeed laterally even by the employers’ organisation IBEC. This would release somewhere between €4bn and €7bn over the next five years. 

Then there are the matters which are entirely and absolutely within our own control.  For example, there is absolutely no justification to go on gifting bad employers in the hospitality sector, a direct subsidy of €500m from the tax payer through concessionary VAT rates which would build more than 2,500 local authority houses.  They won’t even go into the Joint Labour Committees to negotiate a living wage for their employees, who are among the lowest paid in the country.  At the very least such a generous subvention, at the expense of the taxpayers, should be accompanied by a conditional requirement to act in a socially responsible way.  

 

And yes the wealthier generally will have to contribute a little more, as outlined every year in the pre-budget submissions of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. 

All of this takes us to the first key and core element of Motion No. 33. That is the issue of the right to organise and bargain collectively.  It is no coincidence that it was the battle over that issue and the brutal response of the Dublin employers in 1913, that actually led to the decade of revolution.  Even today, more than a hundred years later, as we have already entered the fourth industrial revolution and the age of digitalisation, no issue is remotely so important in terms of defining the quality of life for the great majority of people and their families. 

This is because collective bargaining takes place at the point at which the benefits of output are distributed and very often where the nature and character of jobs are designed.

The OECD estimates that we are the 3rd most unequal country in Europe, measured by market income.  This is offset to some degree by the more progressive aspects of our tax system, but it is manifestly evident in the workplace. 

According to Eurostat, 22% of workers in Ireland, 6 percentage points above the euro area average, fall into the category of being low paid.  In Eurofound’s 6th European Working Conditions Survey, nearly half (46%) of workers under 35 were on precarious non-standard contracts of employment of one form or another - the 3rd worst in the EU.  As well as that, the gender pay gap here is almost 14% - the 10th worst across the EU.  All this misery is directly attributable to the growing imbalance between capital and labour, which is directly due to the decline of collective bargaining.

Even the IMF, in a 2015 Report, acknowledges the direct relationship between exponentially growing inequality and the decline of collective bargaining.  No formula for tackling inequality or promoting social sustainability can avoid the absence of the basic fundamental right to organise and bargain collectively.  That is why it features in Motion No. 33 as the key, core and critical element of the proposition. 

Thanks to the efforts of the Labour Party, the 2015 Act has progressed collective bargaining rights further than ever before in the history of the State.   But, workers in Ireland still do not enjoy a constitutional entitlement to participate fully in collective bargaining with their employers. 

This will require a Constitutional Amendment.  So, we will have to work with everyone who cares about workers, about equality, about low pay, about precarious work and exploitation, to press for a referendum to provide for the fundamental right to engage in Collective Bargaining for every worker in Ireland.

This is crucial to the concept of decent work, upon which to build decent lives and ultimately a decent sustainable society.  But it extends away beyond that.  It extends to the issue of inclusion and the facility for working people to participate, acting through healthy democratic trade unions to balance the enormous lobbying power of capital, in the formation of key decisions which shape the future direction of policy.   It is about a healthy vibrant democracy, in which working people are not alienated and deprived of hope and thus driven into the arms of the xenophobic right.

In this regard critical decisions are already overdue. The challenge of digitalisation will entail the reskilling of tens of thousands of workers, probably more than once, whose jobs will become obsolete over the next two decades.  It is most unlikely that very many of those who are under 40 years old today, will be doing the same job when they are 60. 

Are they to be denied a say in what possibilities can be forged for them in the new world – or is it to be determined exclusively by the capitalists and their political agents?  The same question applies equally to addressing the challenge of decarbonisation and the possibility of a “just transition”.  And make no mistake about it delegates, if the democratic system does not face up to the issue of the disenfranchisement of working people - the fascists and their fellow travellers on the hard right are only waiting to step into the vacuum.

But, we in the trade union movement have a responsibility to do more than point the finger at the bosses and the political establishment.  We have to do more than make noise – we have to try to make a difference for working people.  We have to take on the awesome task of re-educating and reskilling our own members for the challenge of the change ahead.  It was with this in mind that we in SIPTU promoted the idea of the Workers’ College in the Commission on Trade Union Organisation. 

Sadly, it does not seem to be about to become a reality any time soon.  But we cannot give up.  We have to find other ways - through working with others such as our comrades in the TEEU, in the TUF Federation and anyone else we can persuade to work with us, to accumulate the resources and create the critical mass to do it on a scale that will actually make a difference.

Similarly, on the challenge of decarbonisation there are many thousands of workers and communities across Ireland who are highly reliant on fossil-fuels for a livelihood. Bord na Móna and the ESB are probably the most obvious examples. If we fail to affect a ‘just transition’ to a low carbon economy, we could potentially condemn whole communities to the same devastating effects that de-industrialisation has had on the rust-belts of the North-East of America and the North of England.

Therefore, we support the ETUC in its efforts to create a Just Transition structural fund at EU level. We need a tripartite structure here comprising of Government, IBEC and the ICTU at national level to develop a comprehensive policy response for those workers and their communities who will be impacted in the transition to a low carbon economy.

Delegates, it may be said that, in this my last Presidential address, I have concentrated exclusively on the South, without referring to the North.  But this would be to completely miss the point. 

You see, what we are promoting here in this comprehensive proposition for social progress, outlined in Motion 33, which is rooted in the values of social solidarity would serve as the kernel of a new relationship between all the people who inhabit this island, including those who are coming from elsewhere to pursue the hope of a better life along with us. It would see us all enjoying a better future, framed in the context of the European community of nations, (but not in some kind of Federal Super State) and from that platform we would all play our part as citizens of the world.

It will be necessary to forge a new alliance of all the genuinely progressive forces on the island of Ireland who are committed to the primacy of the common good to realise this great aspiration.

Meanwhile, we will continue to work hard organising workers in Northern Ireland.  Our membership there has been growing steadily for a number of years now.  We are also fully involved in the work of the NIC-ICTU, pressing for the re-establishment of the devolved institutions and their extension to include a structured Social Dialogue as well.  NIC-ICTU will be launching a “Better Work Better Lives” Campaign this month, prioritising low pay and insecure work, increased public investment and an end to the 1% public sector pay cap and we will be participating fully in it.   

The trade union movement in both jurisdictions is also focused on ensuring that workers do not pay the price of Brexit – and we are all fully engaged to that end, working with our comrades across the entire island.

We must also continue to do whatever we can to extend support to those who are suffering the burden of oppression, injustice and exploitation throughout the world. To this end, we have established the Global Solidarity Committee as a result of a decision of the last conference here. It is working away solidly. We are prioritising support for the beleaguered people of Palestine who are surely the victims of the greatest ongoing crime against humanity since the holocaust.

Delegates – none of the objectives I have outlined in this, my last Presidential address, are for the fainthearted.  Nothing that’s worth achieving ever is!  It involves rowing against the tide. But I am confident that the new leadership team which will be joining Joe O’Flynn at the helm of the union will be equal to the task.  I am confident as well that all of you and those who are the custodians of the legacy of Connolly and Larkin will be equal to the task. 

I salute you all and through you all the members of the union and their families.  I hope that whenever you are faced with the choice between making noise and making a difference, you’ll chose to make a difference, whether that means erecting barricades or charging over them.  I hope you will go on rowing against the tide in the battle for equality for everyone!

 

 


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