The leaders of the Irish, UK, European & International Trade Union movement at ICTU Congress. Photo ICTU
Common priorities for Europe in Britain & Ireland
Yesterday I had the honour of addressing the Congress of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), and a large part of my speech focused on the challenges facing the European Union. Including, of course, the prospect of an EU referendum in Britain. Here’s some of what I said:
Congress, we meet at a defining moment for working people in Ireland, in Britain and right across Europe. The challenges we face are all-too familiar. Austerity and privatisation. Insecurity and inequality. Benefit cuts for the poor. Tax cuts for the rich.
In Britain, the election of the first majority Conservative government in 23 years means trade unions face the most difficult political climate since the days of Margaret Thatcher…. Whereas here in Ireland you are working with the government to extend collective bargaining, in Britain trade unions will have our work cut out to defending what we’ve got.
It’s no exaggeration to say we face the most draconian, most regressive, most right-wing assault on trade unionism anywhere in western Europe. But delegates, I can promise you this: we’re not going to roll over without a fight.
Of course, I recognise that this side of the Irish Sea is not exactly a trade union land of milk and honey. Despite welcome signs of recovery, Irish workers are still being hit by the shock waves of the financial crisis. IMF-imposed austerity has sucked over 30 billion euros out of the economy since the crash, with huge cuts and job losses in the public sector.
Young people still packing their suitcases to seek a better life on a scale not seen for decades. And real wages are back to where they were before the Good Friday Agreement. Today, a fifth of Irish workers are on poverty pay – proof of why your call for a living wage is so important.
Last year the TUC organised a big national demonstration under the banner Britain needs a Pay Rise. It seems self evident that Irish, Spanish, Greek – and German – workers need one too. Workers around Europe are on the sharp end of a global shift in the balance of wealth and power between capital and labour.
And, from the crisis in Greece to the scandal of TTIP, and other trade agreements rigged to benefit big corporations, there are serious implications for workers right across the continent.
The bargain that has held Europe together for decades – a dynamic single market balanced by a strong social framework and workers’ rights – is under severe strain. Instead of a Europe fit for workers, there are those who want to see one fit for the likes of Michael O’Leary and Ryanair.
But I hope that the referendum on Sunday in Greece – the cradle of democracy – will give the elite pause for thought. It should serve as a reminder that: it is not business moguls, international bankers, or EU bureaucrats who have the right to determine Europe’s destiny. It is the people who have that power.
Soon British citizens will go to the polls once again, this time for an in-out referendum on our membership of the EU. David Cameron says he wants to stay in, but only if he can secure reform on his terms. The Prime Minister has been remarkably vague about what those terms are.
So I have been following him around Europe in a bid to find out. In fact, he could be forgiven for thinking I’m stalking him.
And now we know the answer. We know what the PM has in his sights: the Social Chapter; rights to paid holidays; maternity, paternity and parental leave; health and safety; protections for agency and part-time workers. The social glue that holds Europe together.
Now some Conservatives in Britain have taken to calling themselves the Workers’ Party. They say they are the party for blue collar workers. … Well, I have a message for Mr Cameron.
You won’t win votes in the referendum by worsening workers’ rights.
TUC polling shows clearly that stripping Europe of its social dimension would make a British exit more likely. A result that would do great damage to jobs and investment. But if the EU is reduced to nothing but a market; if it becomes just a vehicle for privatising our services, removing our rights and boosting corporate profits, then popular support for the European ideal will wither on the vine.
So now is not the time to reject the European social model, but to refresh and redefine it. Our first priority must be to develop a practical plan for Europe to deliver real investment and decent jobs, in the places that need them most. What the Irish President Michael D Higgins has rightly called an ethical economy.
In particular, we need to ditch the financial and property speculation that landed both the UK and Ireland in such a mess. In its place, we need to guarantee fair shares of growth and prosperity through an intelligent, industrial strategy. Rather than a race to the bottom that saddles families with debt, we need to return to the economic common sense of wage-led growth. Putting money into workers’ pockets, stimulating demand, supporting decent businesses in local economies.