Dublin Lockout: The Risen People

Bloody Sunday baton charge

Bloody Sunday baton charge

Published in the CFMEU WA Branch Journal in September 2013

Irish trade unionists are marking the centenary of the 1913 Dublin Lockout, the most significant labour dispute in Irish history. Led by ‘Big Jim’ Larkin, the people of Dublin’s slums fought a five-month battle with the city’s major employers over the right to union recognition. It was a fight that affected 20,000 workers and their 80,000 family members, and included deadly street battles with police.

The Lockout, which began in August 1913, was no spontaneous dispute. It was a conscious attempt by businessman and media magnate William Martin Murphy to nip the growing power of the newly formed ITGWU in the bud. The Irish Transport and General Workers Union was formed by Larkin in 1909 and by 1913 it had won several improvements for members across Ireland.

Ireland in the first two decades of the 20th century was experiencing major political upheaval, with suffragettes, radical nationalists and republicans organising powerful movements for change. With brutal working and living conditions, the radicalisation among working people that took place in Dublin during this period – led by Larkin and fellow socialist and trade unionist James Connolly – was little wonder.

Slum city

Dublin in 1913 was a city of slums – of impoverished people living in squalor in over-crowded tenement housing. Shortly after the Lockout began in August 1913, two overcrowded four-storey tenements on Church Street collapsed, killing seven people.

An inquiry into the disaster reported on housing conditions in the city the following year, stating that of the 400,000 residents of Dublin, almost 90,000 lived in tenements in the city centre, with 80% of these families living in a single room. The Church St disaster inquiry reported that: “We have visited one house that we found to be occupied by 98 persons, another by 74 and a third by 73.”

Overcrowding, malnutrition and poor sanitation meant disease thrived, with the most dreaded being the deadly tuberculosis. A Census in 1911 found that Dublin had a mortality rate as high as Calcutta’s, and that one in five deaths that year was of a child under the age of one.

Larkin forms ‘One Big Union’

Dublin lacked an industrial base and its workers were mainly unskilled and employed on a casual basis. Around 50,000 people depended on work on the docks, in transport, the building trade and a limited number of factories and workshops.

Labourers could be replaced at a moment’s notice from a pool of thousands, many from the countryside, who carried with them the recent memory of the Famine. There was a readiness to work for any wage and in any conditions. Unemployment was 20%, and workers were often paid their wages in pubs.

This was the city into which Larkin arrived in 1909. Born in Liverpool, Larkin joined the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) in England. He led the successful dockers’ and carters’ strike in Belfast in 1907 – during which the display of Protestant and Catholic working-class unity shook the Belfast establishment. Larkin fell out with the NUDL leadership in 1908 and set up the ITGWU in 1909. By 1913, the ITGWU operated out of Liberty Hall in Dublin with a membership of around 10,000, and The Irish Worker, launched in 1911, had a circulation of 90,000.

Larkin was a charismatic and powerful orator who was fiercely loved by Dublin’s working people. A syndicalist, Larkin was especially adept at using the ‘sympathetic strike’ to win better conditions for workers. The sympathetic strike was when workers acted in solidarity with striking workers by refusing to deal with companies whose employees were on strike, and the tactic was effectively used by the ITGWU between 1909 and 1913 in Cork, Derry and Wexford.

One major employer who was paying close attention to the ITGWU’s success was businessman William Martin Murphy. Murphy owned the Irish Independent newspaper, Clery’s Department Store, the Imperial Hotel and the Dublin United Tramways Company, among other interests. In 1911, Murphy formed the Dublin Employers’ Federation which drew together more than 400 bosses into a powerful organisation intent on smashing the ITGWU.

‘Your union or your job’

Murphy fired the first shot in the dispute in 1913 by sacking around 40 workers in the Irish Independent after literally offering them the choice: “Your union or your job”. In July he forbade transport workers in the Tramways Company from being ITGWU members. He warned his staff a strike would fail, saying company leaders would have three meals a day regardless of the outcome, but “I don’t know if the men who go out can count on this”.

