Irish Examiner view: Unions need to rediscover old idealism

Recovering social equity
Irish Examiner view: Unions need to rediscover old idealism

'I'm a union guy: President Joe Biden.

There is a fable that may have, in today’s uber-capitalist world, lost some of its sting. It is, nevertheless, worth recalling, its tarnished lustre endures. It recounts a post-Second World War conversation between a European Christian Democrat and a war-bitten atheist from Khrushchev’s politburo. 

The democrat extols the guiding force his religious beliefs confer so passionately that the Communist encourages him to try Christianity as a model for society sometime. That stick-in-the-eye is as sharp today and events over recent days bring it into focus, maybe not around the place of religion but in how we give meaning to the beliefs we can shout from the rooftops.

Renewed speculation about how international tax changes might undermine our economy has, as it always does, sent a shiver across this country. US firms may face a 21% rate, almost double our 12.5% — nominal — corporation tax. That shiver is unsurprising as over 160,000 people are employed in over 700 American firms in Ireland. Those firms support another 128,000 jobs, accounting for 20% of Irish jobs. Tax revenues are at least proportionate.

Those concerns are assuaged by recalling that this country is much more than a low-tax industrial estate with EU access. Worker availability, high skills, and technical knowledge are cited. So too the expertise repatriated by immigrants.

There’s also Ireland’s attractiveness as a place to live, despite housing scandals. There is a common language and, significantly, a comprehensive tech and pharma ecosystem.

There is another significant reason. That near 300,000 workforce is not unionised; indeed, the idea is anathema to most investors. That only around 25% of our workforce is unionised, only 6.3% in the private sector, makes this an attractive location for international business. However, that defeat of unions and its negative impact on society has been recognised in the most surprising way.

When US president Joe Biden unveiled his $2 trillion rejuvenation last week he offered with a striking affirmation.

“I’m a union guy,” he said. “I support unions. Unions built the middle class. It’s about time they start to get a piece of the action.”

Biden promised the plan would create up to 18m jobs. They would, he promised, be “good-paying jobs... jobs that you can raise a family on, and ensure free and fair choice to organise and bargain collectively”. A law protecting union rights is part of the blueprint.

Trade unionism hijacked

That, just like the Christian Democrats’ discussion with Khrushchev’s man, sounds great but then context intervenes and shows how trade unionism has been hijacked to serve a constituency rather than a cause.

Those opposed to organised worker representation would be delighted with this week’s intervention from the teacher unions, selfish posturing that would have alienated union man Joe Biden especially, as it again showed that inequity springs from many wells. We should add remaking unions as fair, positive, principled forces in our society to the list of post-pandemic resets.

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