I read your speech before the Ireland Institute with great interest. There is much common ground between the Left and the Greens. While various political parties may be on opposite sides in the Dail, we are not, ultimately, politically opposed. In that constructive spirit I’d like to discuss some of your observations - specifically, your contention that the trade unionists are somehow ‘vested’ interests. I realise this has been a source of some friction between the Left and the Greens and, I would argue, considerable confusion. So let’s look at the reality.
I sympathise with your contention that Greens are worried ‘when environmental organisations are excluded from the partnership process’. Thousands of trade unionists are excluded from the partnership process every day. In the workplace men and women are not allowed to bargain conditions, defend themselves in disciplinary hearings or promote better work practices through their trade union representatives for the simple reason that many employers refuse to acknowledge or recognise their representatives. Hard to have ‘social partnership’ when one side refuses to acknowledge the existence of any other ‘partner’.
The situation, as you may know, is getting worse. A climate of fear is growing in workplaces as employees are afraid to join trade unions or seek representation because they might be fired, pushed out, contracted or denied promotions. I’m sure you would agree this is a serious and backwards step. Just as environmental groups should be included in the partnership process – at both central and local levels – hopefully you will support the right of employees to bargain collectively in that same process. This is a right that almost every other industrial country admits and vindicates – except here.
And hopefully you will support the trade union campaign to legislate for the rights of agency workers – almost all of whom are from the new communities and experience some of the worst workplace abuse and discrimination. Ireland is one of only three EU countries that have not legislated for this protection. Indeed, the Left, the Greens and the trade union movement could work together to improve the living standards of the lowest paid.
Last year, the trade union and Labour Party leadership came together to support a motion by Cllr. Eric Byrne to use the local authority procurement process to ensure that private companies winning contracts pay their employees a ‘Living Wage’. Possibly, the Left, the Greens and the trade unions could launch a similar initiative in Dun Laoire? This would be a positive cooperative effort to help those on the worst wages.
Would these initiatives mean extending ‘vested interests’? In truth, I can’t see the connection between the interests of working men and women and the interests of the 5:40 Club – the top 5% who own 40% of all the wealth (or the top 1% who own over a third of all financial wealth). There’s a world of difference between a relatively low-paid woman struggling to prevent her job from being replaced by unprotected and exploited agency work, struggling to get her voice heard by her 5:40 employer, struggling to improve her living standards – and the financial elite who run a coach and four through tax, labour and environmental codes.
To justify ‘vested’ you refer to ‘work practices’. Of course, these are invariably highlighted in the public sector – because it is open and accountable (mostly), unlike the work practices in the ‘private’ sector which are closed and unaccountable. But let’s deal with this issue.
Are you surprised to find inefficiencies in the public sector – at all levels – when the historical practices of the management, informed by Government policy (i.e. right-wing led Government), has been to starve public services, forcing them to produce under structures that may well be expedient for certain ideological dispensations, but not for the wider public? Are you surprised at conflict between management and labour agendas when there are policies that subsidise the fee-paying education sector but starve the public sector – as the OECD details; or in the health sector which is a testament to a system run for personal and corporate profit? Are you surprised when cases of harassment of shop stewards and employees in the public sector are cited? Are you surprised that a resulting confrontation, disillusion, loss of efficiency and a ‘protect what you have’ mentality seeps into the shopfloors and the boardrooms?
Public sector companies and agencies have been, and continue to be, manipulated for political effect by the Right. Fianna Fail's inflating of public enterprise payrolls in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a result of the failure of the private sector to respond to their demand policies (and an acknowledgment that right-wing parties had no sustainable solutions to unemployment). Today, the electricity market has become a surreal laboratory where neo-liberal experiments are being conducted, resulting in exorbitant price rises. Interestingly, it is a 'vested interest' trade union that is promoting a market-based analysis and prescription that would benefit households and companies (hopefully Minister Eamon Ryan will sit down with the ESB unions and management with this analysis rather than precipitate industrial action in this sector).
