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President Higgins' foreword to 'Connect Trade Union, A History 1920-2020'

Date: Sat 19th Nov, 2022 | 14:18

The best outcomes for workers, their defence and their prospects, are achieved by being a trade union member. The world of work is on the cusp of great changes. Remote working and hybrid or blended working, along with changes resulting from ongoing trends in digitalisation and automation, are presenting real challenges in terms of organisation of work. Some are new and some are familiar. In both, the principle is the upholding of labour rights and the achieving and sustaining of decent work conditions – such has been the raison d'être of the trade union movement in this country since the State’s foundation and long before.

Work, we must never forget, represents the expression of our human essence. This is reflected in the way we work, what it means to us, and how we balance the lives we live together. In so many ways, work and what it means defines the society of which we are a part, its aspirations and mores, its democratic or authoritarian character.

Current challenges in technology and its application challenges us to define a new period of leadership within the trade union movement if we are to achieve democratic outcomes. In facing these challenges, it is to the trade union movement that workers can look for both ambition and realism, learn how to focus on what might be termed ‘the art of the possible’ that is embedded in the international vision that unions have historically exemplified, envisioned in terms of what we can achieve together, tapping humans’ endless capabilities within a framework of protective, inclusive labour rights, rights that safeguard workers, particularly the most vulnerable. That protection is surely urgent in terms of the recent, often regressive, trends in the world of work. Such trends, often termed ‘innovations’, frequently merely represent advances insofar as they maximise productivity, efficiency, profitability, often at the expense of workers’ hard-won rights.

Ireland boasts a long and proud tradition of trade unionism, a movement that has endured relentless struggles to secure human rights in often epic, hard-fought battles; a movement inextricably interlinked in our nation’s struggle for independence or giving a lead in opposition to the waste of human life that is war.

This thoroughly researched book, Connect Trade Union, A History 1920-2020 – “Towards one big Irish Engineering Union” which traces the full 100-year history of Connect and its predecessors, provides an illuminating and comprehensive account of a full century of trade union activity, indeed going back further, tracing the origins of modern unions to the medieval guilds. In explaining the fascinating history of the Irish Engineering, Shipbuilding and Foundry Trades Union (IESFTU), as it was originally called, launched in May 1920 by a group of craftsmen imbued with an extraordinary sense of dedication to the cause of Irish independence in every sphere, the book demonstrates how craft consciousness and conflict, and the interplay between the two, were constant themes throughout the history of Connect’s predecessors; so too were conflicts with British unions, a manifestation of the Anglo-Irish conflict.

The politicisation of the Irish working class was a long and complex process, as is noted in the book. Fenianism was liberal, internationalist, secular, anti-sectarian and even, at times, socialistic, while locally interpreted or invoked republicanism could be curtailed into being more nationalistic, with a strong Catholic vein, as it sought to avoid the tags of Bolshevism or of being anti-Clerical, but as well as having weaker socialist or egalitarian tendencies, its braver elements confronted power. Such contradictory dynamics gave the independence struggle a cross-class appeal and composition, strengthening radical instincts among the working class.

The Irish Engineering, Shipbuilding and Foundry Trades Union was the result of the turbulence that Ireland endured between 1907 and 1921. Of course Jim Larkin helped to lay the groundwork for the establishment of the Irish Engineering, Shipbuilding and Foundry Trades Union, his foundation of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) in 1909 representing  a decisive break with the established (British) mode of trade unionism in Ireland. The creation of an independent, national union in Ireland not beholden to an executive council in London was a partial decolonisation of Irish labour. The ITGWU led the way for Irish workers to pursue a brand of trade unionism that they saw as more applicable to Irish political and material conditions. This was taken as an inspiration to the men who launched the IESFTU, whose complaints that British craft unions had little sympathy with, or understanding of, Irish needs had much validity by 1920.

The union’s role in alleviating a succession of financial and economic crises, in alleviating the hardship being experienced by workers in this island over the decades is well-expounded in this book.

I have so often been struck by the reluctance of those who claim to be fervent enthusiasts of democratic institutions to acknowledge the contribution of trade unions over the decades – to acknowledge, to take account of what they have secured, what they have protected us from, indeed to see how they are our best advocates for our enduring bond to democracy.

Too rarely is it asked to what level society would have sank without such a movement, one that secures and protects the irreducible right to dignity in the workplace and in society. Now unions and union members must reclaim and speak out on their role as the best source of new forms of socially just, sustainable, ecologically responsible forms of economy and society.

Experiencing the pandemic has informed a heightened recognition of the role of the State, a realisation which, I believe, now exists across society regarding how labour issues are inextricable related. I refer to work-life balance, employer flexibility, remote working and, most importantly, the need to value our essential workers and the essential role of frontline workers who have been undervalued, and, in so many instances, underpaid, sometimes egregiously, for too long.

It was such workers, many of whom are represented by unions such as Connect, who secured the public good, kept society and economy operating at an essential, basic level while we attempted together to suppress the virus’s spread.

Now is the time to challenge how we think about the world of work, and the delivery of new technology, so that we can identify and unleash human potential and flourishing, make work and employment as satisfying and rewarding as it should be for everyone in every sector of the economy and society, how we can protect those who, for whatever reason, are outside the basic protections and possibilities of what is narrowly called “the labour market”, from falling into poverty and exclusion. We must demand that all work, for example, in the caring area is recognised, remunerated properly and valued.

The task now at hand – to create a society that is more equal, one in which all work is valued, without discrimination or narrowly defined by the market, and all jobs are decent, fulfilling and secure, together with adequate social protection – is far from easy to achieve given current geopolitics and the recent, if now thankfully fading, fixation with a neoliberalism that was not open to critique in terms of its assumptions, practices or consequences.

So much is possible, and can be made possible now. The battle for decent work and all it entails continues to be one of the defining struggles of our times, one that can be genuinely inclusive and emancipatory and joyful for all who participate in the cause. It is one in which, I know, Connect will play a central role.

Let us all commit increasing our activism in what is an international campaign for decent work, to playing our part in the creation of a society that removes the hurdles standing between so many of our people and their personal and social fulfilment. Let us commit to valuing all of those heroic workers, wherever they may be, who risk their lives and their security to support us, defending their rights, in these new circumstances, as the founders of the trade union movement did over a century ago. Let us play our part together in our times advocating a vital transition to a renewed political economy of hope, of a sustainable, just, inclusive future on our shared, vulnerable planet. Let us hear it loud and clear. Join the union, and in protecting and redefining the world of work, we build a decent, fulfilling world.

Le cheile is feidir sin a dhéanamh, ár feidireachtaí a gabháil. Beir beannacht.


Michael D. Higgins

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