ITGWU Centenary : SIPTU’s Jack O’Connor interviewed

Jack O'Connor

Published in An Phoblacht on 8 December 2008

NEXT year will mark the centenary of the foundation of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, the forerunner of SIPTU, Ireland’s largest trade union with more than 200,000 members. SIPTU’s general president Jack O’Connor spoke to An Phoblacht’s Emma Clancy this week about the union’s plans to celebrate 100 years of fighting for workers’ rights and the key challenges facing the trade union movement today.

JACK O’Connor explained that the foundation of the ITGWU by Jim Larkin in 1909 will be marked by SIPTU through a series of events throughout the year that, as well as marking the establishment of the union, will also commemorate key events including the Dublin Lockout and the execution of James Connolly.

“We want to celebrate a century of working for the rights and interests of working people and we invite all trade unionists, republicans and progressive-minded people to join us in doing so,” he said.

“The struggle launched by the ITGWU 100 years ago – to insist on democracy and equality in society by asserting the rights of labour – remains as important as ever. The rights and achievements won through generations of struggle by working people in Ireland are coming under a sustained and severe assault by business and government today. The best way we can commemorate the ITGWU is by defending the rights, working conditions and living standards we’ve won and ensuring we continue to move forward.”

Exacerbating crisis

O’Connor told An Phoblacht that the wealth generated during the Celtic Tiger years was squandered by Fianna Fáil-led governments instead of being strategically invested in order to achieve sustainable growth.

“With the global crash of the debt-ridden, unregulated financial market, we’re seeing the collapse of the neo-liberal model that the Irish governments and business have given slavish adherence to over the past 10 to 11 years,” he said.

“Economic expansion in Ireland as in other states was based on an increasing reliance on property-driven speculation as opposed to building a real economy and of course the folly of that approach is now painfully clear. The economy is set to contract by four per cent over the next year. We’ve never had an economic reduction of that abruptness and scale happen in this state. It is widely predicted that 10 per cent of the population will face unemployment next year.”

O’Connor said that the Irish Government is facing something of a collapse in the public finances and a deficit of €8 billion in projected income. “But the road it has chosen to go down in the Budget 2009 not only tries to shift the burden of paying for the crisis onto those least able to bear it, it is directly exacerbating the economic downturn,” he said.

SIPTU has pointed out that there has already been a reduction in the wages of workers across both the public and private sectors since 2005 in real terms, after inflation is taken into account. O’Connor explained that consumption in Ireland accounts for 48 per cent of the GDP and that the Budget 2009, by imposing a one per cent income tax levy on low and average-paid workers and raising VAT, has reduced the amount of money ordinary people can spend. He said this dampens the economy when demand needs to be stimulated and will cause the further loss of jobs.

Pay deal threatened

As part of the latest social partnership negotiations a statewide Transitional Pay Agreement was reached in September between the government, employers’ groups and most trade unions, including SIPTU. For the majority of workers covered the agreement provides for pay increases of six per cent over 21 months, with a 0.5 per cent additional increase for the low-paid. It also allows for a three-month pay pause in the private sector and an 11-month pause in the public sector.

Following the announcement of the deal, Sinn Féin slammed the government for its failure to deal with the issue of low pay, pointing out that the 0.5 per cent increase would amount to about an extra five cents per hour for low-paid workers. Unite members voted to reject the pay deal.

Describing the pay deal as “modest”, O’Connor said: “We respect that some view the agreement as unsatisfactory. Obviously we would have preferred to win higher pay increases for workers, particularly for low-paid workers, but in my opinion the terms negotiated were the best available in this specific context.”

Responding to the recent call by Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny for a suspension of the pay deal, O’Connor warned: “Given the severity of the crisis and the need for stability to regenerate the economy and given the modest nature of the pay deal, the government should be loath to touch the agreement.

“SIPTU utterly rejects the reactionary call by Fine Gael and by some within the governing coalition to renege on the Transitional Pay Agreement. First and foremost because public service workers have a right to receive a pay increase in line with inflation to maintain living standards but also because the suspension of the pay deal would exacerbate the economic recession and collapse consumption by seriously undermining workers’ ability and confidence to spend.

“The government should immediately, as a confidence-building measure, publicly affirm its commitment to fully implementing the pay deal.”

Construction

The Construction Industry Federation (CIF), one of the sectors that profited most through the social partnership during the boom, has rejected the Transitional Pay Agreement and has sought a 10 per cent pay cut across the board for building workers.

“For the CIF to reject the agreement is short-sighted in the extreme,” O’Connor said.

SIPTU and other trade unions covering workers in the construction sector have called on the government to refuse to award public contracts to builders that refuse to adhere to the pay deal.

“We will be insisting that the government honours its obligations under the agreement to ensure that only those employers who adhere to national pay policy qualify for publicly-funded contracts,” O’Connor said.

SIPTU is working with the other construction unions to develop a campaign to protect workers’ pay and conditions independently of the social partnership process.

Making the poor pay

Discussing the latest budget, O’Connor told An Phoblacht: “The government has ham-fistedly tried to rectify the gap in the public finances in the Budget 2009 through shifting the burden onto those least able to bear it – sectors it viewed as easy targets. Those who have done best through the boom years have not been asked to bear a fair share of tax.”

O’Connor said that the one per cent income tax levy essentially cancels out the 0.5 per cent additional pay increase for low-paid workers and acts as a brake on consumption.

“The government has stated its aim to cut public expenditure next year in order to balance the budget,” he said. “But we already have among the lowest level of public spending in western Europe.

“I think the tough question for the government is – can we continue to afford the luxury of having the lowest level of tax for the top tax rate in western Europe?”

O’Connor said: “The government should raise the top rate tax from its current 41 per cent back to 42 per cent and increase tax on non-residential property. In my view there is definitely a public willingness to accept that those who are better off as a result of the boom ought to pay higher tax on their wealth.