In a planned challenge to the ITGWU, on 21 August more than 100 workers at the Tramways Company received a dismissal notice. As large numbers travelled to the Dublin Horse Show on 26 August, drivers and conductors stopped the city’s trams and walked off. Larkin called on workers in other companies owned by Murphy or dealing with him to join the strike in solidarity. James Connolly, then ITGWU secretary in Belfast, was brought to Dublin to help run the strike.

On 31 August, Larkin addressed a banned demonstration on Sackville St – now O’Connell St – from the balcony of Murphy’s Imperial Hotel. Connolly and other leaders had already been arrested, and Larkin too was immediately. The Dublin Metropolitan Police baton-charged the crowd so violently that the day became known as Bloody Sunday – the first of three ‘Bloody Sundays’ in Ireland in the 20th century.

Two men – James Nolan and John Byrne – had their skulls fractured by police batons and later died. An ITGWU representative from Dun Laoghaire, James Byrne, died in November following a hunger strike in Mountjoy jail. Another striker, 16-year-old Alice Brady, was shot dead by a scab as she returned to her home with a donated food box.

Tension between the police and workers rose, with police smashing up the tenements by night. Rioting and street battles with police took place across the city throughout the Lockout, leading Connolly to found the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) as a workers’ self-defence organisation. At a time when women in Ireland were still fighting for the vote, the ICA accepted women as full and equal members.

As thousands of workers were attending the funeral of James Nolan on September 3, the Dublin Employers Federation met and issued the “pledge” document – which employees would be forced to sign or face immediate dismissal – and the strike became a lockout.

The pledge read:

I hereby undertake to carry out all instructions given to me by or on behalf of my employers, and further, I agree to immediately resign my membership of the ITGWU (if a member) and I further undertake that I will not join or in any way support this union.

Thousands of workers refused to sign – including many who were not ITGWU members. Rosie Hackett, a co-founder of the Irish Women Workers Union in 1911 with Delia Larkin, Constance Markievicz and others, organised women in Jacobs’ factory in support of the strike. Other major bosses joined the Lockout and by the end of September, 20,000 workers were locked out for refusing to sign the pledge.

Hunger sets in

The ITGWU paid strike wages but it wasn’t enough and hunger and desperation set in. Soup kitchens were run from Liberty Hall, union headquarters. The British Trade Union Congress voted in September to provide food and material assistance, with more than £150,000 donated from unions in Britain, the US and Australia. On 28 September a ship arrived from Britain with 60,000 ‘family boxes’ of food for the striking workers, which provided a vital morale boost.

James Larkin

James Larkin

Larkin spent several brief periods in jail for sedition and incitement, and between these periods he spent time in England in September and November trying to organise support. Connolly continued the organisation of the strike at home. While sympathetic strikes took place in several English cities, the British trade union leadership failed to call a general strike as advocated by Larkin and Connolly.

Conferences took place between workers, bosses and a union delegation to try to resolve the dispute, but failed as a result of the employers’ refusal to recognise the ITGWU. The workers faced the full force of the police, backed up by the military, as well as a fierce campaign of vilification of “Larkinism” by the clergy and media.

A hollow victory

Hunger spread as winter deepened, and there was simply not enough resources to sustain so many workers and their families, who were beginning to starve. By January the striking workers had lost all hope and began to file back to work, with the ITGWU deciding on 18 January to end the strike. The union advised workers to return to work without signing the document if possible, but in most cases it wasn’t.

But Murphy’s victory was hollow. He believed he had smashed the ITGWU but within a short period workers who had signed the pledge never to join the ITGWU did just that. The union did not have official recognition but employers were not willing to risk another lockout of union members and by 1920 the ITGWU had 100,000 members, 10 times more than in 1913. The attempt to destroy trade unionism in Ireland had clearly failed.

