Speech at the European Federation of Public Service Unions Annual Congress ‘Trade Unions and the Future’
Dublin, The RDS, Tuesday 4 June 2019
Let me say at the outset how pleased I am to have been invited to address you here today. Having been a member of a trade union for over 50 years, please be assured that I believe fully in the purpose and importance of a union.
May I begin by thanking Kevin Callinan, Deputy General Secretary of Fórsa, for the invitation to speak here this morning at this, the annual conference of the European Public Service Unions (EPSU). Your federation, with its over 8 million members across Europe, 200,000 of whom are members of the five Irish affiliations, including Fórsa which is the largest public sector union in this country.
I am delighted that the EPSU conference, attended by some 600 delegates today and held every five years, is taking place in Dublin, for this is indeed a city with a proud tradition within the trade union movement.
The 1913 Lockout in Dublin was a seminal period in the formation of collective representation for the working classes in this country. More than 20,000 workers were either locked out of their jobs by their employers or went on strike.
It marked a watershed in Irish labour history: the principle of union action and workers’ solidarity had been firmly asserted.
As President, I have been privileged to be asked to speak in the past 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. While drawing strength and courage from the exemplary bravery and determination of these individuals, and indeed from more contemporary figures like Mary Manning – the shopworker from Irish grocery chain Dunnes Stores who, in 1984, refused to handle the sale of fruit from South Africa in protest at the Apartheid regime – the labour movement draws its strength from its collectivity, from the hundreds of thousands of people willing to demonstrate solidarity in their workplace, towards their fellow citizens, and towards people all over the world.
These were themes I addressed, inter alia, in the Littleton Lecture on the Lockout of 1913, and again when I gave the second Phelan Lecture on the future of work.
EPSU works hard to deliver better working conditions, improved health and safety and enhanced rights for its members, negotiating best practice agreements that improve the working lives of European public service workers and ensuring quality services for citizens. Of particular concern for EPSU is the issue of gender inequality, an issue to which I shall return later in my speech.
Public services, on which all citizens rely, are under increasing strain from budget cuts, liberalisation, austerity, low pay and poor working conditions. Tax avoidance by multinationals impacts on the sustainability of public finances, in turn impacting on public services.
The role that EPSU plays in standing up for the rights of citizens, including migrants, both in the workplace and in the services your members deliver, is also critical in ensuring that the most vulnerable citizens in our countries are protected from exploitation; I note that Congress will shortly debate a motion in relation to migrant workers.
In Ireland only one-in-four workers are now members of a trade union, of whom over half are public service workers. This reflects a decline in private sector trade union membership. In 1980 almost two-thirds of Irish workers were members of trade unions. However, there are encouraging signs that this trend is reversing, with evidence of new recruitment.
The trade union movement, we must continually remind ourselves, emanates from a powerful, proud tradition on which, in turn, civil rights movements, the anti-apartheid movement, and equal rights movements could call for support. It is important that we also acknowledge on all parts of this island the role of the trade union movement, from its beginnings down to our times, in opposing sectarianism.
The trade union movement, lest we forget, 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, effectively positioning wage levels in competition with each other in a downward spiral, could be disastrous for global economies.
An over-reliance on the economic orthodoxy of today, with limited space allowed to discover new knowledge, and adherence to what we now know to be bogus expertise, all played their part in the unfolding of, and response to, the economic and social catastrophe that was the Great Recession which this country, with others, experienced just a decade ago. In these times, our new circumstances require a higher degree of economic literacy if such mistakes are to be avoided in recurring once again.
This requires, I suggest, consideration of a new ecological-social paradigm, based on economic heterodoxy, such as that proposed by Prof. Ian Gough and others, that recognises the limits of the world’s natural resources, as well as the role that unrestrained greed has played in creating the climate crisis. In his book, Heat, Greed and Human Need, Gough outlines how the alternative paradigm is rooted in the concept of human need over greed. It espouses gender equality, redistribution, and a reconfigured social consumption and investment strategy that transfers resources and technology from rich countries to developing countries as the key means to achieve this eco-social welfare state.
