When we revisit his legacy each year at this time, we recall the scale of his contribution in word and deed to the emerging trade union and labour movement, to the struggle for a free and independent republic and to the defeat of what he described as rapacious landlords and employers and the tyrants of capitalism and imperialism at home and abroad.
Connolly waged war with his comrades in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union from its birth in 1909 against poverty, unemployment, the city slums, the exploitation of low paid workers, the discrimination experienced by women and the mistreatment of children.
If he were alive today he would wonder, after all the intervening years of human and technological progress, that we still have to campaign vigorously in pursuit of decent work, gender equality, workplace democracy and fair wages.
He would be shocked indeed that we are in the midst of a housing crisis which has locked a generation out of a roof over their heads and subjected so many to extortionate rents and mortgages, if they can manage to get one.
He would be infuriated no doubt, as we are ourselves, that the scandal of low pay continues. Our goal in SIPTU is the abolition of anybody working below the low pay threshold. Our goal must be to abolish the very existence of low pay and to popularise a range of policies which will rid the scourge of low pay from our labour market.
During the pandemic many of the lowest paid workers in our country have been on the frontline of the fight against Covid-19 in our health services, in childcare, in retail and distribution, in cleaning, in meat factories and other frontline jobs at great risk to themselves and their families.
In recent days, the ESRI confirmed what many of us gathered here today know only too well that young workers have suffered most from the pandemic as a result of stagnant wages and the cost of rent. Young workers in Ireland now are the first generation in the history of this state forced to endure lower living standards than their parents. Young adults have also been disproportionately hit by the pandemic with unemployment rates in excess of 50% across the country.
The concentration of young people in the sectors most affected by the public health crisis, including in retail, hospitality and in the small enterprises that employ over 70% of the workforce has compounded this mounting generational inequality.
Since we gathered here last year, we have witnessed the continuing and appalling devastation of the pandemic which has cost the lives of more than 7,000 people across the island and serious illness to tens of thousands more.
We have also watched as the British government negotiated a trade deal with the EU which averted the worst impact on the economy, north and south, of a no-deal Brexit. However, we should not minimise the damage Brexit has caused and will continue to cause to a range of employments, including those organised by SIPTU, in the food and drinks industries, among others.
In SIPTU, we have sought to address the challenges posed by these different but connected crises not least in our campaign to support frontline heroes over the past year, in promoting workplace democracy, statutory sick pay and gender equality, public and affordable housing, in seeking fair and flexible pensions and advancing a model of economy and society that will ensure we do not return to the failed policies of the past.
For this reason, we have set out a progressive fiscal framework which, along with the Congress document ‘No Going Back’, proposes a strategy of massive state investment in jobs through a major programme to develop infrastructure, including public housing, health and education provision and the green economy.
Brexit has not only disrupted agri-food, our largest indigenous industry and vital supply lines for other sectors but it has revived the debate about the future constitutional arrangements on this island. As a union with members in both jurisdictions, we will insist that their interests and those of all working people on the island, whatever their identity or allegiance, are protected and promoted in these discussions.
James Connolly was right when he warned that “partition would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements while it lasted.” He was correct on many other issues too, not least on the importance of recognising the role of women in society. In this regard, we warmly welcome the recommendation recently by the Citizens Assembly on Gender Equality for the introduction of the legal right to collective bargaining as a means of tackling economic inequality between women and men.
Connolly was also ahead of his time when it came to the question of workplace democracy. The fundamental principles of democracy, he argued in 1908, “begin in the workshop, and proceed logically and consecutively upward through all the grades of industrial organisation until it reaches the culminating point of national executive power and direction. In other words, social democracy must proceed from the bottom upward, whereas capitalist political society is organised from above downward.”
Ireland is one of the few countries in the industrialised world that does not vindicate the right of employees to bargain together with their employer. Even the United States and Britain have ‘right to collective bargaining’ legislation.
Because this right is denied, workers are denied a voice in the workplace – the fundamental pre-condition of democracy. As a result, the living standards of workers suffer, business under-performs and economic efficiency is undermined. In other words, the denial of workplace democracy rights in the Republic of Ireland is bad for workers and bad for business.
We are calling on all progressive people to join the trade union movement in our campaign to ensure that workers are granted legal protections to organise a trade union in order to bargain together with their employer.
If he was alive today, Connolly the internationalist would demand an end to one of the greatest human rights abuses of our time – the continued, illegal and brutal occupation of Palestine which has caused so much suffering to its people for over 70 years.
Over the past week, the massive military forces of the Israeli government have killed more than 130 people including 30 children in Gaza. As before, this has been a totally disproportionate response to a problem that stems from the ongoing Israeli policy of illegal settlements in the West Bank and, more recently, the evictions of Palestinian families from their homes in east Jerusalem.
In his 1909 essay, Socialism Made Easy, Connolly said:
“We propose to establish honesty once and forever as the basis of our social relations. The socialist movement is indeed worthy to be entitled The Great Anti-Theft Movement of the Twentieth Century.”
Comrades, it is time we resolved that in this 21st Century, we can achieve the vision of democracy, equality and fairness expounded in in his written volumes and speeches and fought for so courageously by the late, great James Connolly.