5 November 2009 Edition
28th annual Feargal O'Hanlon Lecture addresses 100th anniversary of founding of the Irish Transport & General Workers' Union
The struggle now before us
A CAPACITY attendance at this year’s Volunteer Feargal O’Hanlon Memorial Lecture in the Teach na nDaoine Family Resource Centre in Monaghan Town heard the head of the Legal Rights Unit of SIPTU, Michael Halpenny, call for underpinning legislation for collective bargaining.
He also called for large turn-outs at all mobilisations called for by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to oppose cuts in public services and attacks on living standards and to demand action on job creation.
His address covered the story of the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union from the early years under Jim Larkin, James Connolly and William O’Brien, through the ‘glory years’ of the middle decades and right up to the present day and all the difficulties now facing workers and their families.
Without a break, without an interruption, this hour-plus enthusiastic presentation held the audience’s absolute attention.
The event was chaired by the Cathaoirleach of Monaghan Town Council, Cllr Seán Conlon. A vote of thanks was proposed by Cllr Pádraigín Uí Mhurchadha, sister of Feargal O’Hanlon, and seconded by Sinn Féin Dáil Leader and Cavan Monaghan TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin.
Michael Halpenny said it was a great honour to be invited to deliver this memorial lecture in memory of Feargal O’Hanlon on the 52nd anniversary of his sacrifice and said:
Occasions such as this give us an opportunity to reflect and to be inspired, particularly at this time, when there is so much evidence of naked self-interest on the part of some, and of the wreckage that it has brought upon our society and economy.
In contrast, Feargal O’Hanlon was a committed young republican who acted with honour on his principles and paid the ultimate price. You do not have to be a republican supporter in order to appreciate his honesty and his bravery.
It was said in the 1950s and 1960s that young men with ambition joined Fianna Fáil and young men with principles joined the Republican Movement. I have no doubt that Feargal O’Hanlon knew where he stood in that equation.
Having said that it is probably somewhat unfair to the founding parents of Fianna Fáil, who would no doubt look askance at the political development of some of their descendents. It is also probably unfair to the many decent ordinary supporters of the party. Equally, I would like to think that young people of principle would and do join the labour and trade union movement. In some cases, some have taken part in both the republican and the labour and trade union traditions.
Today, our, members along with ordinary workers through out the country, are facing possibly one of the greatest economic crises in any western democracy since the Second World War.
Admittedly, part of what we are experiencing is not just an Irish phenomenon but is part of the globalised world we live in, and in which there is little space for the concerns of ordinary working people.
The effect of globalisation has not just been to reconstruct the economic relationships between states but has been to facilitate an enormous transfer of wealth from the less-well-off to the rich and powerful. Now it has resulted in global financial chaos. While our country has been no exception to this, the effect has been magnified by home-grown problems.
Over the period of what we have come to know as the ‘Celtic Tiger’ – which certainly did not roar for everyone – we saw the promotion and the predominance of the ‘get-rich-quick’ merchants and their political allies, some of whom, in the now-decommissioned Progressive Democrats, departed the stage with impressive speed when the going got rough.
We were presented with the lure and myth of the ‘market’ that would solve everything. Gurus from the Chicago School of Economics down to back-page pundits in the Sunday newspapers bombarded us with the marketisation of our society and economy, sweeping all other considerations aside.
This view was expressed not just in terms of a continuing demand for privatisation of public services, but also in taxation policy. Between 1997 and 2002, there was a dramatic reorganisation of the tax structure in favour of the rich, slickly marketed under the guise of reducing the burden.
The rate of Capital Gains Tax was cut in half, inheritance tax was cut, the top rate was cut and there was a plethora of incentives to encourage investment schemes. Of course, the burden wasn’t reduced at all – it was merely transferred from direct to indirect sources, shifting it dramatically away from those at the top and disproportionately onto ordinary workers, citizens and consumers, particularly those struggling to put a roof over their heads.
This was an effective mechanism to promote the redistribution of wealth to the top. It was the motor force for the property speculation which ensued, and the lucrative tax advantages bestowed upon the rich, by a benevolent Government which saw them investing a far greater proportion in property than in the creation of sustainable enterprises.
Accompanying this, but far from overseeing it, was what has been known as ‘light touch’ regulation, which in reality could be better termed ‘look the other way’ regulation. In the financial area, things became so bad that in one business magazine, not noted for its left-wing militancy, reference was made to the financial ‘Wild West’!
Billions were recklessly borrowed abroad to fund this rollercoaster without any regard to what would happen when the music stopped. There was no one in Government willing or able to point out that the emperor had no clothes and those voices, including those who did query taxation and economic policy were put down as pessimists.
While, north and south of the border, ordinary workers and their families are facing enormous financial and economic difficulty, in the South the policies of ‘smash and grab’ economics and the promotion of the property-led bubble has made an equal, if not greater, contribution.
In their response to the crisis, the Government have concentrated their efforts on providing support to the very sector and the very institutions which are at the heart of the recent disaster – the banks. In September of 2008 they gave a gilt-edged guarantee to the banks to the tune of €400 billion in the name of the Irish taxpayer. The effect of this has been to trap not just the Government but all of us, and probably the next generation, in to the toxic net created by the speculators, the banks and others. This has been compounded now with the creation of NAMA. And notwithstanding the acres of newsprint on the subject and the many hours of Dáil time given over to discussing its merits or demerits, the truth is that no one knows what the consequences will be for this generation or the next. One thing is almost certain – and that is that history will be measured before and after NAMA.