The eco-social policies that underpin such an economic paradigm must simultaneously pursue both equity/social justice and sustainability/sufficiency goals within an activist innovation state, with substantial public investment and greater regulation and planning. Furthermore, socio-economic measures are also required to offset any regressive impacts of the ecological transition for lower income groups and to reverse growing levels of inequality.
It is apposite that the theme of your congress is “fighting for a union for all”. Such a title calls to mind the notion of ‘inclusivity’. While Ireland has been at the forefront of truly enormous social change in recent years, which has advanced inclusivity, it has yet to achieve an acceptable level of cohesion, as is the case in much of the EU.
Results from several recently held referenda, on issues such as divorce, marriage equality and abortion rights, herald a more progressive and inclusive modern Ireland on the level of personal or identity issues, one which espouses compassion and tolerance over judgement and shame. Such progress demonstrates an increasingly liberal and secular society with an emphasis on personal freedoms. I would argue that this move towards an articulation of the desire for individual rights can be more perfectly compatible with the objectives of social cohesion, social connectedness and the move towards an eco-social model which I advocate in this speech.
Unfortunately, however, I am struck by a growing divergence between such societal progress at the level of personal freedoms, on the one hand, and the speed with which this country and many others globally are proceeding with regard to social equity or labour policy and, in particular, workers’ rights and conditions.
This leads me to question the future role of the International Labour Organisation – the only surviving international institution that was created from the ashes of World War I – which, in its constitution, refers to social justice as being essential to lasting universal peace. In our present circumstances, almost 100 years after that constitution was first proclaimed, that spirit of idealism and of vital moral purpose is more urgently required than ever, yet it is seriously undermined. This begs the question of how can the ILO re-dedicate itself to its founding mission in the context of an ongoing assault on workers’ rights?
I believe that the founding message given expression in an achievable agenda of the ILO must be vigorously brought to the attention of the world by all of us who believe in equity and the dignity of work. How much better it would be if the necessary elements of what constituted social cohesion formed the basis of the discourse that prevailed on the streets of the world, rather than the excluded being abandoned to become the prey of xenophobes, homophobes and racists.
Being positive, I suggest that all of the prevailing ruling concepts in our present economic discourse – flexibility, globalisation, productivity, innovation, social protection, decent work – are capable of being re-defined, given shared moral resonance, made useful within the context of an ecological-social paradigm. To these I will speak in more detail shortly.
On the subject of ecology, it cannot be denied that the most pressing issue facing us all as a global community and inhabitants of a planet that is in peril, owing to insatiable, unrestricted consumption of the Earth’s finite natural resources since the onset of the Anthropocene.
I speak, of course, of the climate crisis. Let me say first that I see the role of public servants as being transformative in acting as champions for climate action, both in terms of mitigation and adaptation. Public servants have the capacity, given a real opportunity, to shape and implement policies in these spheres that will reduce the impact of climate change and enable society to adapt to the most destructive effects of a changing climate which we are already beginning to witness first hand – through, for instance, the increased severity and frequency of storms and extreme weather events.
There exists now a great opportunity to give leadership and for trade unions to play a strong role in pushing for fair, ambitious and binding international agreements on greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.
While the EU has a set of binding emissions targets for 2020 and 2030, we must now plan for full decarbonisation of our European economies by 2050, encouraging the rest of the world to follow suit, and urging in the strongest possible terms the USA to re-consider its regressive and pernicious decision to leave the global Paris Agreement.
Unions can seize the opportunity of providing a lead role in developing a strategy for a ‘just transition’ for workers and communities to ensure that we are all part of a sustainable, low-carbon economy and benefit from decent and green jobs. In Ireland this will mean that those impacted by the closure of unsustainable carbon-intensive electricity production, for example, must be offered re-skilling opportunities to enable them to find suitable jobs in other areas, such as the green economy, or opportunities with sustainable incomes in other parts of society.
It is my strong belief that the trade union movement can create a creative and enduring future for us members now and in the future by being a key proponent of Gough’s new eco-social political economy, emphasising responsible economics, understanding that the concept of growth ad infinitum is inherently flawed, recovering a discourse that had fallen prey to an uncritical embrace of neoliberal mantras, and advocating an economic model of pluralism which emphasises the finite nature of the Earth’s natural resources and the role that rich nations must play in ameliorating the crises in which we find ourselves.
