Patricia King address to Biennial Delegate Conference Trinity College Dublin

3 Jul 2019

Patricia -3

We meet for the first time in many years in Dublin. The last time the Biennial Delegate Conference was held in the capital was in 1988.

It’s fitting that we meet in the heart of this proud city,  All around us –in all directions, are reminders of our history. We gather only a stone’s throw from Liberty Hall, the birthplace of the Irish trade union movement; from the magnificent statue of James Larkin on O’Connell Street and from the Rosie Hackett bridge, a reminder of the often neglected role played by women in the struggle for workers’ rights.

This is the city of the 1913 Lock Out which marked a watershed in Irish Labour history where the principle of trade union action and workers solidarity was firmly asserted.

Two years ago, in Belfast, we were reminded of the importance of that city in the history of the trade union movement.

This week, as we debate the enormous challenges which confront us in a hostile climate, nationally and internationally, we can draw inspiration from our strong history and legacy. 

All of you, the men and women of the Irish labour movement from across this island, are custodians of our great tradition.  The labour movement draws its strength from its collectivity and solidarity in the workplace.

Every day, in factories, shops, offices, in companies large and small, in State agencies and multinational conglomerates, trade union officials, shop stewards, workplace representatives, and trade union members live out the principles of Larkin and Connolly.

It would be easy in depressing times to become despondent but reviewing the past two years, through our biennial report,  the trade union movement can be proud of its achievements.

Over the past two years pay increases have been negotiated across the Public and Private Sectors, although we have to very mindful that 1: 5 workers in our labour market are low paid and have not seen any sign of the much-vaunted recovery.

The Employment (Misc Provisions Act) 2018 has been enacted and in many ways responded to the brave struggle of Dunnes Stores workers for dignity and fairness at work.  Although our campaign is ongoing in relation to Bogus Self Employment, we have a road to travel to achieve our ultimate goal.

Following our seven-year campaign, the reduced  VAT rate for the hospitality sector was abolished. Despite the weeping and wailing of employers in the Sector, the much-heralded doomsday has yet to transpire.

Agreement on a collective bargaining process in Ryanair followed from on from an arduous and lengthy campaign by these workers over decades and I salute them for their tenacity and bravery.

Most significantly, we have reversed the trend of the decline in Private Sector trade union membership, underscored by recent CSO figures. Consequent on years of structural change, strong investment by individual affiliate unions and the very hard work of our community of trade union organisers we are now progressing on a positive trajectory. 

What makes these achievements all the more remarkable is the fact that they have been realised against the backdrop of strong political resistance and within the constraints of a legislative framework designed to deny workers the right to be heard, to be collectively represented and to be treated with fairness, dignity, and respect.

But what we have managed to achieve against great odds and in the teeth of enormous resistance is a reminder of what is entirely possible when we unite with a common purpose.

For those working in unionised companies and sectors, it is sometimes easy to underestimate the plight of those denied the human right to representation. Every month when we meet around the Executive Council table I am reminded of the plight of those who work for anti-union companies: in supermarkets, pharmacies, construction sites, in companies up and down the country where the right to be heard is denied.

However, after decades of conventional economic analysis promoting the virtues of deregulation and outsourcing, internationally at least,  we appear to have reached a turning point in such discourse.  The World Bank, OECD, the IMF, bodies not known for espousing socialist principles, are all championing inclusive growth.  The World Bank says: “ it is clear that unions and collective bargaining have an equalizing effect on earnings’ distributions ‘,

The IMF has declared that  ‘the decline in unionisation is related to the rise of top income shares and less redistribution’.  

Our own successive reports on CEO Pay in Ireland are a testimony to the unrestrained greed of those at the top: often the same people are the most vociferous in their calls for pay restraint for workers.

Delegates, let this conference mark the beginning of a renewed effort to secure the right to collective bargaining for all workers. As we know collective bargaining is the most effective instrument to achieve more equal redistribution of wealth, to drive down inequality, to achieve gender pay equality and without it there is no balance between capital and labour.

The International Community has long recognised that the right to organise and collectively bargain are fundamental principles of rights at work.  While Ireland has committed to upholding  these rights under a number of international conventions it has failed to implement them in practice.
We need to put these workers’ rights at the centre of political discourse in Ireland, North, and South.

Creating a society that is more equal, where all work is decent, and jobs are fulfilling and well paid will be both demanding and complex, but it remains our core mission. Decent pay for decent work must be more than a catchphrase.

To achieve it , we set out in our policy document on collective bargaining, which we are launching at this Conference,  that we should campaign vigorously for the adoption of an EU Directive to harmonise the laws of EU member States on Collective Bargaining and thereby establish the right to bargain in Irish Law.  If adopted, the doctrine of supremacy of EU law would overcome any lingering doubt around the Constitutionality of any legislative initiative in this sphere..

 We should also demand that our national law determines the right to collectively bargain,

  • the right to trade union activism without penalisation, the right to organise,
  • the right of access for trade unions, the right of access to key employer decision makers for the purpose of persuasion on behalf of our  members and
  • the right to reasonable time off to engage in representation and trade union training.

