Address to the ICTU Biennial Conference 2015

Posted on July 07, 2015 by Tom Healy

President, I would like to thank the General Secretary and the Executive Council for inviting me to introduce this debate on the economy. The motions concern more than just the key areas of employment, wages, pensions and public finances. An economy that works is one that enables workers, their families and communities to not only survive but flourish and prosper in the widest sense that no measure of GDP or income can adequately capture.

A society is more than the sum of individuals or households and a properly functioning economy is one where people have not only the theoretical right to employment, a living income and wage, public services and accommodation but a practical right to participate in the production and overall direction of goods and services that make these rights real and meaningful.

We are emerging from a ‘lost decade’ of falling incomes, declining public services and great uncertainty and instability in the economies of Europe and Ireland. While some progress is being made in terms of both employment and income far too many households live in poverty and far too many children suffer for lack of proper support and investment at the beginning of their lives. The trade union movement, in Ireland, needs to continue its work of defending and advancing the interests of working people – all working people – not just those who happen to be members of trade unions at this time. The survival and future relevance of the trade union movement will depend on its capacity to:

  • Demonstrate that it delivers economic and social progress for its members
  • Forge alliances with civil society to promote social justice and equality for the betterment of all

However, this is not all. Defending and advancing the interests of working people today is only two wheels of the carriage. We need to acknowledge and talk about two other wheels. These relate to the type of society, economy and political arrangements that we envisage in 10, 20 and 30 years time. If we are not to fall into the trap of another boom in house prices with wages and services struggling to catch upwith a rising population and a housing market under severe pressure then we need a radical change in the direction, purpose and implementation of public policy. I am afraid that I see little evidence that:

  • Lessons have been learned from the recent economic collapse
  • The will and the understanding is there to effect a shift in policy.

It is easy to criticise what is wrong. To outline, substantiate, develop and argue for an alternative political economy on the island of Ireland will require understanding, wisdom, tact, courage, perseverance and leadership from the trade union movement. Who else is going to do it? Where else is there such potential strength in numbers and such diversity in expertise and involvement in the real economy? What if we are the people we are waiting for to take the leadership – intellectually, organisationally and every other way – to effect a fundamental shift in thinking and behaviour?

But, what if this shift will involve difficult, unpopular and hard-to-argue for policies?

  • What if it means arguing for a reform of our taxation system so that the overall level of taxes are adequate to provide services at a European level? (if you present at a hospital for non-emergency treatment in France you will be asked for your social security number; if you present at a hospital here you will be asked if you public or private and If the latter for you private insurance number)
  • What if it means arguing for limits to disposable incomes or pre-tax wages up to half a million Euro a year to begin to reverse the growing economic inequality of recent decades?
  • What if it means arguing for a threshold of decency where all workers have a living wage not just in terms of pay per hour, but hours of work per week and income per year and decent conditions of work as outlined in the Congress Charter for the North and for the South?
  • What if it means developing a strong indigenous exporting platform for Irish enterprises so that we can wean ourselves, gradually, off over-dependence on foreign direct investment for exports and innovation?• What if it means arguing for an expanded and more dynamic state enterprise sector and more effective partnerships of state, higher education, private companies and research institutes
  • What if it means establishing a proper state development bank as proposed in motion 5 from the Irish Banking Officials Association?• What if it means moving towards a common consolidated corporate tax base across Europe where regions and countries can no longer free ride and dump on others in a bid to attract investment but, ultimately, deprive citizens whether in Limerick, Limavaddy or Lesotho the essential public goods and services compatible with a civilised society because corporations do not pay their fair share of taxation?
  • What if it means moving gradually towards a more European (never mind Scandinavian) level of employer social security contribution?• What if means arguing that workers are better if their growth in wages is balanced by a growth in the ‘social wage’? And what if that means that workers from the lowest paid to the highest paid contribute to a real and actually existing social insurance fund which will pay for health and lifelong learning and will protect our incomes when sick or pay our pensions when we retire?

I am going to quote Milton Friedman at this biennial conference of the Irish trade union movement: ‘there is no free lunch’

The choice is ours as citizens whether we fund investment in children through education, health and community services paid for out of local or central taxation or whether we move to offload the responsibility to markets. The choice is ours whether we fund investment so desperately needed in homes, in mental health services and in water, broadband, renewable energy and others key service and products through reliance on the markets or, in some cases, philanthropy.

Citizens and workers deserve better. We deserve choice, responsibility and participation in the decisions that shape the future. The trade union movement can play a leading role – if it wishes – in shaping that public debate or it can sit back and allow others to drive the debate but in ways that are inimical to working people and to the interests of those are voiceless, marginalised and excluded. And here I must mention the continuing discrimination against the young unemployed because they are under 26 years of age, the treatment of lone parents and the continuing scandal of ‘direct provision’.

We know that the debate and the direction of public policy in Ireland, the UK and in Europe has been hijacked by forces and ideologies that risk the peace, coherence and very survival of a democratic, liberal and social market economy. These forces will not stop until most public assets have been put up for sale; until wages have been driven down and employment conditions ‘restructured’ and ‘flexibilised’ to the point of surrender; until public spending and taxation have been reduced to pre-World War two levels as a percentage of GDP. The Irish and British Government lead the way in cutting back on the State and the share of public spending in GDP or GNP. The rest of Europe is urged to follow this example.

Following the historic events of recent days we need to stand in solidarity with the people of Europe for a reversal in the disastrous policies of fiscal austerity, privitisation and wage-cutting. Rights of collective bargaining need to be strengthened and a coordinated policy of investment, a wage-led recovery across Europe and a strategic programme of investment in renewable energy need to move up the European agenda. New hope and courage has been created as a result of the resounding articulation of the democratic voice of the Greek people last Sunday. We should be pressing home the message that public debt is not sustainable for the Greeks and it is not sustainable for the Irish. A programme of write-down in debt as well as re-scheduling of debt is necessary.

Also, we need to focus much more on the problem of private, household debt where many people and many small and medium-sized businesses are crippled by unsustainable levels of debt. The answer to the problem of debt is investment, growth and redistribution. The evidence shows that societies that promote equality can achieve high levels of growth and productivity.

With the collapse of ‘communism’, euro-communism and pre-third-way social democracy a spectre is haunting Europe. It is a spectre informed not by worthy visions, ideals and shared values but by narrow national self-interest, the interests of capital over labour and the supremacy of the market. Europe seems to be less and less democratic and less and less social and, for that matter, less and less liberal. And its modus operandi is fear, intimidation and a false pragmatism.

I take some hope and inspiration from the poem of Liam MacUistinengraved on the walls of the Garden of Remembrance in Parnell Square, Dublin in English, French and Irish (may be Greek could be added!):

The vision became a reality. Winter became summer. Bondage became freedom and this we left to you as your inheritance. O generations of freedom remember us, the generations of the vision

But, I think it sounds even better still in the language in which Liam MacUistin wrote the poem:

Rinneadh fírinne den aisling. Rinneadh samhradh den gheimhreadh. Rinneadh saoirse den daoirse agus d'fhágamaragaibhse mar oidhreacht í. A ghlúnta na saoirse cuimhnígí orainne, glúnta na haislinge.

Is sinne glúnta na hAislinge.

We are the generation of the vision.

Bíodh tús leis an díospóireacht!

Let the debate begin!


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