As Gough puts it himself:
“Consumption and consumption-based emissions, ignored by the green growth agenda, must be given equal priority in the rich world. (...) Issues of global equity, almost entirely absent from international climate negotiations so far, must be discussed and confronted. (…) ‘Affluence’ has a class as well as a national dimension”.
The case that Ian Gough makes is impressive. Combining these concerns of domestic justice with both international and inter-generational justice in a global equity framework is one worthy of consideration by all partners, one worthy of support by trade unions.
Such a framework, which is founded on a needs-based society, could have a conjoined positive effect on the multiple crises in which the global community finds itself.
It also implies the end of a capitalism without responsibility as to consequences as we have come to know it, moving beyond growth to a steady-state sustainable economy. This begs the question as to whether the transition route to sustainable wellbeing is achievable. Everything depends, as scholars such as Gough, Klien and others have identified, on the nature, variability, flexibility and reformability of capitalism.
Your trade union has correctly placed gender equality as one of its core objectives. I believe that, in order for unions to credibly fight for the promotion of gender equality in the workplace, there must first be greater gender equality within union structures themselves. I also see the inclusion of gender issues in collective bargaining as being fundamental given the ongoing gender pay gap. Related to this is a wider objective of protecting vulnerable, marginalised workers, many of whom are women, many are migrants; these groups need an ever-stronger voice.
Sylvia Walby has argued in her book, Crisis, that the economic and fiscal crises which we have lived through over the past decade, and the resulting recession (experienced severely in Ireland) has cascaded through society, and the ensuing fiscal crisis over government budget deficits and austerity has led to a political crisis which, in turn, now threatens to become a democratic crisis.
Borne unevenly, the effects of the crisis are exacerbating existing class and gender inequalities:
“There is considerable under-utilised capacity in the economy as a consequence of the failure to encourage the completion of the transition in the gender regime from a domestic to a public form. This incomplete transition is, at least in part, because of the priority accorded to developing a neoliberal rather than social-democratic form”.
Walby argues that the future consequences of the crisis depend upon whether there is a deepening of democracy, and of democratic institutions, including within the EU.
Within such considerations must be the issue of the relation of the economy to social policy and the role of the economy as instrument or determinant of public good.
Globalisation is a topic to which I return frequently in my speeches as President. A key conundrum that has not been solved by most Governments globally relates to how we can make globalisation work for citizens, when what has been its presentation to date lacks legitimacy among much of the citizenry; in other words, is an ethical, sustainable form of globalisation possible? Naomi Klein, among others, has shown how corporations have unethically exploited workers in the world’s poorest countries, often those with appalling human rights records, in pursuit of greater profits. As Klein has written (in her book, No Logo):
“When manufacturing is so highly devalued, it follows that the people doing the production work become highly devalued as well. The shift in corporate priorities has left factory workers and craftspeople in a precarious position. The lavish spending in the 1990s on marketing, mergers and brand extensions has been matched by (…) resistance to investing in production facilities and labour. Multinationals search the globe for factories that can make their products as cheaply as possible. And by contracting out the manufacturing work, multinationals can shed all responsibility for the working conditions inside these factories. The contracting allows multinationals to re-focus on the needs of their brands, as opposed to the needs of their workers.”
It follows that, left unchecked, such a form of globalisation will lead to a wider gap between rich and poor, with the poor getting poorer.
Globalisation clearly tests values that may have been multi-laterally agreed. To achieve an acceptance across borders as minimally ethical, globalisation and its impact requires to be managed by accountable multilateral institutions so that it, for example, supports fundamental human rights and leads to long-lasting development and prosperity for citizens in general, particularly the poorest. The trade union movement has played, and must continue to play, a leading role so that workers are not made the casualties of globalisation, but rather that globalisation is made to work for the world’s workers.
As to the task of redefining work, we are also witnessing increases in precarious employment, contract working, and an ongoing casualisation of labour, as has been so well documented by Guy Standing, Noam Chomsky and others. The new emerging trends in work practices – so-called ‘innovations’ – are only innovations, to my mind, insofar as they maximise profits for employers and reduce employees’ labour rights. I see this trend as part of an inexorable ‘race to the bottom’, and I believe that regulation is required in order to protect those most vulnerable in society from being exploited as a result of the most adverse effects of these new models of work.
