He was executed for his organising role in the Easter Rising but as we, and generations before us know only too well, Connolly was also shot because of his socialist ideas and the threat they represented to the established order. He was killed also because of his role in the struggle against rapacious employers including during the 1913 Lockout, against landlords and other tyrants of capitalism, as well as against the cruelties of British imperialism, at home and abroad.
When we look back at his extensive achievements and writings, we can only marvel at the extent of his contribution to the socialist and progressive movement in Ireland and not least to the building of our largest trade union, the ITGWU and now SIPTU. Among his most insightful words were those that recognised the value of labour, mainly of women, in providing and producing the services and materials essential for a functioning society, not least in raising and caring for its children. He was consistent in his criticism for the failure of the powerful to share the profits they extracted with those who keep the engines of industry and the economy in motion.
During this time of crisis when the Covid-19 virus has caused devastation to the lives and livelihoods of so many, it is the workers in health and other essential services who are rightly recognised. As those of us who gather here today are only too aware, many of those workers, in health and childcare and home help provision, in low paid meat processing and other frontline jobs have been fighting for better pay and conditions of work for many years.
For this reason, SIPTU launched the Frontline Heroes campaign which has attracted wide attention across social and other media over recent weeks and months and which is aimed at highlighting the key role of our members in the hospitals, care settings, public transport, food production and distribution in the fight against the Coronavirus. This public health crisis will pass and many more deaths will hopefully be averted, mainly because of the sacrifices of thousands of working people and their families. The question is what lessons will be learned by those responsible for ensuring that our health service is never again deprived of resources and properly paid staff.
More than one million workers are currently in receipt of State unemployment payments or wage subsidies and there is no certainty for many that their jobs and incomes will be there when this crisis abates in the coming weeks and months. It is a challenging time for those working from home, while minding and schooling their children. For those laid off in aviation, hotels, restaurants, bars and the wider service industries where there will be no quick return to work, the situation is daunting and they must be assured that their financial security is protected.
For those returning to the workplace, we support the new Protocol agreed by Congress with the government and employers which will help to ensure that the health and safety of workers is paramount and that necessary protections and precautions are in place in workplaces.
Less than six months ago, our members in the Early Years sector were on the streets of Dublin in large numbers demanding improvements to their pay and conditions of work and for respect and recognition for their invaluable contribution to our youngest citizens. Supporters of the Stop 67 Campaign launched by SIPTU, the National Women’s Council, Age Action and Active Retirement to stop the unjust increase in the pension age to 67 next year were actively ensuring that state pension age was a critical issue for voters in this year’s general election. The Congress-led Raise the Roof coalition involving housing and homeless campaigners organised protests across the country to demand a major programme of public housing on public lands, an end to the extortion of renters and to the homeless crisis. These issues and more were debated during the election and the people voted in massive numbers for radical and sustainable change to the manner in which our health, education, housing, waste disposal, transport and other public services are delivered and how the people who provide them are treated.
They voted for a more equal society and an end to the low pay and precarious nature of employment for so many workers. They voted to end climate chaos and the destructive degradation of the environment. We believe that people, notwithstanding the public health crisis that has taken the lives of so many of our older and vulnerable citizens over the past three months, still want change.
Already we are hearing echoes from the last financial crisis when the wealthy and powerful targeted those who depend on social welfare and state services, cut the incomes of workers and pitted private sector workers against those in the public service. The knives of austerity are being sharpened again and the same commentators are being rolled out to prepare for the next ‘adjustment’ as they call it. Well this time around, we can assure you, comrades, that is not going to happen. The future will be different.
We need to challenge the orthodoxy over fiscal policy and public finances with a progressive programme that releases the energy of our people rather than drain it away.
We need to rewrite the relationship between employer and employee with a radical extension of workplace democracy and collective bargaining.
We need to fund our public services so that everyone has access on the basis of their need, not the size of their bank account or their insurance number.
We need to provide security to people – when they are ill, when they are caring, when they are unemployed and when they are retired.
We need a Green New Deal – a green investment programme on an unprecedented scale to confront the crisis posed by climate change.
But we cannot do that alone, in isolation. The trade union movement, progressive political parties and civil society organisations need to work together. On this point, I want to take the opportunity to send a message of solidarity this morning to our sister union Connect with whom we work stronger together in TUF, the Trade Union Federation. Connect celebrated its centenary this week and we congratulate them on 100 years and wish them well for the next 100 years.
It is only together, working in solidarity, putting aside rivalries that we can win power and a different, better future. This must become both our ambition and our practice.