Cuireann an tUachtarán crann i gcuimhne ar Tom Johnson (1872-1963)

Déa 27th Aib, 2023 | 11:30
suíomh: Áras an Uachtaráin

Áras an Uachtaráin

Thursday, 27th April, 2023

In Memory of Tom Johnson: May Day Event Speech 2023

Áras an Uachtaráin, 27 April 2023

A cháirde,

Fearaim fíorchaoin fiche fáilte rómhaibh uilig do’n ócáid seo agus muid ag comóradh Lá Bealtaine agus an gné sin den lae is tábhachtaí Lá Gluaiseacht na nOibrithe ar fud an domhain. Inniu, táimid ag tabhairt urraime don ról suntasach atá pléite agus á phlé ag na gluaiseachtaí sin na hoibrithe atá eagraithe is á eagrú ar fud na cruinne.

[I am delighted to host today’s event at which we commemorate May Day and Labour Day, honouring the important role of organised labour movements across the globe.]

And may I acknowledge, too, the beautiful music performed earlier at the Star and Plough monument by Sorcha Scully (Uileann Pipes), Caoilfhionn Scully (Concertina) and the harp music we have just enjoyed which was performed by Emer Scully.

This year’s May Day celebration is of particular importance as we are celebrating 50 years of the Irish Labour History Society. I am delighted to see so many members, past and present, in attendance today.

We owe such a great debt to the Society and for so many reasons – for its promotion of a knowledge of Irish labour and of Irish people in labour history abroad and labour history in general;   for its promotion of the importance of labour history in the education curriculum; and for its preservation of records and reminiscences, oral and written, relating to the current and past experiences of Irish workers and their organisations. This is all so vitally important if we are to learn from the past and build ever-stronger campaigns for workers’ rights.

May I pay tribute, too, to all those who have supported, and continue to support, the Society, including my former colleague and Labour Party Minister Barry Desmond and current President and former General Secretary of Fórsa, Shay Cody.

May I also acknowledge the presence of the current leaders of two of our largest trade unions, Joe Cunningham, General-Secretary of SIPTU and Kevin Callinan, President of ICTU and General-Secretary of Forsa, for their ongoing efforts as we continue with the work that figures like Thomas Johnson, whom we honour today, took so far during their lifetimes.

On May Day, next Monday, it is a tradition that we reflect, and celebrate, the lives of workers who have taken part in, or organised, marches, fought for their rights, and stood in solidarity with their colleagues, their fellow citizens, and with people all over the world, in struggles against injustice, inequality and exclusion in the workplace.

It is a day to celebrate all that we have achieved together in the long and difficult struggle for workers’ rights in this country and across the globe as we continue to stand in solidarity with all those who suffer unfair and discriminatory work practices around the world. It is also a day to remember those who have suffered, and those who have paid the ultimate price, while undertaking their duties, as organisers of collective campaigning for workers’ rights.

This year it is appropriate that we recall the transformative role in the trade union movement of this country played by Thomas Johnson, whose death occurred 60 years ago this year.

Born in Liverpool, Tom Johnson is a foundational figure in the Irish trade union movement and in politics. His interest in socialism was propelled by his experience of living and working conditions in his home city.

Working for a fish merchant’s firm based in Liverpool and Kinsale, Johnson joined the Liverpool branch of the Independent Labour Party in 1893, while also becoming involved with the Fabian Society and the Liverpool Parliamentary Debating Society. In 1903, he moved to a London firm with branches in Ireland, and relocated with his family to Belfast where he soon became involved with trade union movements, supporting and assisting James Larkin and James Connolly.

At various times Tom Johnson was the president, treasurer and secretary of the Irish Trades Union Congress which was, at that time, functioning as a Labour Party in Ireland until the Party was officially founded in 1912 by Connolly and Larkin. Johnson became Vice-president of the Trades Union Congress in 1913, and President in 1915.