For example, Dr Pádraig Carmody has shown in recent research how ride-sharing and ‘virtual capital’ have resulted in a “hollowing out of the formal sector” and a rise in the so-called ‘precariat’ worker:
“Whereas many speak of the ‘sharing economy’, a more accurate way to describe it might be the ‘on-demand’ economy where firms divest themselves of their responsibilities to employees, reducing the structural power of labour. This represents an undermining of any social contract between the parties.”
With regard to how an abuse of digitalisation assists in this regard, we see online workers often are not covered by employment law or collective agreements and seldom have access to social security, paid leave or paid training owing to the fact that the platforms require workers to register as self-employed. These recent developments in the world of work are nothing less than a recrudescence of some of the worst practices of the 19th century.
The co-ordination and direction of employees by an algorithm owned by a company should never be allowed to divest the employer of their responsibility any less than a bogus self-employment does. After all, one of the great victories of the trade union movement was the regulation of piecework; these old practices must not be allowed re-emerge under the cloak of supposed innovation. It must remain an important objective of the left and of unions to reverse the systematic neglect and devaluation of working class lives.
The ongoing displacement of secure, certain, regular employment, for which trade unions were established, by uncertain, precarious jobs and characteristic chronic insecurity is a major cause for concern. Workers are too often expected to demonstrate what is called ‘flexibility’, by which is meant a willingness and ability to readily respond to changing circumstances and expectations without adequate information or recompense. This flexibility is often not matched, however, with any security of tenure or appropriate income by employers, with the vista of zero-hour contracts now appearing ever-more prevalent.
An uncritical globalisation, pursued without consideration as to impact or social consequences, it can be shown, has had a negative impact on climate change: more goods being produced and consumed, more transport of goods across longer distances, shorter product obsolescence cycles, and a more consumerist and materially driven society. They all come at a significant price in terms of the impact on finite natural resources and greenhouse gas emissions.
I have not spoken of the so-called ‘softer’ impacts of globalisation, such as cultural homogenisation, as well as adverse effects on local communities and economies. For this is perhaps one of the greatest problems with globalisation: macroeconomist exponents can all too easily evaluate the economic benefits of globalisation narrowly on aggregateacross countries, but fail to capture the harder-to-quantify negative ‘intangibles’ to which I refer.
I was heartened to read in the recent World Bank report, Efficiency, that even that organisation – hardly a bastion of left-wing, social-democratic thinking – now believes there is justification in “going beyond efficiency” and fostering more “inclusive growth” globally.
After decades of mainstream economic commentary espousing the virtues of privatisation, deregulation and a smaller role for the State, we now appear to be at a turning point in the economics discourse thanks to the insightful contributions of economists like Mariana Mazzucato and Sylvia Walby. Mazzucato, in her books, The Entrepreneurial State and The Value of Everything, effectively rebukes the austerity-fuelled worldview that, in order to restore growth (after the 2008 financial crisis), all that was needed was to reduce deficits by cutting public spending, arguing instead that government investment in areas like education, research and technology is a key component of economic growth.
Even orthodox institutions such as the International Monetary Fund have slowly evolved their thinking on austerity as a strategic tool, believing that it can be self-defeating. As Keynes argued over 80 years ago, if governments cut spending during a downturn, a short-lived recession can become a fully-fledged depression.
This is precisely what occurred in Ireland when the economic recession of 2008 turned into an economic depression in 2009, with an economic recovery delayed until 2014.
This prolongation and intensification of the economic bust resulted in a deepening of the experience of, as well as a widening of the exposure to, a range of attendant social ills that were a direct result of a prolonged period of constrained under-investment by the State, many of which have not yet been resolved.
Long before Mazzucato, the spiritual fathers of creative thinking in the public sector, Keynes and Polyani, called on policymakers not just to think about counter-cyclical spending as a way to reduce the impacts of recessions and avoid over-heating economies, but also to think strategically, to identify how investments can help shape citizens’ long-term prospects for the better.