The Lockout was a defining point in Irish history and is rightly commemorated as such 100 years later. Poet Austin Clarke wrote that Larkin’s name endures, “scrawled in rage by Dublin’s poor”. This roar of the city’s impoverished workers meant the brutal conditions they endured could no longer be ignored and began to change.

Crucially, the fight put up by these workers meant that at this turbulent point in Irish history, the working class had a political voice – a voice that influenced middle-class nationalists such as Pádraig Pearse, who together with Connolly led the Easter Rising against British rule in Ireland in 1916. Both were executed within weeks of the Rising.

Unfinished business

In O’Connell St today stands a monument to Larkin with his famous phrase from the Lockout period engraved in the stone: “The great appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise.”

The question of union recognition remains unresolved in Ireland today, which is one of only three EU states that lacks a legislated right to collective bargaining. Poverty, unemployment and emigration have soared after five years of austerity, and the injustice of the massive public debt undertaken by the government’s bailout of corrupt banks is bitterly felt. Austerity is not working for workers and their families right across Europe, and the Murphys of today should take note.

The centenary commemorations of the Lockout during the current crisis are helping a new generation understand the meaning of the central slogan used by the striking workers in 1913 – that ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’ – as they organise to defend hard-won working and social conditions.

Irish workers facing exploitation in Australia

Pearse Doherty, Sinn Féin TD, visited Australia in 2012 and addressed the issue of Irish workers' rights

Pearse Doherty, Sinn Féin TD, visited Australia in 2012 and addressed the issue of Irish workers’ rights

Published in An Phoblacht in August 2012

The economic crisis in Ireland is of such magnitude that it dominates everybody’s lives.

In the 26 Counties, there are now more than 450,000 people out of work and the unemployment rate has reached 14.6%. The collapse of the building industry has left more than 100,000 construction workers jobless. Youth unemployment has trebled since 2008. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions recently stated that one in three men under the age of 25 is unable to find work.

These figures are actually masked by the soaring level of emigration from this state, with 70,000 Irish citizens now emigrating each year. Rural Ireland and the west of the country have been hardest hit. An entire generation of young people have been driven overseas in scenes reminiscent of the 1950s and 1980s. In County Leitrim, half of those between the ages of 22 and 26 have left.

Earlier this year, Fine Gael Government Minister Michael Noonan added insult to injury by claiming that emigration from Ireland was a “lifestyle choice”. Forced emigration is not a lifestyle choice. It is an indictment of the failure of this government, and the previous Fianna Fáil-led government, to implement a growth agenda that can create and retain jobs.

The fact is that the Fine Gael//Labour Party Coalition Government is happy to see emigration soar because it acts as a pressure valve for them in a situation where they have utterly failed to introduce an effective job-creation strategy.

Destination Australia 

Together with Britain and Canada, one of the main destinations for Irish citizens is Australia. The Australian economy is performing better than any other in the developed world – due in part to a resources boom but also because the Australian Government responded to the global financial crisis of 2008 with an effective stimulus programme instead of austerity.

In the past four years, tens of thousands of Irish citizens have emigrated to Australia in search of work. Most Irish workers are employed in the construction, mining, healthcare and hospitality industries. They are in Australia on two main types of visas: Working Holiday visas and Temporary Skilled Worker visas (‘457 visas’).

Working Holiday visas are granted to people aged between 18 and 30 for one year, and can be extended for a second year if the person meets certain requirements. 457 visas are granted to a skilled worker and his or her dependents for up to four years by employer sponsorship, and may be converted to permanent residency if the employer supports the visa-holder’s application.

Australian Government figures show that in the past year there was a 70% rise in the number of 457 visas granted to Irish citizens on the previous year. Between July 2011 and April this year, more than 8,000 457 visas were granted to Irish nationals, with about a quarter of these in the construction and mining sectors. Ireland is now the third-largest source of temporary skilled migrants through the 457 programme.