In these centenary decades, it is appropriate that we recall Tom Johnson for his awareness of the costs of militarism and violence, organising a national strike – the Strike against Militarism – in conjunction with others who had been members of the Irish anti-conscription movement, on 24th April 1922, the sixth anniversary of the Easter rising.

Johnson believed in the power of parliamentarianism, for example, going on to be a key voice for the defeated revolutionaries of the independence movement. Johnson sympathised with the Irish Volunteers, many of whom were sacked from their jobs, for illegal activities. During the Easter Rising, he noted in his diary that people in Ireland paid little heed to the fate of the defeated revolutionaries. He is memorable, too, as the only Leader of the Labour Party who served as Leader of the Opposition in the Dáil.

He was a committed believer in the process of parliamentarianism, as the late Brendan Halligan has noted:

“It was known that he read every piece of material put before the Dáil and researched his own speeches and the pronouncements of the party. He spoke on every issue appearing in the Dáil order paper, always informed, reasonable but resolute. He was, by common acclaim, the ultimate parliamentarian”.

This belief, combined with his abhorrence of violence, has led to criticism of him as an idealist.

Not only the Irish labour movement, but all who believe in parliamentary actions, are is forever indebted to Tom Johnson and his advocating of a peaceful alternative to the bloody conflicts that gripped the decades of our nation in its infancy. The alternative path Johnson advocated against both imperialism and any narrow version of nationalism was one in which the shared concerns and interests of everyone in Ireland had to be addressed and pursued, a reminder to us all that the pursuit of peace must always be prioritised over war and conflict with all of its attendant bloody consequences and inter-generational transmissions.

Ireland’s record in the area of workers’ rights is a proud and celebrated one, one which now dates back over a century and is perhaps most famously demonstrated in the 1913 Lockout, that major industrial confrontation between approximately 20,000 workers and 300 employers that took place in Dublin from 26th August 1913 to 18th January 1914, and is correctly viewed as the most severe and foundational industrial dispute in Irish history.

While the Lockout and the response to it drew a heavy price, with the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union badly damaged by its defeat in the Lockout and further hit by the departure of Larkin to the United States in 1914 and the execution of Connolly following the Easter Rising in 1916, the union was not broken, as William Murphy and his allies sought, would be rebuilt by William O’Brien and Thomas Johnson, and by 1919 its membership had surpassed that of 1913.

Central to the Lockout dispute was that most basic and fundamental of workers’ rights: the right to unionise. How sad and depressing it is that today, 110 years later, we still live in a society where, in too many states, unions are regarded by some with suspicion and hostility, perhaps even a nuisance which employees should not be encouraged to join. 

Despite such sentiment, 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.

Unions remain a manifestation of the basic principle that collective action is more powerful than that of the individual. Billy Bragg’s song, There Is Power In A Union, resonates as strongly today as it did on its release in 1986:

“There is power in a factory
Power in the land
Power in the hands of the worker
But it all amounts to nothing
If together we don’t stand
There is power in a Union”

Returning to Tom Johnson, I am delighted that Irish Labour History Society recently published the excellent biography, Seeking No Honours: Tom & Marie Johnson, written by  Shay Cody (current society president) and Charles Callan, (former president and long-time secretary).

There is in that book a description of a visit by young Jim Larkin and Barry Desmond to Tom and Marie Johnson’s home, Tom having retired. He was found living in straitened circumstances, no pension, broken television, struggling to heat his home. This was the fate that befell the Leader of the Opposition in the Parliament of 1922.

Today, however, we can look forward to the trade union movement giving a lead to the transformation that is necessary, that is indeed underway, for new forms of social economy within ecological responsibility. There is much to celebrate as we mark Labour Day. The growth in female participation in the labour market is matched by growing numbers of women joining trade unions. Union membership is increasingly becoming a membership that carries a female contribution with more women than men now members of trade unions.

Support for union representation among non-union employees is now a top priority as many as 40 percent of non-union workers would be willing to vote to establish a union in their workplace, according to recent UCD research. Young workers are particularly well disposed to seeking union representation. There are vital opportunities to be seized.