Polyani went so far as to argue, in The Great Transformation, that free markets themselves are products of state intervention, outcomes of public and private actions. This astute observation has become conveniently forgotten in much of the austerity-based neoliberal commentary around the recent economic crisis.
Mitchell and Fazi’s Reclaiming the State argues – in the contemporary context of Brexit Britain and Trump’s America, with national sovereignty high on the agenda – that the state must be reclaimed if we are to transform societies for the people’s benefit. Despite the ravages of neoliberalism, the state still holds the capacity and much of the resources for democratic control of a nation’s economy and finances.
The authors advocate a new paradigm of economic heterodoxy, in which ideas are grounded in post-Keynesian, institutional, feminist, social, and, importantly, ecological economics.
This is an epistemological challenge to the neo-classical economic orthodoxy that espouses with rigidity the assumptions of rationality and individualism as the equilibrium nexus. As an alternative, it offers economics dealing with the institutions–history–social structure nexus. This is the form of political economy discourse that is most promising. Young, and not so young, academics are struggling for its right to be taught in universities and institutions.
Reclaiming the State is a work that called for a drastic expansion in the state’s role, while the authors include a broad re-nationalisation of specific sectors of the economy, most notably the financial sector. Mitchell and Fazi also call for a new and updated notion of planning, one which places the commanding heights of economic policy under democratic control to enable the urgently needed socio-ecological transformation of production and society.
The latter project, however, needs to be presented, not simply as a resile to the previous models of renationalisation. This would clearly be insufficient in the context of new challenges. The role of the state needs to be defined anew, as well as the concept of sovereignty, in such a way that it is shared, can flow for the benefit of workers beyond borders, can – because it is a transition taking place in several countries – have a regional character, one that is exemplary to global economic systems.
Any narrowly defined concept of productivity – capturing in a simplistic way merely the efficiency of production utilising the four factors of production – while it may be important to understand in an increasingly competitive enterprise environment, is an insufficient concept when examined from a labour productivity perspective.
It is problematic because growth in labour productivity often does not lead to commensurate improvements in the incomes of workers, as evidence from studies conducted by Tony Atkinson and others suggests, but is instead captured by the owners of capital, itself often speculative rather than productive. This is not only inequitable, but it places a value on the role of capital that is far higher than other factors of production, such as labour and entrepreneurship, and is inherently volatile given its speculative nature.
Such volatility has clear downstream impacts on labour markets in instances in which speculative capital does not perform in the markets as well as was envisaged, resulting inevitably in the need to cut back on other factors of production, with labour being the most easily adjusted assisted by increasingly flexible labour markets.
I wish to revisit briefly, if I may, the concept of work itself. Andrea Komlosy, in her recent contribution, Work – The Last 1,000 Years, argues that the often-limited definition and classification of work has never corresponded to the historical experience of most people, whether in colonies, developing countries, or the industrialised world:
“The gap between common assumptions and reality grows even more pronounced in the case of women and other groups excluded from the labour market”.
I am minded to re-visit the related philosophical concept of ‘The Dignity of Labour’, much advocated by Ghandi, in which all types of jobs are respected equally, no occupation is considered superior, and none of the jobs should be discriminated on any basis; is this not the ethic of work in the public service for the public good?
I believe a corollary of this concept is that a return to the fundamentals of decent, secure jobs, would be a widespread increase in job satisfaction, a better sense of accomplishment, and improvements in quality of life across nations. A vision in which these concepts become more embedded in the citizenry, and, in particular, employers, is perhaps provocative, even radical, as it attempts to upturn the commonly held assertion that money and wealth accumulation is the primary motivation behind humans’ desire to work.
There is, in addition, a significant, growing and important body of economic research focusing on the marginal utility of income – the incremental change in satisfaction that is due to a unit change in income – which shows that satisfaction peaks at relatively modest income levels, and that steep diminishing marginal returns are evident, as people’s preference for additional leisure time becomes higher than their preference for additional income. Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s book, How Much Is Enough?: Money and the Good Life, is a spirited argument against blindly accepting the ‘Faustian bargain’ of insatiability within contemporary capitalism:
“We need to focus much less on making money and much more on cultivating the things that matter: leisure, knowledge, friendship.”