In most Western European countries bargaining takes place at the sectoral level.  Here in Ireland legislation provides for sectoral bargaining of wages and conditions of employment in 8 economic sectors.  However, the practice has been subverted by a concerted effort by employers not to participate in the Joint Labour Committees.   This employer veto needs to be overcome and addressed by legislative amendment. This would enhance collective bargaining coverage to some of the most vulnerable workers in our labour market and would underpin the role of our movement in determining decent work across the economy.

Delegates, as we know, Brexit was the consequence of narrow, self-obsessed nationalism based on the debased values of free market economics which places no value on human dignity or the concept of global solidary

It has the capacity to gravely damage to our island economically, socially and politically.

There is no doubt that the Republic of Ireland, as a member of the EU, will experience some strong negative economic consequences considering its current close trading relationship with the U.K. This could include high levels of job loss in particular sectors and locations. The scale of the Brexit effect will depend on the future trading relationship agreed between the parties into the future.

However, the situation regarding Northern Ireland is far more complex and could be very bleak.

The Belfast/ Good Friday Agreement provides for the protection of the Civil and Human Rights of the citizens of Northern Ireland and further obliges both Governments to take no action that could undermine the economic and social wellbeing of the region into the future.    

Northern Ireland’s societal fabric is fragile and sometimes unstable. If we needed a reminder of that fragility it may be found in the murder of  Lyra McKee, a young working journalist, equality campaigner, and proud trade union member. The response to her murder speaks of hunger for political leadership which can no longer be ignored.

For the past two years, there has been no functioning  Assembly or Government in NI. Apart from the provision of Public services, its economic activity is largely driven by small businesses heavily reliant on cross border trade.  One senior NI official has described the ‘no deal’ Brexit scenario as akin to a blockade of the Northern Ireland economy, where disruption would be severe and economic and social effects profound and lasting.

We are right to be concerned at the possibility of the re-instigation of the border on the island of Ireland.

This would be a highly regressive step.

We must be equally adamant that we avoid a border within the UK, between Britain and Northern Ireland and any economic border between these islands.  We are fully committed to the principle of consent enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement in terms of the constitutional position of Northern Ireland.

For all these reasons the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, has supported the Withdrawal Agreement which includes the current ‘Backstop Arrangements’.  In the months ahead  Congress will be focussed on ensuring:

  • that protecting the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland and the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, in all its parts, remains paramount.
  • that both Governments live up to their International obligations as set out in that agreement:

This means that:

  • A ‘No Deal Brexit’ cannot be tolerated.
  • The ‘Backstop must not be diluted.
  • Any future actions taken as part of the UK Withdrawal cannot serve to undermine the GFA  provisions in relation to rights equality and equality of citizens, rights underpinned by the Court of Justice of EU.
  •  There will be no ‘race to the bottom’ when it comes to workers rights.
  •  A significant financial subvention must be available to assist workers where job losses occur directly arising from Brexit. Workers and their families on this island must not be forced to pay the price for Brexit.

Our members, our families, our communities, our all-island economy must not become collateral damage and as trade unionists, we will never allow workers to be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.

Delegates: it has been said that climate change is the greatest challenge of our generation. In his most recent address to the EPSU conference held here in Dublin, President Higgins, in his address, challenged the Trade Union movement to support a new eco-social political economy which emphasises the finite nature of the Earth’s natural resources and the role rich nations must play in ameliorating this climate crisis. 

Such a paradigm would advocate combining the concerns of domestic, international and intergenerational justice in a global equity framework. Public servants will be to the fore in developing and delivering this change programme, which in our view must protect the lowest income families.. Congress has seized the opportunity to take a lead role in the development of a strategy for a ‘just transition’ for workers and communities to ensure we are all part of a sustainable, low carbon economy and benefit from decent green jobs which were underpinned at our Energy Sector seminar in Tullamore.

Delegates, there have been attempts to blame the homelessness and housing crisis on migrants.

We reject any attempt to scapegoat migrants for the political failures to deal with the housing crisis.

Look around this country:

Pop up soup kitchens at the GPO.

Young men sleeping in cardboard boxes in Kildare Street.

Families dumped in hotel rooms and so-called family hubs.

These are scenes more reminiscent of Strumpet City than the brash image of our country which some of our political leaders seek to project.

The current Government housing policy has failed and should be abandoned.

The housing crisis is a stain on the record of this Government and is the source of great pain and anguish. Several professional reports, over recent months, have highlighted the strong negative effect such living conditions have on the lives of thousands of children.

Have we not learned the lessons of the Magdalen Laundries?: the State yet again turns a blind eye to misery and degradation and continues to ignore the truths that are so obvious about short term solutions devoid of compassion or dignity.

As a movement, we have rejected the Government’s approach.

It is why we, together with others, were the instigators of the ‘Raise the Roof Campaign.  That campaign is about reversing current government housing policy and constructing the requisite public housing to provide a home for all.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions advocates for a radical progressive vision for Ireland’s economy and society, Now is the time to invest in our people, our public services, and our social infrastructure.  This is the only way we can ensure our future prosperity in a sustainable and inclusive way.

We reject the philosophy of those who see workers are a mere commodity in the game of wealth creation. 

Delegates, together we can build on our proud tradition.

The battle for decent work is the defining struggle of our times. In asserting our right to decent work and decent pay we are laying the foundations for a better Ireland, an Ireland based and social solidarity, an Ireland, North and South, where workers are respected and every person is afforded equal rights in every aspect of their life.