This ideology of confrontation, manipulation and ‘race-to-the-bottom’ is not confined to the public sector but is widespread throughout the economy. You may have read the report by the National Centre for Participation and Performance. It showed that the private sector companies that recognised trade unions and introduced cooperative work practices were far more productive than those that had no trade unions. This seems counter-intuitive to many but it shouldn’t be – its all about the power of democracy and participation. The lack of this power might explain why indigenous enterprise is so poor in Ireland (always has been) – because they refuse to adopt best workplace practices and choose the route of confrontation, union-bashing and loss of productivity.
This power can be seen in one ‘bad practice’ story – that of B&I in the late 1980s. Through negotiation and consensus the public sector workers agreed to pay freezes, workplace practices, overtime bans, while management agreed to investment and strategic priorities. The result was that in a very short time the company was in profit – just in time for the Fianna Fail Government to sell it off to Irish Ferries at a knocked down price (and we know what happened to 'work practices' there). This is not about public sector reform - its about reform in all enterprises.
Or remember the driving testers? The media, commentators, politicians (even, unfortunately the Labour leadership) all queued up to have a go at them. They were blamed for everything that was wrong with the waiting times. Where were all these commentators and politicians when the Comptroller and Auditor General issued a report largely exonerating the driving testers and laying the blame at the Government – which starved the unit of funds and modern structures while trashing its own industrial relations machinery?
None of the above should be seen as a challenge to Green politics but rather a vindication of it. For the workplace is the ‘local’ – the site of challenge to powerful, vested interests. It is the site of ‘solidarity’ – a key concept on the Left, which can inform, and be informed by, Greens principles of sustainability and subsidiarity.
For instance, when the cleaning staff of one university was threatened with being laid-off to make way for outsourcing, the lecturers, professors and other staff threatened industrial action. They were willing to sacrifice their pay to help out their lower paid colleagues. Is this not something that we should be championing – at local and national level? Is this not a moral example for these times we live in?
You suggest the Left should take up the cause of the poor and question whether it has been vocal enough. You may be right (though I would direct you to Labour TD, Jan O’Sullivan’s excellent work on educational disadvantage or the Party's well researched anti-poverty document). Certainly, when over a third of private sector employees are officially regarded as ‘low-paid’, when nearly a third live below the near-poverty line, when we have one of the most unequal societies in the EU - we can’t be vocal enough.
But we must create strategies that incorporate all the concerns of working people for in that way a larger political front can be created for progressive change. For instance, the middle 40% income group has suffered from real income losses in the last two years – yes, middle income earners. By linking their interests with those of the disadvantaged, we can begin to create a progressive majority in society. Issues such as a state earnings-related pension, an expanding social insurance system, childcare as a public service, universal health insurance: all these can guarantee increased living standards for all workers who earn their living by their hands and brains (as James Connolly, whom you refer to, put it). This is not about Government doing things for people, but people coming together in the public realm, to collectively resolve their individual problems: social protection living standards and truly ‘public’ services. In that way, the poor and disadvantaged – isolated in political ghettos – can start to refigure the political agenda. This is another example of the Left’s and the trade union’s concept of solidarity.
At the end of the day, the interests of over 500,000 people who are members of trade unions in all walks of life (and thousands more who want to be members but fear retribution from employers) are more likely to correspond with the interests of similarly employed working men and women than the purveyors of an ideology that seeks narrow, short-term profit at the expense of people's living standards, the environment and a moral culture that values solidarity and equality.
There is much that unites us, Ciaran. We should work harder to understand each other, listen to each other’s viewpoints, and build a common destiny together. I know that I have benefited from being open to Green analysis. I, too, am disappointed at the ‘Green-bashing’ and have pointed to areas where the Left and the Greens can cooperate despite the parliamentary divide. Hopefully, your speech will be the first among many - and from many others - creating a much needed dialogue between progressives.
To most effectively do that we should eschew tired images and stereotypes and go beyond the easy demarcations. Legitimate criticisms of trade unions, the Left and the Greens is not only acceptable but necessary if we are to learn and go forward. But to exalt particulars into misleading generalisations can only buttress those who are fundamentally opposed to a progressive agenda.
If we work together we might just cheat the devil and, one day soon, come together to put forward a united progressive politics. It may not be quite heaven, but we will one step closer.
Member of UNITE-ATGWU section