President Michael D Higgins has said that the continued success and existence of the trade union movement will decide whether the dignity of labour is upheld not only in the work-setting but in society.
Speaking at the opening of the union’s delegate conference in Killarney the President congratulated those involved in the “great task” of creating a “stronger and larger union” at Fórsa’s first national conference.
Speaking in Killarney President Higgins said the amalgamation of the Civil and Public Service Union, the Public Service Executive Union and IMPACT has united over 80,000 members in a spirit of solidarity and comradeship.
Fórsa was formed earlier this year after members of IMPACT, the Civil, Public and Services Union (CPSU), and the Public Service Executive Union (PSEU) voted overwhelmingly to amalgamate the three organisations.
Fórsa represents members in the public service, as well as the commercial sector, state agencies, some private companies and in the community and voluntary sector.
Fórsa is the second largest union on the island of Ireland.
In a wide ranging speech President Higgins recognised the contribution of public servants and their unions and paid tribute to "public sector trade unions who have fought tirelessly, across the decades, for the achievement of equality and dignity for their members.
“You have played a significant role in the establishment of a wide variety of employment rights legislation creating an enhanced working environment for all our people, and fought discrimination in the workplace and in society.
“As public and civil servants, and as workers in strategic sectors of the economy, you are also at the very centre of three great challenges: mitigating climate change, welcoming and managing migration, and ensuring sustainable development.”
He said the battle for decent work would be among the defining struggles of the coming decades.
“It will test the capacity of the trade union movement not only to organise previously unorganised, workers, but also to engage with new ideas and new practices. It will require the commitment and support of all members and those who support the extension and deepening of democracy in society,” he said.
President Higgins went on to say he had witnessed the “outstanding” work carried out by public servants across the country.
“My work also allows me to regularly see the excellent work carried out by those public servants on an everyday basis who are not on the front line of service provision but who also bring to their work a dedication to public service across all areas of public life from tax administration to environmental protection, from social protection to enterprise policy,” he added.
The President concluded with an appeal for all those present to use their mandate and "seek to reclaim an understanding of work as the foundation for the achievement of other human rights and a strong base for a life of dignity, fulfilment and flourishing."
It is a great pleasure to be here today to celebrate this most important moment in the history of trade unionism in Ireland: the first National Conference of Fórsa. The establishment of Fórsa represents the culmination of much dedicated labour, careful negotiation, and necessary compromise to create what is a stronger and larger union, one that is now the second largest trade union in the country. May I commend all those of you involved in this great task.
The amalgamation of the Civil & Public Service Union, the Public Service Executive Union and IMPACT has united over 80,000 members from across the civil and public services, commercial and non-commercial semi-state organisations, the community and voluntary sector and private companies in aviation, telecommunications and elsewhere to work, in a spirit of solidarity and comradeship, towards a common purpose.
Fórsa emerged now to join the long and storied history of the Irish labour movement, a movement that has, in its time, endured long and relentless struggles in pursuit of human rights, a movement that has experienced devastating defeats and monumental hard-fought victories. It is a movement that has - let us not forget in this the centenary year of the first general strike in Irish history – always been to the fore in organising the people of this country in our battle for independence, in opposition to the waste in human life of war, and of the irreducible indivisible right to dignity in society as well as the work-force.
The movement has always produced brave and heroic men and women: such as Jemmy Hope, a Presbyterian from Antrim, who organised the Protestant workers of the Liberties in eighteenth-century Dublin to combine their efforts not only in defence of the dignity of labour, but to demand a non-sectarian, egalitarian republic; Helena Molony, actress, veteran of 1916, and suffragette, who was elected the president of the Irish Trade Union Congress in 1937; and of course James Connolly, whose thoughts and actions are still an inspiration and guide to millions today; not forgetting, in our town time, Mary Manning and her comrades, who took a stand against apartheid when so many others affected an indifference.
Yet while drawing strength and courage from the exemplary bravery and determination of these individuals, the labour movement draws its strength from its collectivity, from the hundreds of thousands of people willing to demonstrate solidarity in their workplace, towards their fellow citizens, and towards people all over the world.
In these times, our new circumstances require that the spirit of solidarity be extended further and further, to encompass not only those who labour and work, whether in new conditions or old, but also those who are excluded and left-out.