“It would have been far more acceptable to the majority of people for the government to do this than to make the attacks on vulnerable groups that it did in the budget. It wouldn’t have affected the government’s standing in the same way.”

Recovery

O’Connor outlined the strategy that SIPTU is advocating the government pursue in order to prevent further job losses and facilitate economic recovery. In addition to reversing the disastrous budget cuts on social services, and progressive taxation reform, SIPTU proposes that the government borrow strategically and expand its capital expenditure programme to ensure employment and stimulate growth.

O’Connor pointed out that the Dublin government is in a better position than most to engage in short-term borrowing with a net debt to GDP ratio of under 40 per cent, in comparison to an average Eurozone debt to GDP ratio of about 65 per cent.

“The government needs to restore confidence to the point where money is circulating in the economy in order to prevent massive job losses,” O’Connor said.

As well as public borrowing, SIPTU and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions are advocating the recapitalisation of the banks under public control, with protection for homeowners against repossession.

SIPTU has reported that following the massive government guarantee for the banks, Irish banks have now cut back drastically on lending to individuals and small and medium-sized enterprises in an attempt to improve their loan to deposit ratio.

O’Connor told An Phoblacht, “SIPTU is advocating the recapitalisation of the banking sector through a process of nationalisation and/or partial nationalisation of the Irish banks. We are opposed to recapitalisation happening through private equity funds. The €440 billion state guarantee has socialised the banking risks – and a process now of private capitalisation would result in privatised profits.”

Specifically, SIPTU is proposing that recapitalisation happen through a preference share issue by the state from the National Pension Reserve Fund.

“We want transparency and public control together with a guarantee for mortgage holders that their homes will not be repossessed,” O’Connor said. “With the possibility of 10 per cent of the workforce being unemployed next year, we believe the government must introduce a two-year moratorium on mortgage repayments for those who’ve lost their jobs and face eviction.”

Lisbon Treaty

Discussing the announcement by Taoiseach Brian Cowen last week at the EU summit that he would rerun the Lisbon Treaty referendum in the 26 counties by next October, O’Connor explained SIPTU’s position on the treaty.

“Irish workers have and will endorse ‘Social Europe’ but they will not support the savagery of the unfettered free-marketeerism and the ‘race to the bottom’ in the workplace which has become pre-eminent in recent years,” he said.

“When the Lisbon Treaty went to a referendum in June, SIPTU refused to call on its members to support it unless the Irish Government committed to domestic legislation enshrining the right to collectively bargain.

“The Charter of Fundamental Rights did not contain any significant shift or step forward for workers’ rights as some on the left claimed. Recent rulings by the European Court of Justice, combined with the fact that Ireland has no domestic legislation in place protecting the right of workers’ to collectively bargain or to protect workers from being targeted for their membership or activity in a trade union, gave working people little confidence in the government’s call for a yes vote.

“We won’t be departing from our insistence that legislation must be passed here before SIPTU would agree to support Lisbon. And we don’t believe the same proposition should be put to referendum again as it’s a rejection of the democratic will of the public who just voted in June to reject it.

Capital offensive

The SIPTU general president said, “What we are seeing internationally is global capital attempting to make working people pay for a crisis not of our making.

“In Ireland, we have these past five years been living through the most savage and sustained attack on the rights, wages and living standards of working people we’ve seen in at least 30 years.

“The attack has been two-pronged – based on the one hand on the exploitation by corporations of vulnerable migrant workers through employment agencies, which has seen a drive towards casualisation and a race to the bottom.

“The other key aspect of the attack has come from the government in the form of cutbacks on social services and an ideological campaign against public sector workers – paving the way for open attacks on the public sector.

“There is no doubt that the recession is prompting the intensification of these attacks and we can see that in the budget, in the response to the pay deal by the CIF, in the suggestion from Brian Lenihan that the public sector workers’ pay increase needs to be revisited.

“We are bound to see the intensification of the exploitation of agency workers Irish Ferries-style by the likes of the CIF and its head Tom Parlon.”

O’Connor explained that “SIPTU has been leading a progressive campaign for legislation that will combat and prevent the exploitation of these workers in and of itself and as a means to undermine established wages and conditions in this state.

“As for public sector workers – let us be clear about this. Average earnings in the public sector increased by only 1.7 per cent in the year to June 2008, while inflation was five per cent. Public servants have already taken a pay cut in real terms each year since 2005. These workers deserve to maintain a decent standard of living and have their pay keep in line with inflation.”

Organising

O’Connor described the key challenges facing the trade union movement in Ireland as being to secure legislation on a range of workers’ issues including the right to collective bargaining and industrial action, trade union recognition and further legislation to combat exploitation and social dumping.

“The social partnership has the potential to deliver a sustainable, democratic economy where workers’ rights are protected,” he said. “But this is dependent on our negotiating position which is determined by our ability to increase union membership and strength.”

O’Connor described the effort by SIPTU since 2004 to transform from a service-based union to one based on the organising model of trade unionism, which aims to overcome the steady decline in union membership that has taken place in most countries since the 1970s.

“In July we had a conference that tried to bring together the past five years of analysis and preparation to examine how to move forward with the necessary restructuring,” he said.

“The organising model is aimed at rectifying the absurd situation where more than 95 per cent of our resources are concentrated on the employers of the 35 per cent of workers who are organised in trade unions.”

He said that SIPTU has made slow but steady progress in moving towards the organising model, which aims to make joining and participating in union campaigns easier for workers who are not in unionised workplaces.

“Our strength is in our level of organisation,” he said. “We need to put in place mechanisms that can help us make this transition, increase the participation and input into the campaigns and activities of the union by as many workers as possible.”

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