8 May 2008 Edition
May Day: Celebrating solidarity
By Stephanie Lord
THIS YEAR’S International Workers’ Day on 1 May saw a successful march through Dublin from the Garden of Remembrance to Liberty Hall to commemorate the struggle for workers’ rights. The march was attended by Sinn Féin members alongside trade union comrades and other groups and was led by the Communications Workers’ Union Band.
The Dublin May Day march made its way down the Quays to Liberty Hall were the activists and trade unions heard speeches from trade union leaders on the theme of “defending and extending trade union rights” and were provided with entertaining songs from Jimmy Kelly such as Dublin City 1913, Joe Hill and The Red Flag.
The first speaker to address the trade union groups was Betty Tyrrell-Collard, former president of the Civil and Public Services Union, who spoke about the struggles faced by workers in the public sector.
“In the civil service we’ve been fortunate compared with some of our private sector comrades. In general, we’ve been facilitated in organising and representing our membership but I believe that, just as the climate for organising has become even more difficult in the private sector, we too in public service face a new threat to our right to organise and represent our workers.
“The greatest task facing us now is to get private sector and public sector unions to work together in unison to face the onslaught by employers against the right to organise and represent workers.
“There’s no doubt that over the period of social partnership we’ve had greater access to the corridors of political power than at any time in our history, but while we have a greater opportunity to influence political decision makers we see unions in many workplaces undermined and frustrated by employers using all means possible to break our power.”
Many of the speakers spoke of the plight of agency workers, as did Betty Tyrrell-Collard:
“While agency workers and bogus self-employment contracts are being used in a race to the bottom in the private sector, we in the public service are experiencing a sustained attack to undermine pay and conditions through outsourcing.
“What an insult to trade union members that senior public service managers are tripping over themselves to outsource work to the private sector where employees are often denied union rights and proper pay rates and are exploited in pursuit of the fast buck. We cannot and will not accept outsourcing to feed the demands of IBEC, the employers’ confederation.”
The CPSU representative spoke of the criticism that public service workers receive from “experts” in Tony O’Reilly’s media who are playing their part in delivering the “neo-liberal Thatcherite agenda... which is not to better public services, but is a poorly-veiled drive to deliver business opportunities to the so-called captains of industry, to privatise public services and generate more opportunities for businesses to increase profits and cut wages costs and destroy working conditions built up by our predecessors in the union movement”.
SIPTU General President Jack O’Connor said that May Day is an opportunity to celebrate the collective solidarity of trade unionism as the only key weapon that has been effectively honed by working people in the struggle for their rights throughout history.
“Collective solidarity has been key and essential to all of human progress – contrary to the arguments of those who promote unfettered free market idea that ‘greed’ is pivotal in human progress.
“Look what the unfettered free marketeers have to offer us today with their crumbling financial system. They say that the sub-prime crisis is a mere malfunction of the system, a slight imperfection, but many of us, if not all, would recognise that the sub-prime crisis is as essential to the free-market system as the very existence of the stock exchange itself.”
On agency workers, Jack O’Connor said:
“We have 1.5 billion workers in the world available for exploitation which has spawned a massive employment agency industry which is dominated by five players worldwide – getting rich on the misery of others, speculating on the misery of others, trading on the commodities that are essential to human life.”
The SIPTU president called the employers’ body’s calls for wage restraint in the current pay talks “latter-day industrial blackmail” but reassured trade unionists that the unions will not give in to this.
He concluded by urging everyone to note that rhetorical speeches are not what is needed but “to discharge our historic obligations to workers” by ensuring that there is a sustained struggle for rights that does not lend itself to the division of workers.
Patricia McKeown, president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, addressed issues including low pay and agency workers. Her address made great efforts to reaffirm the all-Ireland aspect of ICTU and the gains they made over the years.
“There are six million people on this island and in the jurisdiction of ICTU and one million are our members. We can celebrate today the fact that there are more workers within our ranks on this island than ever before in our history. But there are also a million or more workers out there that aren’t in our ranks and part of that is very clearly our responsibility.
“We have made gains in the work that we’ve done over the past couple of years, particularly work initiated by women inside the trade union movement. About 30 per cent of those workers would join us if we asked them.”
The ICTU president also spoke of the solidarity shown between Irish trade unionists and worker-comrades overseas when she outlined how ICTU had passed a congress motion calling for a boycott of Israeli goods and which the Israeli ambassadors to Ireland and Britain demanded the withdrawal of. ICTU refused and Patricia McKeown reiterated this refusal. She said that they would not be forced to change it and concluded by saying that the international spotlight must now focus on the people of Palestine suffering gross human rights abuses.
Veteran trade unionist Sam Nolan, chair of the Dublin Council of Trade Unions, closed the evening with a speech focusing on the effects of international events on workers in Ireland such as the sub-prime mortgage crisis in America and the credit crunch. He concluded by saying that we had to remember the spirit of internationalism between trade unions and socialists on May Day.