Let us recall that the great lesson first taught to us by the Irish-American workers who formed the Knights of Labour, and which was brought to our shores by James Larkin: ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’.
May I suggest that the battle for decent work and all it entails will be one of the defining struggles of the coming decades, and the success of the trade union movement will determine not just whether wages and salaries will be adequate to ensure that people can participate fully, with dignity and equality, in their society, but also whether the dignity of labour is upheld not only in the work-setting but in society.
Whether or not, all citizens, with all their diverse abilities, will be enabled to contribute fully to their society, will be assured or damaged by the strength of the trade union voice. It will test the capacity of the trade union movement not only to organise previously unorganised, workers, but also to engage with new ideas and new practices. It will require the commitment and support of all members and those who support the extension and deepening of democracy in society.
Of course, I recognise that this is a battle in which many in the trade union movement have felt that they have been losing ground for many years. The centrality of individualism as a source of values with its emphasis on individual consumption, individual acquisitiveness, and an ill-informed hostility to the state, its institutions, also those who work in them, has had a corrosive effect.
When we reflect on what the French called ‘les trente glorieuses’, the thirty years of uninterrupted economic expansion that followed the Second World War, we can discern an institutional order that placed the trade union movement at its centre as partners. Governments were committed to fiscal and monetary policies that prioritised full employment.
In many European countries – including our own - more than half of all workers were members of the trade unions. Capital and financial flows were heavily regulated – and this may surprise many of you – often on the advice of the International Monetary Fund.
We in Ireland came to the post-war economic expansion late, only after our modest but nonetheless revolutionary adoption of Keynesianism and indicative planning through successive Programmes for Economic Expansion. Nonetheless, we shared a similar experience to the developed world: an expanding welfare state and education system, full employment and as its consequence, an end to net out-migration in the 1960s, the first time in centuries.
Since the late 1970s, beginning in the Anglophone world, we have witnessed a programme of neoliberal transformation. It is so familiar to us now: the removal of all constraints on flows of capital and finance; the privatisation and contracting out of state assets – which I know many of you here today will have been at the sharp end of – and the dismantlement of labour rights and collective bargaining institutions. The effects are also now familiar to us: the rapid rise in inequality, whether in income, or, as Thomas Piketty has so exhaustively demonstrated, in wealth and weakening of trade unions.
Indeed, so unchanging was this proportion thought to be that it was taught as a ‘stylised fact’ in economics courses. However, the OECD has estimated that the average adjusted labour share in the Group of 20 countries – representing the majority of the world’s population and economic output – has been declining by 0.3 percentage points per year since 1980.
The consequences of this finding are stark – the great, late economist Tony Atkinson has pointed out that it implies that the fruits of labour productivity growth may not lead to commensurate improvements in the incomes of workers and their families, but will instead be captured by the owners of capital.
Given the gyrations of our own National Accounts induced by the activities of multinational corporations – the infamous Leprechaun economics – an analysis of this type would not be possible in Ireland. However, the trend internationally is clear: less of the world’s income is going to those who labour for others.
It is interesting to observe, too, how in an ever-more monopolised media environment the easy target for populist-inducing comment are workers seeking the right to live and participate while the assumptions of abstract economic models that are failing society are assumed to be beyond the ken of the public or serious-minded journalists.
One of the drivers of this trend towards individual rather than collective welfare must be the declining power of the trade union movement, manifested most obviously in the decline in membership. Today in Ireland, only one in four workers is a member of a trade union, of whom over half are public service workers, reflecting a decline in private sector trade union membership. In 1980, over 62% of Irish workers were members of the trade union.
Yet today is a moment for hope, not for despair. The ideas which gave rise to the neoliberal era have been exhausted, not only in their content but in their form, stripped of all legitimacy by the Global Financial Crisis and its aftermath. Even international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, previously bastions of a neoliberal vision of the economy, now speak of the need for ‘inclusive growth’, and of policies which can address the vast inequalities within and between countries, in terms of income, opportunity and wealth, recognising, however late, that more equal societies are healthier societies.