That same research also found that Irish trade union members are positively disposed towards their union membership, that they value being members, and are generally committed to retaining union representation. Four out of every five members would vote to maintain the union in their workplace.

However, the trade union movement in Ireland, the European Union and the world now faces new challenges.

Union membership is in decline, and the coverage of collective bargaining, now perhaps at best covering 43 percent of the workforce, has fallen by ten percentage points over the past two decades. Only a quarter of the workforce are members of trade unions, compared with 91 percent in Iceland and 67 percent in Denmark.

Membership remains heavily age-dependent, with only 14 percent of young workers (those aged 16-24) being members of a union, compared to 45 percent of those aged 55-64. 

Today many sectors today remain outside of union membership, or demonstrate low membership rates, including hospitality, aviation, information and communication, and manufacturing and construction (all below 20 percent).

On May Day and Labour Day, lest we be tempted to rest on the laurels of past 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 has engendered minimal rights for workers with equally minimal responsibilities for employers.

Workers today face so many challenges. We are living through a housing crisis sourced in an over-reliance in markets and an ideological antipathy to deeper state provision. The current cost-of-living crisis must surely be high on the list.

With a profit-taking-driven inflation running at levels not seen for four decades, we are witnessing a reduction in real incomes which is making life increasingly difficult for so many, with impacts on wellbeing, including increased anxiety and worsening mental health, as workers, particularly low-paid workers, struggle to meet basic energy and even food needs.

We are emerging from a pandemic. As an Irish citizenry, we must also ask ourselves some difficult questions in our post-Covid circumstances. Have we learned the lessons from the pandemic, that hard-earned wisdom which came at such a great cost, especially in relation to how we value our frontline workers and those delivering essential services, and has it been translated into strong scholarship, policy options, and institutional frameworks that can serve a new political economy and galvanise workers’ rights?

I regret to say that I am not convinced. How regrettable it would be if, through some form of collective amnesia, we as a society now 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.

We require a transformation in, for example, how we think of public expenditure, of State investment, of the public sector in general, all of which is too often described as a “cost” or a “burden”. Public spending must be viewed as a productive investment in our communities, our society and our economy, in the same manner as that of private investment.

Even prior to Covid, unions in partnership with employers and civic society representatives, a valuable positive partnership and dialogue, were contemplating the substantial impacts of technology, automation, digitalisation and globalisation 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. We must commit to ensuring that workers will be at the frontline in defining our response to climate change. We have good scholarly work available to us, such as the report by the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) on this topic.

Trade unions, I believe, are showing that they have the capacity to lead the just transition, argue for its compelling case and champion its delivery.

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 pandemic, its aftermath and how we design our recovery, and is aligned with our obligations under the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, our blueprint for a sustainable, inclusive, shared future.

The trade union movement is strongest when it is a movement that knows no borders. We need to ensure that the unionisation of Africa becomes a reality. Trade union organisation in Africa is weak at the national, regional and continental levels and is primarily limited to the formal sector, which means that only the interests of a minority of the working population are represented. Improved social dialogue on key issues of employment and social protection must be encouraged.

Hope is being seen in South America where unionisation levels are rising and where unions are playing key roles in promoting social dialogue on issues such as ensuring a just transition, precarious jobs, and the elimination of gender-based violence in the workplace.

May I say how pleased I am that the Committee Members of the Jim Connell Society are with us today. It is appropriate that Jim Connell, author of The Red Flag, be celebrated.

Mar fhocal scoir, on this May Day, let us all affirm our commitment to playing 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 stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable, lowest paid and least protected workers in society as we battle a cost-of-living crisis. Let us defend their rights as the founders of the trade union movement, like Tom Johnson, did more than a century ago.

Caithfidh go bhfuil ceardcumainn lárnach sa streachailt bheo seo.

[Trade unions must be central to this ongoing struggle.]

Beir beannacht is beir bua.