Against that backdrop, it is astounding that there has been a super-human attempt on the part of some to rewrite the history of the last decade or so and to assert that the whole problem is essentially due to the expansion of public spending during the boom years.
We are now expected to believe that the blame lies with workers in the public service, and in their pay and conditions.
Furthermore, workers in the private sector are being extolled to accept pay cuts and inevitable reductions in public service, while those dependent on social welfare are bracing themselves for an assault on their marginal existence.
It is clear that all of this is designed to ensure that those who are least culpable for the economic disaster, visited upon us by the greed of some and the negligence of others, will now bear the lion’s share of the burden.
The devastatingly obvious fact, however, is that no county council drainage worker, no firefighter, no teacher and no health worker had hand act or part in the creation of the toxic mess that has been dumped on all our doorsteps.
A more pernicious aspect of all this is the attempt to drive a wedge between public and private sector workers as part of a drive to cut wages across the economy, on all workers, whether in public or private sectors, trade union organised or not.
Attempts by the trade unions and others to argue for revision in taxation, particularly at the top, as a fairer way of dealing with the situation, are derided and rebuffed. Instead we are visited with the McCarthy Report and exaggerated arguments about labour costs. The facts are, however, that between 2005 and 2009, the rate of increase of professional and management earnings was twice that of ordinary workers in the public and private sectors.
But there is another way which is fair to all. The ICTU has put forward a 10-point plan for a Social Solidarity Pact as the basis for agreement, around which all sectors of our society could be mobilised to tackle the immense economic and social problems which challenge us.
These include the prioritisation of job retention funding, measures to assist those in the private sector who’s pensions are compromised by the recent collapse in global markets, and a moratorium on house repossessions for at least two years, where people have become unemployed or, due to income reduction, are unable to service their commitments.
However, these and other reassurances against compulsory redundancy, and further pay and pension cuts in the public service, as well as a renegotiated pay agreement, would have benefited hundreds of thousands of working people and their families, as well as contributing to the restoration of confidence and stability.
Despite the fact that this approach was dismissed by the Minister for Finance at the time, it remains the focus for a better, fairer way for all, as opposed to the sledgehammer approach which the Government is now being encouraged to adopt by some on the employers’ side.
We need a clear, transparent agreement which recognises and deals with the challenges we all face on a fair and equitable basis, ensuring that those who can bear the most do so, and those who can bear the least are protected.
We need to ensure that access to public service remains an entitlement for citizens, and not a consumer choice for those who can afford it.
Furthermore, this crisis provides an opportunity for us to emerge as a better, fairer society with human rights, not as an optional extra but at the core of what we are about.
Given the enormous problems faced by workers, including our own members on both sides of the border, this is also an opportunity to further the development of an all-Ireland economy, and the delivery of the human rights agenda envisaged in the St Andrew’s Agreement.
Above all, we need to understand that there are those, temporarily winded on the sidelines, who are waiting to come back on to the pitch and carry on business as normal, as if nothing ever happened, as if they had no responsibility for this debacle.
We already have reports of banks outside of Ireland resuming the award of massive bonuses to the top echelons. Therefore, what we need now more than ever, is the abandonment of the ‘look the other way’ regulation culture and the implementation of robust measures to make sure that banks, corporations, directors of whatever hue, and all who control and affect our economy behave properly and are accountable.
The brave men and women around Larkin and Connolly who founded our union recognised that in order to meet the challenge faced by ordinary workers and their families they needed to organise so that their voice would be heard and taken account of. They had to do this in order to ensure that they would be dealt with, and not dealt at.
The hundred years that have passed since the foundation of the union have reinforced that essential task. Now we have to continue building an organising union to meet the global challenge of the era in which we find ourselves.
We also have to build alliances on a global basis with other unions in Europe, the USA and Australia for example, in order that the workers can match the global organisation of capital.
Another primary challenge is to deal with the fact that we still do not have legislation to underpin collective bargaining in the South. Ironically, such legislation exists in the North, and you have the paradoxical situation whereby a member of ours in Newry has more rights in this regard than a member in Monaghan. We have to organise to change that.
Most of all, we need to understand that while we can be inspired by the great men and women sung and unsung of the past, this is our watch and it’s our job to carry on the task created by them.
It is hard to measure the success or failure of a movement such as ours where the need for it is ongoing. You could say that, given all the challenges it has faced over one hundred years, survival itself is a success. But this is not about success and failure – it is about using the mighty weapon that has been forged for us by those previous generations to meet the struggles of today.
That struggle has now been placed squarely before us by the response of the Government and the employers to the economic crisis. The challenge now to us is to stand up for a better fairer way for all the people. It is a challenge that will be instantly recognisable to the people who came before us, and they would expect us, on our watch, to meet it with the same resolution and determination.
If there is a ‘Patriot Game’ to be played, it’s certainly not the one which is paraded out by chancers who glibly talk about ‘Ireland Inc’. Rather it is the expression of a movement of ordinary people in our communities, in our organisations and in our trade unions to ensure that our voice is heard and taken account of, and we have an equal part in forging a better future for our children.
Perhaps the last word should be left to a man from Donegal who was a national school teacher, republican activist and union organiser for the ITGWU. His name was Peadar O’Donnell and it was he who planted the Red Flag over Monaghan town in 1919. I saw him as an old man on the stage of Liberty Hall at a meeting at which he said:
“No one has the right to repeat the mistakes of the past for which people have paid so dearly.”
FAIRER WAY: The ICTU 10-point plan shows that all sectors of our society could be mobilised to tackle the immense economic and social problems which challenge us