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Speech by Jack O’Connor, General President, SIPTU at the Larkin Commemoration 2014

Date Released: 02 February 2014

Glasnevin Cemetery, Sunday, 2nd February, 2014

Comrades and Friends we are assembled here to commemorate the man who brought the ‘new unionism’ to Ireland, who organised low paid workers previously denied the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining by replacing the narrow sectional outlook of the ‘old unionism’ with a vision of a better and fairer society for all. He did this by shifting the traditional trade union agenda from its narrow focus on immediate pay and conditions to one which aspired to capturing the political and economic heights that determine the human condition.

That task, which must have appeared incredibly audacious and impossible one hundred years ago, came within grasp across muchof Western Europe in the quarter century after the Second World War.Unfortunately the triumph of neo-liberalism has seen progressive forces in retreat in recent decades. This was graphically illustrated in the recent Oxfam Report entitled “Working for the Few”. As others have already pointed out, it showed that 1% of the world’s population now own and control half of the world’s wealth and that just eighty-five people own as much as the poorest half of the world’s inhabitants.

This reversal of the pace and direction of human progress has materialised because of the success of wealthy elites across theworld in consolidating their grip on political as well as economic power, which has been facilitated by political parties which share their values.

It is no accident that Ireland is one of the countries where inequality has grown most rapidly. This is because the outlook that has determined public policy here since the decade of revolution was not informed by the values of social solidarity that inspired Larkin and his comrades. The sad reality is that throughout our entire history as a sovereign state public policy has more closely reflected the values of William Martin Murphy and his allies who set out to crush Jim Larkin’s incipient Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in this city in 1913, even employing the cruel strategy of starving little children to the point of death. These are the values of self-interest and greed that have led us to our third existential crisis in sixty years.

As we begin to emerge from the embers of the catastrophic collapse of 2008 we in the trade union and labour movement, and onthe left in general, must aspire to the development of a new paradigm based on theprimacy of the Common Good. Much has been learned by the experiences of the century which has elapsed since the Great Dublin Lockout.  The concept of the command economy and the one party state has not provided a sustainable alternative to the brutal dictatorship of the unfettered free market. There is no refuge in exhuming the empty slogans and failed recipes of the past.  But we must aspire to more than simply slowing the rate by which living standards in Ireland and in Western Europe race to a bottom which is determined by the absence of Trade Union Organisation and Collective Bargaining rights in the globalised economy.

We must offer hope through developing the alternative concept of “An Egalitarian Future that Works” on the basis of Social Solidarity and real participatory democracy, reflecting the lessons of experience of the Century that has just passed. Moreover we must develop a coherent unity on the left and in the Trade Union Movement to bring it about. 

Otherwise the mantle will be assumed by the xenophobic Right which is once again emerging to haunt the landscape of Europe with its poisonous cocktail of racial hatred and fantasy economics.

Meanwhile we must apply ourselves as Larkin did in his day to the immediate task.  And today it is that of recovering ground which has been temporarily lost over the crisis years as well as defending occupational pension schemes.

That is why we are engaged in a major push to winpay increases across the private sector. We know that there is space to do it without endangering job creation,because unit labour costs have fallen significantly vis a vis our major trading partners due to wage stagnation and increased productivity over the last five years.  Indeed far from damaging job prospects the best way to stimulate domestic demand which accounts for three quarters of the economy is by growing consumption.  And the best way to do this is by increasing pay and purchasing power and we are precisely focused on assisting workers to organise themselves to this end.

In this regard we utterly reject calls by someamong the business and employer organisations for further cuts in public spending to fund tax reductions for those on higher incomes.  They never specify as to whether these additional cuts should be inflicted on the struggling public health service, or on what remains of a housing programme, or on the education sector, or on such provision as exists for care of the elderly, or otherwise.  As far as they are concerned democratically elected politicians are there to take the blame for these choices. Having escaped contributing anything remotely approaching their capacity to do soduring the dark years of one sided austerity they now want to get back to business as usual.  All they know is that they want more – much, much, more and they don’t give a damn who suffers the consequences. 

Yes, there is a compelling case for measures to alleviate the tax burden on lower to middle income families in the form perhaps of a refundable child tax credit or expanding the lower bands for the Universal Social Charge.  But there is none –absolutely none for tax cuts for the rich. Indeed far from that - they should actually be contributing moreprecisely to provide the means to alleviate the burden on citizens generally.

Moreover we repudiate the disingenuous argument that cutting services for citizens to fund tax cuts for the better off makes good economic sense. It doesn’t, because it is merely moving resources from one sector to another without increasing aggregate demand.

The strategy of increasing pay must be accompanied by rapid deployment of the Strategic Investment Fund to generate thousands of jobs. The other ingredient is the restoration of credit lines and this can be best achieved through the creation of a new investment bank.

Larkin understood the critical primacy of the payand conditions battle in building the political, organisational and economic strength of the working class. And our immediate task is to ensure that the space opening up before us now does not simply result in a return to the past under the guise of a recovery that amounts to little more than ‘old wine in new bottles’ as James Connolly would have said. Our task now is to fight for a path to a sustainable future in which citizens can aspire to the security of improving living standards derived through decent work and a living wage for all instead of the terrifying boom to bust roller-coaster offered by unbridled free marketeerism.

The history of the future is far from over. Itremains fully in contention because the exponential growth of inequality which is intrinsic to the capitalist mode of social organisation gradually destroys the purchasing power of the great majority of people who are on lower to middle incomes, which is actually incompatible with the survival of the very system itself.

Trade Union organisation and the process of collective bargaining are key to maintaining economic equilibrium. When combined with a strong political movement they have the capacity to curb waste and direct capital into more constructive pathways. 

Thus the task of building a strong and coherent Trade Union and Labour Movement remain critical to human progress. That is the task we face today, just as Larkin did a century ago. In many ways it is actually more difficult now, but even more necessary if we are to achieve a viablefuture for our children and for the entire human race.

 

 

 


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