More than 22,000 Working Holiday visas were also granted to Irish citizens in 2011, almost double the number granted the previous year.

Migrant workers vulnerable

There is evidence that some Irish workers are being exploited in the workplace in Australia as they are dependent on their employer for their visa to be maintained, extended and possibly converted to permanent residency. Any workers beholden to their employer for their residency rights are naturally going to be vulnerable to exploitation and reluctant to speak up if their rights are being abused.

Australian trade unions have dubbed 457 workers ‘bonded labour’.

There are parallels between the way migrant workers are used in Australia with the way agency workers and posted workers have been abused in Ireland and across the EU. As we know from our own experience, the creation of a group of second-class workers can be used by unscrupulous employers to lower wages, conditions and rights across the board.

In Ireland, Sinn Féin has called for a Government-led job creation strategy and outlined our plan for a 13billion euro stimulus programme that could create 130,000 jobs over three years, based on existing sources of funds available to the Government.

We want to see a fundamental shift from an austerity agenda to a growth agenda so that young Irish citizens have a future in their own country. And the last thing we want to see is Irish workers being underpaid and exploited in a country they have been forced to emigrate to.

Examples of exploitation

Issues facing Irish workers in Australia include underpayment; the denial of entitlements such as leave and workers’ compensation; and diminished safety standards on sites where migrant workers are concentrated.

1) Underpayment

In the past, workers employed under the 457 visa programme were only entitled to be paid a minimum salary. The Australian trade union movement campaigned for guest workers to be paid at the market rate, and in 2008 the Australian Government legislated for this right. Now employers are legally bound to ensure that 457 workers receive the same pay and conditions as Australian workers or permanent residents in the same workplace.

There is mounting evidence gathered by the trade unions that employers continue to pay 457 visa workers less – in some cases dramatically less – than the going rate.

The reasons why temporary workers are vulnerable to exploitation and underpayment were investigated and documented in the 2008 Government-commissioned Deegan Review of the 457 visa system, which pointed to the high degree of power employers wield over guest workers in relation to their residency rights.

2) Sham contracting

‘Sham contracting’ occurs when a company tells a worker to obtain an Australian Business Number (ABN) and then signs them up as an ‘independent contractor’ instead of as an employee. Companies use this practice to evade their responsibilities to their employees and deny them their proper rights and entitlements.

While in reality the worker is an employee of a company, the ABN system allows the employer to avoid paying leave, overtime and redundancy payments, and workers’ compensation insurance.

This is another way of driving down pay and conditions across the board, and temporary workers are especially vulnerable to this practice, which in addition to underpaying these workers provides them with no recourse whatsoever if injured in the work place.

Trade unions have noted that there are a large number of Irish workers on both types of visa in this situation, even though 457 visa-holders are not actually legally entitled to work under the ABN system. The threat of withdrawing sponsorship forces many Irish workers into sham contracting arrangements in which they are being denied their basic entitlements.

3) Unsafe sites

Construction and mining, together with road transport, are the most dangerous industries in Australia.

In the construction industry, on average one worker a week loses their life on site. Figures have shown that restrictions on the right of unions to enter sites for safety reasons between 2004 and 2009 resulted in a corresponding rise in workplace accidents, injuries and deaths in the industry.

The fact is that union sites are safer sites.

Irish workers and other migrant workers in the construction sector are concentrated in non-union sites and have low rates of union membership. Trade unions have pointed out that this low level of union membership among migrant workers is at least partially related to the nature of the visa system and the power relationship between the employer and worker.

Benefits of union membership 

The economic crisis in Ireland is set to continue, and emigration is likely to continue to rise over the next number of years.

There are also moves in Australia to expand mass temporary migration schemes, called Enterprise Migration Agreements, using 457 visa workers, as well as moves to reduce the skill level required to gain a 457 visa under these schemes. As the temporary worker programmes expand they will attract more Irish citizens to Australia.

Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty, due to visit Australia in September 2012, told An Phoblacht: “Sinn Féin encourages every Irish worker in Australia, and all those planning to emigrate here, to make sure their rights at work are protected. The best way to do this is to join the union as soon as they arrive in the country.

“Trade unions can provide protection against underpayment, denial of entitlements, unsafe conditions, and threats of deportation by an employer.

“Australian trade unions are campaigning against the abuse of the migrant worker system by employers, and in favour of equal rights, conditions and protections for migrant workers. They are right to do so.

“Sinn Féin has consistently defended the rights of agency workers in Ireland and Europe and demanded equal rights for all workers in order to stop the ‘race to the bottom’ on wages and conditions. Just as we, together with the Irish trade union movement, have campaigned for legislation to combat the exploitation of agency workers in Ireland, Australian trade unionists are trying to prevent the creation of a group of second-class workers.

“The existing protections for temporary workers have only been achieved by union campaigns for equality.

“The trade union movement has made an enormous contribution to improving the lives and wellbeing of working people in Australia, and the Irish community has played a vital role in building and leading that movement.

“We urge Irish workers in Australia to join their union not only to continue this tradition but to ensure that their rights at work are protected.”

Know Your Rights: Download a pamphlet prepared for Irish workers in Australia here.

Community stands behind sacked Ford workers


Gerry Adams with Visteon workers


Published in An Phoblacht on 9 April 2009

Hundreds of people joined a march in Belfast on Wednesday, 8 April in support of the 210 Visteon workers sacked on 31 May. The staff, who had been employed by US motoring giant Ford until it set up spin-off company Visteon in 2000, were entering their second week occupying the west Belfast car parts factory site in protest at the companies’ breach of redundancy terms.

Speaking to An Phoblacht, Sinn Féin west Belfast MLA Jennifer McCann, who addressed Wednesday’s community rally, said: “The workers have said they are very much heartened by the outpouring of solidarity from the west Belfast community and beyond since they began their fight to defend their basic rights and legal entitlements.”

Lifetime protection?

When Ford spun the parts manufacturing operation off into a new company, called Visteon UK, in 2000, the workers were guaranteed “lifetime protection” – that their pay and conditions would “mirror” those they worked under at Ford under their new employment contracts with Visteon.

But instead of getting the agreed 90 days’ notice for the redundancies, the workers got five minutes. While they are entitled to a minimum of 12 to 18 months wages as a redundancy payment plus pension in the event of a plant’s closure, the workers have now been told they can only claim statutory redundancy of about £9,000 pounds, and Visteon claims its pension fund is £150 million in deficit.

On the same day that Visteon sacked its Belfast workforce, it also fired hundreds of workers at two of its plants in England. After seeing the Belfast sit-in on the news, the workers in Enfield, north London and Basildon, Essex, organised occupations and protests at their factory sites.

Workers from Waterford Crystal, who began a seven-week occupation of their factory to save jobs in January, donated €5,000 to the west Belfast workers.

Local representatives, trade unionists and the broader community have supported the west Belfast workers by bringing food and supplies and joining hundreds of people in a family fun day in solidarity on Sunday. Speaking at the fun day, MLA and MP for west Belfast Gerry Adams said: “Ford cannot be allowed to renege on its responsibilities to the Visteon workers. Workers’ rights must be protected.

“Sinn Féin is committed to pursuing this issue. We will stand shoulder to shoulder with the Visteon workers until they are treated properly.”

Adams has argued the workers’ case with John Fleming, chief executive of Ford Europe, and the New York City Comptroller’s office, which has investments in Ford.

Ford’s obligations

Administrators KMPG said it had been “assured” by Ford that the auto giant had “no liability” to the Visteon UK staff and that Ford and Visteon are two separate legal entities.

