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Address on May Day 2020 - SIPTU Virtual MayFest

Áras an Uachtaráin, 1 May 2020

Today, May Day, we honour and commemorate the important role of the organised labour movements across the globe. We recall to memory, and celebrate, the lives of workers who have marched, fought, and stood in solidarity with their colleagues, their fellow citizens, and with people all over the world, in struggles against injustice, inequality and exclusion.

Today’s SIPTU MayFest is different, by necessity, but recognising the role of workers and their unions is more important than ever. Both Sabina – who is patron of MayFest – and I take this opportunity to pay a particular tribute to all the frontline workers who have played their part for the greater good of all during the COVID-19 crisis. Today we remember those who have suffered, and those who have paid the ultimate price, and those who grieve with difficult if necessary constraints.

For over a century, generations of Irish workers have continued to organise and fight to protect the interests of working men and women. The benefits and rights that workers and their families enjoy today have been won through the energy and dedication of union leaders, representatives and activist members who have negotiated, lobbied and taken action, often at personal cost, to ensure fairer and better workplaces and societies: “there is power in a union” has been their shared motivation.

On May Day and Labour Day, lest we be tempted to rest on the laurels of these achievements, we must remember that workers’ rights are never a given, are always under threat, and continue to be undermined and eroded, for example, with the emergence in recent years of the under-regulated ‘gig economy’ which engenders minimal rights for workers with equally minimal responsibilities for employers.

Workers face so many challenges. How we emerge from this pandemic will be vitally important to the future of workers’ rights. Even before COVID-19, Trade Unions in partnership with employers and civic society representatives were contemplating the impacts of technology, automation and digitalisation on the future of work and the impacts of climate policies for workers in carbon-intensive sectors. A just transition must be achieved for such workers, and we must commit to ensuring that workers will be at the frontline in defining our response to climate change.

Good work, conducted in partnership, is available to us. The National Economic and Social Council (NESC) recently examined some of the major challenges facing us. Its report was a tour de force of evidence-based research. It is work which should endure beyond the current crisis, and it is my sincere hope that this valuable work, with its commitment to the principles of equality, participation and protection of the marginalised, be central to our future thinking.  

The importance of achieving a just transition – based on the principles of equality, participation, and protection of the marginalised – is ever more relevant because of the crisis, its aftermath and how we design our recovery, and is aligned with our obligations under the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

As we emerge from this crisis, it is vital that we also embed the hard-earned wisdom from the COVID-19 pandemic into strong scholarship, policy options, and institutional frameworks that can serve a new political economy. It will require a transformation in, for example, how we think of public expenditure, which has often been described as a cost or a burden. Public spending must be viewed as an investment in our communities, our society and our economy.

We must also embed the wisdom that has been revealed regarding the value of frontline workers and those providing essential services across the economy. How regrettable it would be if, through some form of collective amnesia, we as a society were to disregard the efforts of these workers, and revert to where we were before the crisis – a society that too often failed to value our essential workers.

On this May Day, as we continue to tackle the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis, let us all commit to play our part in the creation of a society that removes the obstacles standing between so many of our people and their full participation. Let us commit to valuing those heroic workers who risk their lives and their security to support us. Let us keep defending their rights as the founders of the trade union movement did more than a century ago. Trade unions must be central to this ongoing struggle.

Beir beannacht is beir bua.