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Opinion: Recovery can't be built on austerity or even tax breaks – workers need a fair wage

Yes, we need to reject austerity and its offshoots – privatisation, poverty and emigration – but also populist and short-term solutions to long-term challenges.

Image: Alex_Po via Shutterstock

SOME 130 YEARS ago, in the United States, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions proclaimed that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886”. The slogan adopted by those nineteenth century trade unionists was ‘eight hours work, eight hours sleep, eight hours for what we will’.

Today, in Dublin and around the world, 1 May is celebrated as International Workers’ Day – a day when trade unions and those we represent take stock of our achievements (and failures), and reflect on the challenges still facing us.

Our achievements have been significant – but each achievement is offset by a new challenge.

In Ireland many of us have an eight-hour working day (and many others would like to, but can’t get enough hours) but the ‘eight hours for what we will’ sought by those early trade unionists is still an aspiration, as workers forced by the boom-time property bubble to live in dormitory towns face long commutes to work.

Collective bargaining

Last year, we remembered the 1913 Lockout, which centred on workers’ demand for the right to negotiate collectively with their employers. Some 101 years later, we are still waiting for that right to be enshrined in legislation. Instead, the Government marked the Lockout centenary by enacting the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest act (FEMPI) legislation, which actively undermines the right to collective bargaining in the public sector.

Given these and other challenges facing workers, trade unions are more necessary than ever – but we also need to learn lessons from our recent history. In particular, we need to learn and internalise the lessons of social partnership.

Until it collapsed in the wake of the economic crisis, social partnership – structures involving the unions, employers and, latterly, the community and voluntary pillar – was heralded as one of the contributors to Ireland’s (short-lived) economic success. Many in the trade union movement would disagree – arguing that it tied the hands of unions while de-skilling union officials, workplace representatives and union activists, who were able to rely on centrally-negotiated wage increases rather than having to organise locally. Some would also point out that this model – wage depression in exchange for tax cuts – was always going to end in tears.

Forgo pay rises for tax cuts?

Today, in a re-run of social partnership trade-offs, it is being suggested that workers forego pay increases – after five years of wage cuts, wage stagnation, increased charges and reduced public services – in return for tax cuts.

Who do they think they’re kidding?

Not only would tax cuts, or changes in the standard rate tax band, benefit relatively few workers (let’s not forget that many workers don’t earn enough to pay tax) – but they would further reduce the revenue available for vital services and income supports. And they would reduce the capacity for public investment in our human and physical infrastructure.

Tax cuts are (ostensibly) good for those few who earn enough to benefit. But they’re bad for most workers, bad for those who depend on social protection, and bad for an economy desperate for public investment.

Even after years of austerity and job losses, the trade union movement is the country’s largest civil society organisation. As well as representing working people, we must be a voice on behalf of pensioners (who were workers), the unemployed (who would like to be workers), undocumented migrants (many of whom would also like to be workers) and others. That often means raising our voice against the consensus.

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Austerity has been economically and socially destructive

When the economic crisis hit, the trade union movement pointed out that austerity would be economically and socially destructive. With continuing high levels of unemployment, young people emigrating, and one in four officially living in deprivation, we have been proven right.

This May Day offers us a chance to look beyond austerity and envisage the kind of recovery we want.

One thing is certain: our recovery cannot be built on the back of tax breaks. Rather, it must be wage led – putting more money into more people’s pockets through job creation and wage increases. It must be investment led – using the revenue from increased wages to invest in our physical and human infrastructure, thus creating more jobs. And it must be equality-driven – focused on narrowing the gap between those at the top and bottom of the income pyramid.

On Thursday 1 May, at 6.30 pm, the Dublin Council of Trade Unions is asking people to assemble in the Garden of Remembrance and march to Beresford Place. The motto of this year’s May Day parade is ‘Stand up – Fight back’. Not just against austerity and its offshoots – privatisation, poverty and emigration – but also against populist and short-term solutions to long-term challenges.

Michael O’Reilly, President, Dublin Council of Trade Unions.

Read:  Government told to stick to €2 billion austerity plans


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