But a legal document signed by Ford and Visteon management and union representatives in January 2000, supplied to An Phoblacht by Visteon staff, states:  “Accrued seniority and all existing terms and conditions, in particular pension entitlements, will be transferred to the new employment contracts. For the duration of their employment, terms and conditions of existing Ford employees, who transfer … will mirror Ford conditions (lifetime protection).”

A questions and answers document circulated to staff in 2000 said: “For the duration of your employment with Visteon UK, your terms and conditions . . . will mirror Ford conditions.”

A confidential internal Visteon document called Project Protea from May 21 2007 outlines the plan to shut down the Belfast plant.

“Belfast’s financial performance is impaired by uncompetitive labour costs,” the document says. Visteon’s strategy was to: “Develop duplicate sources for all the Belfast product lines by the end of 2007 …. Minimise information leaks by creating isolated project teams…. and engage Ford for assistance in transferring products to new locations.”

Many workers believe that after setting up Visteon UK as a “separate” company – which only made parts for Ford – the plants have been run into the ground, allowing Ford to set up shop or expand in states with lower wages while reneging on its obligations to its workforce here.

In 2007 another company was set up, Visteon Engineering Services, which 400 mainly engineering and administrative staff were transferred to from Visteon UK. Conveniently, most of the management of Visteon UK transferred their pensions into this new company, which has not been affected by the demise of Visteon UK and continues to trade.

Meanwhile, Visteon Corporation chief executive Donald J Stebbins took home US$1.48 million in cash and bonuses last year. The relationship between the web of companies around Ford and  records of their financial dealings with each other are not available publicly.

Derek Simpson, Unite’s joint general secretary, said: “I am convinced that Ford have a moral obligation to these workers who have been cruelly laid off with only a few minutes’ notice. Visteon have a contractual obligation, as well as a moral obligation to these workers.”

Unite is meeting Ford managers in New York on Wednesday for discussions about the redundancy terms. Union leaders said if the outcome of the talks is not satisfactory, the sit-in will continue.

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.”


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.”


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.”


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.”

Lisbon Treaty — dumping social Europe

Irish Ferries

Published in An Phoblacht on 5 June 2008

THE Executive Council of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which represents more than 600,000 workers, has voted to support the campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote on the Lisbon Treaty referendum. Leaders of ICTU, including its president, David Begg, have claimed that the treaty will be a step forward for workers’ rights as the Charter of Fundamental Rights seemingly enshrines the right to strike. Some of the individual unions affiliated to the ICTU are calling for a ‘No’ vote, including Unite, one of Congress’s largest affiliates. The Technical, Engineering and Electrical Union (TEEU) is recommending its 45,000 members vote ‘No’, and the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), representing more than 200,000 workers, has said it will not support the Lisbon Treaty unless the Irish Government commits to legislating for collective bargaining for workers.

No right to strike

Even a cursory glance at the text of the treaty shows the claim that it provides new protection for workers’ rights to be false.

While Article 28 states that workers may “take collective action to defend their interests, including strike action”, it immediately qualifies this “fundamental right” by explaining that “the limits for the exercise of collective action, including strike action, come under national laws and practices”.

The British Government is clearly satisfied that the treaty’s charter does not grant the right to strike. The British Trade Unionists Against the EU Constitution pamphlet, The Big EU Con Trick, quotes a British Foreign Office spokesperson as saying explicitly: “The charter doesn’t create any new rights. We spent a very long time looking at this, in particular the disputed article. It does not create the right to strike.”

Lisbon pits the “fundamental right” of workers to take collective action against the apparently even more fundamental right of capital to unrestricted movement, unbound by the national industrial laws, agreements and standards of the host countries.

Conflicting rights of employers and workers will be ruled on by a strengthened European Court of Justice (ECJ). The European Trade Union Confederation has described several recent ECJ rulings as “an open invitation to social dumping”, launching a race to the bottom for workers’ wages, conditions and rights.

