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Address at the Biennial Conference of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions - ‘Of the Discourse that we need and the role of the Trade Union Movement’

Belfast, Assembly Building Conference Centre, Tuesday 4 July 2017

Let me say at the outset how pleased I am to be invited to address you here today. I feel I am among old friends. I have been a member of a trade union for over 50 years. I would like to thank Brian Campfield, of NIPSA, your President, for the invitation to speak here this morning and of course Ms Patricia King, your General Secretary, and I go back some time together - to the times when she represented staff in Leinster House and I was a member of another division of the Oireachtas.

Your movement with over 700,000 members in over 40 affiliated unions, is Ireland’s largest civic society body. Your contribution to the evolution of politics, economic and society in every part of this island has been essential and it has been emancipatory in so many ways.

I am also pleased to be speaking here in Belfast because I am conscious of the importance of this city, Belfast, to the wider Irish and UK labour movement. With Manchester, it emerged as one of the earliest industrial cities in which a trade union movement would emerge, face obstacles, and succeed in establishing the unfinished project of the rights of workers.

It was in this place that the young James Larkin, the organiser of unionists and nationalists on the dockside, received his formal introduction to Irish politics, and the possibly even more complex politics of the Irish Labour movement. As President, it has been a privilege to be asked to speak of the role of Larkin, Connolly and others, of trade unionists, and particularly of the brave and neglected women trade unionists and their importance to our history in the late 19th and early 20th century. These were themes I addressed in the Littleton Lecture on the Lockout of 1913 and again when I gave the second Phelan Lecture at the International Labour Organisation on the future of work.

As I was preparing my remarks for our meeting, I was struck by how clearly certain aspects of the trade union movement had retained a special place in my memories. The image I recover is of banners, bands, marches, speeches in the public space – great speeches – which people would debate on the way home, some of the phrases of which they would make their own.

That is a proud tradition. One thinks of how it makes its way into the hearts of those who were struggling for freedom in their different ways. There are hundreds of songs on the theme of “I’m off to join the union”. Joe Hill, the song of the Swedish-American organiser of the Industrial Workers of the World, executed after a deplorable trial in 1915, is just one example and the early trade union organisers realised the importance of culture, of time spent together, of music shared, of songs in whose rendering workers competed for excellence. This is true of the docks, of the mines, of the factories. It is part of the symbolic life of a collective that shared values.  It is the very antithesis of extreme individualism. 

This was a powerful tradition from which Civil Rights movements, the Anti-Apartheid movement, and Equal Rights movements could call on for support. It is important that on all parts of this island we acknowledge the role of the trade union movement from its beginnings down to our times in opposing sectarianism.

The trade union movement has also been an international one and it correctly sees, as Edward Phelan did in his day, in his Harris Lecture with John Maynard Keynes in 1931, that migrating unemployment from one setting to another setting wage levels in competition with each other in a downward spiral could be disastrous for global economics.

You give a great example of your internationalism by organising fringe events and by inviting Omar Barghouti who will speak on the challenge ahead for Palestine, and Huber Ballesteros, of the Colombian Trade Union Movement, whose leaders have been assassinated, and whose members have been decimated, to your conference.

The trade union movement now faces new challenges and I wish it the same courage as those who have handed us such a fine tradition. These challenges can be faced. It will involve revealing and challenging some powerful myths that have been established, myths without empirical evidence, and that can more easily flourish in an era of concentration of ownership in media, decline in public service broadcasting, and an anti-intellectualism that serves those who hold unaccountable power as much as it prevents workers knowing the basis for policy choices that affect our lives.

To sustain and deepen democracy, to encourage a participatory citizenship, to have a deliberative democracy.  We need a new discourse and that discourse must be an inclusive one. We must empower ourselves through a new literacy on matters economic and fiscal, so as to be able not just to criticise, but to expose the basis upon which certain aspects of our global economic life are presented in a curious, medievalist way, as inevitable – rather in the manner of those who insisted that the earth was flat and that the sun orbited the earth.

We need this new literacy to save language itself. We need it so as to be able to give real meaning to terms like flexibility, globalisation, productivity, innovation, and social protection.

At global level - if we are to achieve success in facing challenges that require global agreement, such as responding to climate change or moving to sustainable development, we must be free to ask the question, and have the courage to insist on an answer: do those who are drafting policies believe that these projects can be achieved within our existing economic and social models? If they do so, what balance do they see between the role of the State, accountable to its citizens, and some new forms of capital that are not accountable except to those looking for a short-term speculative profit?

If it is the case that they accept different models are necessary, and indeed many scholars suggest that little less than a paradigm shift is needed, are they willing to acknowledge what is failing, or if that term is unacceptable, what is inadequate? Will they allow the policy, institutional, intellectual changes that are necessary for new forms to emerge – forms that could combine economics, ethics, and ecology?

There has always been, and it survives a belief in certain elite circles that all of this is too complex for citizens to understand. In present circumstances, this is a sotto voce belief. Many years ago, Friedrich Von Hayek was much more explicit. He stated that only a select few could understand the complexity of the market, and further that “an atavistic solidarity” as he put it among the public had the capacity to disrupt the achievement of the total free market. Such thinking is not dead, nor has it gone away.

All of the ruling concepts - flexibility, globalisation, productivity, innovation, social protection, decent work - are capable of being redefined, given moral meaning, made useful. It is possible to humanise the new technological forms that will emerge, to ensure that science will serve all of the people rather than the few. It is possible to recognise forms of care and voluntary contribution as indeed what they are – work in its finest sense. All of the scientific and technological changes are capable of being made citizen-friendly, but this requires an informed public.

