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‘This is more than dollars and cents’: US trade unions bring anti-austerity message to Ireland

Several leaders of large trade unions in the US were in Dublin this week to argue against austerity. They also spoke to TheJournal.ie about the political deadlock in the US.

Protestors outside Leinster House this week
Protestors outside Leinster House this week
Image: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

TERRY O’SULLIVAN HAS one word for the political stasis in the United States right now: “Bullshit”.

It’s no surprise that O’Sullivan, as the general president of the Labourers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), takes a dim view of the right’s and particularly the Tea Party’s influence on US politics.

But you might be surprised to find that he believes the Tea Party is actually helping his and the left’s cause while damaging their own.

“I think they’re doing more harm to the Republican Party and bettering the chances of [Democratic House Leader] Nancy Pelosi being Speaker of the House once again, which from our perspective is a great thing, not a good thing,” he said.

Together with five other US trade unions leaders, including Dan Kane from the Teamsters and Ed Smith from Ullico, O’Sullivan was in Dublin this week to meet with similar-minded folk in Irish unions and a Sinn Féin-organised rally in the Mansion House.

In an interview with TheJournal.ie, O’Sullivan, Kane and Smith had a familiar message to anyone who leans to the left on the political spectrum: Austerity isn’t working.

‘More than dollars and cents’

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“There’s places you have to look to cut, but it seems to us it isn’t done at the expense of banks,” O’Sullivan (above) said. “We’ve seen that in Ireland and the US, it’s at the expense of retirees, the people who were outside today.” (Referring to Tuesday’s protests outside the Dáil)

“It’s done at the expense of working men and women, of young people with aspirations and hopes who are jumping on airplanes to fulfil those aspirations somewhere else.”

The problem is that it could be reasonably argued that austerity has and is working in Ireland with the economy growing (slightly), the Live Register falling and the bailout exit in sight.

But O’Sullivan does not agree: “We understand balancing budgets but there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. We believe  that far too many times countries have chosen the wrong path [where] it has comes off the back of working men and women.”

“This is more than dollars and cents,” he adds, referring to the human impact of austerity.

An estimated 13 million people in the US are trade union members including around 11 million in the largest federation, the AFL-CIO. In a country of 315 million people that’s not a lot and all three men argue it’s  the private sector’s fault.

They say trade union membership is 12 per cent of the workforce in the public sector, but just 7 per cent in the private sector. Smith argues that the private sector has been “under attack” for many years in the United States.

“It’s got the private sector at about 7 per cent of the workforce… so they’ve done a real job… anti-union, pro-right wing anti-union forces,” he said.

Pensions

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Smith (above) believes these problems can be traced back to the state of Wisconsin two years ago, where the legislature attempted to pass laws restricting collective bargaining and other union rights.

This was widely seen as the first battle between the Tea Party and organised labour.

These laws were passed in attempt to plug huge budget deficits. The arguments put forward are simple: that public sector pensions were and are unaffordable in many US states. There are gaping holes in states’ pension plans between what they spend and what they take in.

But that’s not the public sector employees’ fault, say the labour leaders.

“No, no, that’s the bullshit that they pedal,” O’Sullivan said, identifying the problem as being states not paying into pension funds when they should have been.

Ed Smith explained: “My home state is Illinois. Of the 50 states it is 50th out of 50 in underfunding, the worst of the worst.

“The workers’ money came out of their pay cheque to go in the pension and the state was to match this. But in the US each state must have a balanced budget every year, so to balance the budget the state would make no pension payments.

“This was even though the workers’ share went in every two weeks. The state didn’t [pay its share], so now they have this huge underfunding because of the economic crisis in ’08. So they said that the workers are the problem.”

Political deadlock

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Advancing these arguments are restricted, the trio argue, by the barriers placed by employers and government on employees joining unions in the US. Kane (above) argues that laws that are – “oppressive and regressive”.

He said: “Even though the polls out there show that over 50 per cent of workers, given an opportunity, would join a union. Nobody argues that that’s the sentiment. But it’s a different situation with organising.”

The three men and indeed the labour movement on whole in the US is not averse to working with Republicans – “the old Republican Party we dealt with”  - but their view is that the Tea Party has to be taken out of the equation.

Smith said: “No congress will pass any funding to rebuild… the key to America has been our infrastructure, from our railraods to our highways, and that’s deteriorating.

“That’s because of the impasse in our congress and the Tea Party… You got to go back to before the American Civil War to see where we’ve had this kind of loggerheads.”

Pics: YouTube, Wikimedia Commons, Ullico

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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