Race to the bottom

Some of the recent ECJ rulings on disputes include:

The Rüffert Case

German company Objekt und Bauregie employed a Polish sub-contractor to employ Polish building workers, posted to Germany, on less than half the minimum wage agreed by German trade unions and employer associations.

On 3 April, the ECJ ruled that O&B should not be bound by the local Lower Saxony law that states public building contractors must abide by the existing collective agreements. The court found that while member states may impose minimum pay rates on foreign companies posting workers in their state, the local law restricted the “freedom to provide services” and was not justified by the aim of protecting the workers because workers in the private sector were not covered by such protections! In essence, this ruling outlaws above-minimum wages and conditions being included in public tender contracts.

The Laval Case

In 2004, Latvian firm Laval posted Latvian construction workers to Sweden and refused to acknowledge the existing collective agreement with the Swedish Building Workers’ Union.

As Sweden has a well-functioning collective bargaining and agreement system and does not have an across-the-board minimum wage bound in law, Laval claimed that it was not obliged to pay the rates collectively agreed in the building sector.

The Swedish building union took collective action. Laval claimed to the ECJ that it was being discriminated against on the grounds of nationality and that the Swedish union was infringing upon its right to provide services.

The court found that companies or “service providers” from another EU state are obliged to abide by the host agreement but collective action must be “proportional”. This means that the ECJ believes workers do have the right to take industrial action… but only when the minimum wage or conditions of the host country, or the minimum working conditions set out in the Posting of Workers Directive are being breached by the employer.

The Viking Case

In order to cut costs, the Finnish shipping company Viking Line attempted to re-flag its ships as Estonian and operate out of Estonia.

When two Finnish maritime unions organised a blockade of Viking Line, Viking took its case to the ECJ: again, the claim was that the company’s right to freedom of movement was being restricted by the industrial action of the workers. And again, in December 2007, while the court found that collective action to protect posted workers from exploitation was legal, the unions had restricted Viking Line’s right of establishment.

Lip service to workers’ rights

In all of these cases where the ECJ has taken into account the proposed Charter of Fundamental Rights, the court has paid lip service to workers’ rights and found in favour of the company.

Three things are clear from these cases and from the text of the Lisbon Treaty:

1) The right to take collective industrial action is not guaranteed as it is subject to member states’ national laws;

2) The right to take collective action to prevent the exploitation of posted workers by foreign service providers is subject to the company’s right to freedom of movement and establishment under the EU Services Directive – a right which the ECJ has repeatedly and consistently upheld as being superior to workers’ rights;

3) The collective action of workers and unions taken against foreign service providers is only deemed legitimate if it is “proportional” – that is, in defence of the most basic minimum conditions agreed on by EU bodies or set in law by the host country. What happens if workers want to take collective action in order to improve their conditions? The pattern will emerge where the minimum standards become the maximum. The higher-than-average conditions that may be included in public sector agreements are an infringement of the right to establishment.

Breaking union power

These ECJ rulings, combined with the provisions for privatisation and the removal of “distortions” from the market contained in Lisbon, are a recipe for the equalisation downwards of the working and living standards of the people of Europe while the corporations that played a key role in drafting Lisbon increase their profit-making capacity.

The recent failure of the EU to establish directives to protect agency workers and maritime workers from social dumping practices and exploitation, which Sinn Féin MEPs have campaigned for, and the EU Commission’s Green Paper, Modernising Labour Law to Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century, are further evidence of the anti-worker push from Brussels.

Among other things, Lisbon aims to create the legal basis and power to enforce the process of rendering trade unions in Europe powerless by allowing employers to avoid the collective bargaining process established in each country. The result will be the continuing and unchallenged severe exploitation of Eastern European workers and increased job displacement, de-unionisation and falling conditions in the West, with public services fought for and won through generations of struggle throughout Europe being put up for sale.

It’s in the interests of all the working people of Europe for Irish workers and trade unionists to vote ‘No’ to Lisbon on 12 June.