It appears that the old adage, “money doesn’t bring happiness”, is a truism that even economists can now demonstrate empirically. However, the young of the world, with their proximity to each other, to nature, to the joy of shared culture, are well ahead of them, as are those who sing the anthems of their unions behind banners as they march.
Creating a society that is more equal, one in which all work is valued, and all jobs are decent and fulfilling, is not an easy task given the current milieu. However, the political-economic concept of deliberative democracy provides us with a means with which we may engage and promote such a vision across the citizenries of Europe.
Jürgen Habermas has written persuasively on this topic, asserting that political decisions should be the product of fair and reasonable discussion and debate among citizens. It follows, therefore, that we must become more aware as citizens about the often obscured or consciously hidden ideological assumptions that lie behind policy choices. This means that we need to foster universal political-economic literacy to deal with new and existing challenges, and a better understanding of the nature of value and what constitutes happiness.
As part of a coordinated discourse, trade unions have a crucial role in ensuring that Governments’ labour policies are ethically grounded, but unions also have a role in realising this vision of a more ethically minded citizenry and a new eco-social economic paradigm, the components of which I have elucidated in this speech.
One of the ways in which to do this is to re-establish or embed and enhance Glaucon’s social contract between the citizen and the state, something which has been heavily eroded in much of Europe following decades of attack from a prevailing neoliberal orthodoxy, eroding labour rights through laissez-faire policy and an almost fetishised embrace of unfettered globalisation. Trade unions have a vital role in turning around this tide, by advocating a rights-based approach to quality work and engaging in the deliberative democratic process.
What are the lessons we have learned from the economic crisis and the ‘self-regulating market’? I believe there are many – in politics, policymaking, academia, the commentariat, citizens at large – who have turned a corner, having re-evaluated often strongly held beliefs, with an appreciation that the state has an important role, that good regulation does matter, be it in the financial, construction, or healthcare sectors – all sectors in which we in Ireland have seen the catastrophic and sometimes tragic effects of under-regulation and/or lack of enforcement.
My vision is of a Europe with excellent public services at its core. Good jobs in the public sector mean quality services for citizens. Your members appreciate only too well that the services they deliver are not a cost to society, but an investment in our communities. This message must be taken to the heart of Europe.
The centrality of individualism as a source of values, with its emphasis on individual consumption, insatiable acquisitiveness, wealth accumulation and an ill-informed hostility to the state, its institutions, also those who work in them, has had a corrosive effect.
I hope that we are on a pathway of learning as peoples across Europe, that we must avoid the excessive materialism that was apparent, for example, in this country during the so-called Celtic Tiger, and that we move away from narcissistic individualism and towards collective solidarity. Neither should there be a notion of any trade union member being described as a former member. Joining, belonging, sharing the trade union values is a life choice, anticipated by the young, cherished to the end by those who are union people.
Several global studies, such as the World Happiness Report, as well as qualitative research such as that by Esping-Andersen, clearly demonstrate that those countries that manage to foster this collective solidarity, that abide by the principal of a strong social contract, that believe in the benign and even transformative possibilities of the state and its institutions, that provide universal social protection, all report the highest quality of life and life satisfaction using both objective and subjective measurements.
Mitchell and Fazi identify, as a prerequisite for the construction of a new international(ist) world order, the realisation that, based on interdependent but independent sovereign states:
“The (political) right today is winning because it is capable of weaving powerful narratives of collective identityin which national sovereignty is defined in nativist, nationalist or even racist terms. Progressives must thus be able to provide equally powerful narratives (…) which recognise the human need for belonging and connectedness”.
That belonging, I believe, must fly over borders. Unions must work not only at home, but in the European Union they are willing to build with others.
May I conclude by stating that I believe the related battle for decent work is a defining battle of our times. I hope that your conference proves to be a fruitful and enjoyable experience, and that you will all continue to play your part in defending the hard-won rights of workers across Europe as we continue to face the challenges and obstacles to a fairer society. You have a powerful voice and one that, I know, can give leadership on the new form of economy, and that you will use wisely as you demonstrate and realise the benefits of solidarity and seek to reclaim an understanding of work as the foundation for the achievement of other human rights and a strong foundation for a life of dignity, fulfilment and flourishing.
Go raibh mile maith agaibh go léir.