There is now an opportunity – a most rare opportunity – for the trade union movement to shape the agenda for the decades ahead. The International Labour Organisation have established a Global Commission on the Future of Work. It is examining foundation questions. What is the function of work in our societies, in all its diverse social and economic consequences? How should we ensure decent work and full employment in the future? How should work and production be organised, particularly in the context of the rise of ‘platform capitalism’ and of algorithms such as that used by Uber to co-ordinate drivers? Finally, how can the International Labour Organisation re-dedicate itself to its founding mission to establish ‘a lasting peace based on social justice’?
The trade union movement must be central, must encourage debate among its members and offer visionary articulations to these discussions, both at a national and international level.
The stakes are high. Some of the recent developments in the world of work are nothing less than a recrudescence of some of the worst practices of the nineteenth century. The co-ordination and direction of employees by an algorithm owned by a company does not divest the employer of their responsibility any less than a bogus self-employment does. After all, one of the great victories of the trade union movement was the regulation of piecework – these old practices must not be allowed re-emerge under the cloak of supposed innovation.
Many of you will be painfully aware, perhaps from the experience of new colleagues, of the displacement of secure, certain, regular employment – the kind that trade unions were established to fight for – by uncertain and precarious jobs, characteristic chronic insecurity.
This creates a new category of worker, the precariat, whose social and economic rights are more restricted than those they work alongside. In a context of rising rents, this chronic job insecurity can be a source of deep anxiety to so many of our citizens. The trade union movement can be a source of solidarity to those workers, and I know that it will continue to fight to vindicate their rights.
The first paragraph of the Declaration of Philadelphia, adopted by the International Labour Organisation in 1944 under the guidance of its Director General, the Irishman and international public servant Edward Phelan, affirms that ‘labour is not a commodity’.
Yet, the commodification of labour is increasingly visible in contemporary forms of work, with a sometimes-monomaniacal emphasis on performance and output at the expense the dignity, well-being and security of the workers.
Rather than our workplaces being shaped to accommodate the needs of employees, and the workplace is part of a life experience that should offer fulfilment, employees are increasingly expected to shape their lives, and indeed the lives of their families, around the demands and economic interests of the workplace. A pin-ball machine is hardly a suitable substitute for workers’ rights.
There exists, in many workplaces, the increased and unspoken assumption that employees will stretch their working day far beyond their contracted and paid hours. Meanwhile the greater freedom and flexibility that technology has brought into our lives has been used to the blur of the line between what is viewed as an employee’s work and home life.
This is now a conscious policy in some of the most advanced companies in our economy today – it represents an attempt to encompass the life-world of the person within the interests of a corporation, which is, after all, primarily a vehicle to organise production for the benefit of its shareholders. This is reminiscent of Port Sunlight and the soap manufacturers of previous centuries.
As public and civil servants, and as workers in strategic sectors of the economy, you are also at the very centre of the three great challenges of which I spoke: mitigating climate change, welcoming and managing migration, and ensuring sustainable development.
The economist Mariana Mazzucato has written of the role of ‘the entrepreneurial state’ in economic development. Working for the state is working for the public world, not just for now but for future generations. As we confront these challenges we will require a more activist, and a more democratic, state, one that can plan, co-ordinate, manage and intervene when necessary. It must also be an open and transparent state that places the needs and welfare of its citizens, and the citizens of other countries, at its very heart.
As Uachtarán na hÉireann I have witnessed, on so many occasions, the outstanding work carried out by public servants across the country. I have been so impressed by the great commitment of our teachers and the pride they take in their pupils’ achievements. I have met with those whose lives have been immeasurably improved by our dedicated health service staff. I have witnessed, during the hazardous flooding that various parts of the country have experienced in recent years, the selfless response of local authority staff, An Garda Síochána and our Defence Forces as they worked in solidarity with those families and businesses worst affected.
My work also allows me to regularly see the excellent work carried out by those public servants on an everyday basis who are not on the front line of service provision but who also bring to their work a dedication to public service across all areas of public life from tax administration to environmental protection, from social protection to enterprise policy.
As a new and stronger Union, Fórsa carried behind it the collective voice of over 80,000 workers. That is a powerful voice and one I know you will use wisely as you demonstrate and achieve the benefits of solidarity and seek to reclaim an understanding of work as the foundation for the achievement of other human rights and a strong base for a life of dignity, fulfilment and flourishing.
Beir beannacht. Go raibh mile maith agaibh go léir.
- Digital desk