Redefining work itself is more than a distribution issue, it is much more than a set of aggregated labour units. It has an importance beyond sustaining the demand curve of the economy. Work is how we express the essence of our humanity. I believe the role of the trade union movement, through its membership, its effect on governments and the ILO, will have a crucial role in forcing these changes.

The union movement too will be crucial in restoring a recognition of the role of the entrepreneurial State in partnership with private investment and civil society. Exposing the myth that only the private sector takes risks and that the State cannot ever take, or does not, take risks, is extremely important. It acquires an even greater importance as decisions have to be taken in relation to science, technology, research and development policy. This has been brilliantly dealt with by Professor Mariana Mazzucato in the revised edition of her book The Entrepreneurial State ‘which appeared in 2015.

Let me quote the final paragraph of her book:

“We live in an era in which the State is being cut back. Public services are being outsourced, State budgets are being slashed and fear rather than courage is determining many national strategies. Much of this change is being done in the name of rendering markets more competitive, more dynamic. This book is an open call to change the way we talk about the State, its role in the economy and the images and ideas we use to describe that role. Only then can we begin to build the kind of society we want to live in, and want our children to live in, in a manner that pushes aside false myths about the State and recognises how it can, when mission driven and organised in a dynamic way, solve problems as complex as putting a man on the moon and solving climate change. And we need the courage to insist – through both vision and specific policy instruments – that the growth that ensues from the underlying investments be not only ‘smart’, but also ‘inclusive’.”

The truth is that it has long been public investment that created the infrastructure for the many corporate entries into the market in so many areas. The State’s role in taking and undergirding long-term risk is in stark contrast with the pressure put on governments to eliminate risk for those who are interested in simply short-term gains. Again, one might ask is it not a noble aspiration that every child, girl or boy, would be able to have access to all such education as is necessary for their human development.

If this be so, should the State that provides such opportunity not unreasonably expect that the early tax yield in such employment as is made possible by State-assisted qualification should accrue to the providing State, so as to enable its yield to be recycled and create the capacity of ever-more high class skills?

Of one thing I am certain: the contribution of the trade union movement in facing these challenges is essential for the discourse that we need.

I have seen the themes that you are to discuss. I congratulate you on them. They are inclusive. You will debate what is to be done, how work is to be defined and protected, how the State must not be a minimal State confined to saving the financial sector but rather be enabled to respond to the needs of its citizens.

When I go to meetings on global poverty, on climate change, on sustainable development, the audience always includes a significant attendance from trade unions. This stems from the inherent generosity of trade union solidarity. I remember that early piece of research of mine on the Galway Docks, where 58 able-bodied Dockers divided their income among the 72 Docker families who needed it.

I would like to suggest to members of the trade union movement that the Social Pillar which Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission on which he has announced that he wishes to sign-off on “at the highest level” before the end of the year, will be of immense importance.

This initiative, which it is suggested will deal with issues of cohesion, upskilling, reduction of inequality and related poverty, would be all the more effective if it incorporated a social, economic and cultural rights perspective, resisted until now by the Council of Ministers of the European Union and those who advise them. It is unfortunate that he chose to describe its putative success as requiring it to have “a triple-A rating”. That phrase is one that will resonate with all those who remember the dishonesty and the fraud associated with such a phrase and which visited such devastation on so many people in so many countries.

Let me end with a brief critique on the word ‘populism’. Its rather loose usage at the present time should concern us. We should remember it is capable of a benign as well as a malign usage. The phrase was used to describe the response to the New Deal in the United States, and to make the case for a national health service, and a national housing scheme in the United Kingdom.

Of course, the malign use of populism must never be forgotten. Drawing on hate, ignorance, fear and genocidal impulses, our European history has a form of populism as its darkest heart. Thankfully, the tide of populism that we are experiencing now has not yet reached either the level or the ferocity of the populism that erupted across Europe in the 1930s. Whatever the short-term appeal of the simple solution, I feel certain that it will not again reach such a level. The people of Europe, I think, know the price too well.

In any of its forms populism is most often founded in an aggregation of insecurities, be they economic, social or racial. As an economy creates high levels of unemployment, as a quasi-constitutional set of fiscal constraints takes precedence over social cohesion, new opportunities for predators of the intellectual life of the young, and the old, take advantage of the devastation caused by mistaken economic policies.

Each and all of these exclusions are capable of being addressed within a shared prudence, and if a flexibility is allowed that emphasises social cohesion as a primary value in the language of politics.

Trade unions are collective. There is a culture that goes with collectivity, a strength that comes from membership, from what is shared as a value beyond the self. We must recognise that while the new technology enables us to transmit information to more people, the collective sense of what is shared is still important, as we introduce a new campaign for fiscal and economic literacy.

Your movement of 700,000 members and 40 trade unions is discussing these issues. I am well aware you are doing so in an atmosphere of distorted communication, of a concentration of media ownership, of a declining public service broadcasting, of a culture that is encouraging a dangerous level of aggression.

All this may be true, but the embracing by young people in England of the opportunity to vote, the rise of indigenous movements with a traditional respect for the earth, the greater involvement of women, the evidence of not just tolerance for difference but its recognition as a necessary element of justice should give us hope. I often feel like asking some audiences I address what would life have been like without the trade union movement? How extensive would be ‘the precariat’ that is emerging as a feature of a dualistic economy that offers huge salaries at one end and total insecurity and a life below frugality at the other?

Yours is a great tradition. Yours is a powerful emancipatory, genuinely progressive force capable of engaging all challenges and bringing what is struggling to be born into being. In all of this, as President of Ireland, I wish you well.

Beir Beannacht d’on todchaí.