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Paul Murphy: This May Day, imagine a world without weekends...

The People Before Profit TD looks at the history of May Day and assesses the challenges of the modern workplace.

Paul Murphy

Updated May 1st 2021, 4:00 PM

TODAY IS MAY Day, international workers’ day. It was born of the struggles of workers globally for an eight-hour day, initially in Australia in 1856, then spreading to the USA, and worldwide.

It was a time when workers regularly worked 14 hour days, in extremely dangerous conditions, and when trade union organisers were framed and executed for their activities.

Some would argue that all of this is in the distant past, workers are now treated fairly and have no need for trade unions.

Everything changes, nothing changes

But just look at the events of recent weeks. Debenhams workers, over a year after being thrown unceremoniously on the scrapheap, were removed by Gardaí from their picket line at Henry Street and in Tralee in order to allow stock to be removed.

Taxi drivers were told that their planned car protest was illegal and organisers would be arrested if they turned up. ESB Networks technicians have been forced to strike to oppose the outsourcing of their work, while the company that refuses to negotiate with the union of the workers’ choice and is going to court seeking to take the union on.

Polish-German revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg was right when she wrote:

The first of May demanded the introduction of the eight-hour day. But even after this goal was reached, May Day was not given up. As long as the struggle of the workers … continues, … May Day will be the yearly expression of these demands.

An enormous power imbalance between bosses and workers persists. Employers have the power to hire and fire, to impose changes in conditions, while workers need work to survive.

Trade unionism arose because workers realised that unless they came together with the capacity to take collective action, including withdrawing their labour, the bosses would be able to dictate everything.

As a result of the actions and sacrifices of union leaders like James Connolly and Jim Larkin, but also countless unnamed workers, workers won the right to a minimum wage, to maximum working time, holidays and outlawed discrimination.

Over recent decades, we have seen many of these rights being undermined. Unions have been weakened by regressive industrial relations laws, attacks by employers, and the shift among many union leaders from the ‘class struggle’ approach which built the unions to a so-called ‘partnership model’. One glaring consequence is the decline in the share of income going to workers dropping from 55% in 1970 to less than 40% today.

‘Gig economy’

The ‘gig economy’ has seen the reintroduction of the same sort of casualisation and job insecurity unions were formed to resist. Almost one in ten workers’ hours vary significantly week to week or month to month, and almost half all young workers are on temporary contracts.

Low pay is rife in Ireland, with over one in five workers earning less than two-thirds of median earnings, one of the worst in the EU.

Another one in ten workers experience bullying or harassment in the workplace. In general, employees here work longer hours, have fewer holidays and have less protection against dismissal than their European counterparts. For example, in the majority of European countries, 38 is the average number of hours worked, while workers in Ireland put in an average of 39.

The pandemic shone a light on the reality of who is essential – healthcare workers, retail workers, delivery workers, transport workers, education workers, and many others. These are underpaid, undervalued and predominantly female workforces.

While low paid workers paid the biggest price during Covid, some companies and billionaires profited beyond imagination from the pandemic. Amazon is the biggest winner, with CEO Jeff Bezos’ personal wealth doubling to over $200 billion.

But Amazon’s 1.3 million employees are not doing quite as well. Its average worker is low-paid, stressed and exhausted. The company was forced to apologise for wrongly denying the fact that some of its workers had to pee in bottles!

The thing it is most worried about is its workers joining a union. That’s why it spent around $10,000 a day on anti-union consultants to successfully defeat a unionisation effort in one of its warehouses in Alabama.

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Legal realities in Ireland

At the moment, Ireland’s laws are extremely unfavourable for workers. While every worker has the right to join a trade union, there is no obligation on the company to deal with them. It is what the government proudly calls a “voluntarist system” – in other words, it is up to any given company whether they deal with the workers’ union or not.

One result is that only one-third of workers in Ireland are covered by collective bargaining, a very low figure by European standards. It means that even if a majority of Amazon’s 5,000 workers in Ireland joined a union, Amazon could simply refuse to deal with them.

People Before Profit is introducing our Trade Union Recognition Bill next Wednesday to change that. It would provide a legal mechanism for trade union recognition for workers who make up at least 20% of employees in any workforce. It would compel the employer to negotiate with the workers’ trade union and provide access for trade union representatives to the workplace.

The effect would be to make it far easier for workers in Amazon, Google, Facebook and other companies to come together to get organised and to fight for their rights.

That would be good not just for those workers getting organised, but for all workers. Studies demonstrate that not only do unionised workers receive higher wages but that higher levels of unionisation raise wages and benefits for all.

So this May Day weekend let’s remember the trade unionist and socialist activists without whom there would be no bank holidays or even a weekend. And let’s support those workers organising today, struggling to transform our unions into the fighting democratic movement that we need.

Paul Murphy is People Before Profit spokesperson on Employment Rights and TD for Dublin South-West. Twitter @paulmurphy_TD.


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