Irish Independent OpEd: We can’t let zero contract trends undermine spirit of 1913 Lockout

by Alex White TD - Irish Independent 

One hundred years ago this week, the 1913 Lockout began – a titanic struggle between capital and labour; class and power. Many in Dublin lived in squalor in tenement city slums. Work was often of a casual nature, doled out on a daily basis and given to those willing to work for the lowest wage. For those in steady employment there was little to protect their basic rights. Coupled with desperate social conditions, there was no protection for people against the vagaries of the market.  While the strikers of the 1913 Lockout were defeated, their legacy of decency, social solidarity and struggle for the right to engage in collective bargaining lived on for the benefit of our nation.

The anniversary of this pivotal moment in our history provides an opportunity for Labour party representatives, activists and members to reflect on the values we share and our vision for the future. There is no doubt that Labour as a coalition party in Government has faced stark choices. But that does not deter us from imagining a society built on the principles of freedom, equality, community and democracy.

Of course, the major challenge for this Government is to bring about our economic recovery and in doing so to restore employment and living standards for our citizens. By strengthening our international trade links, creating a stimulus programme, and establishing activation schemes such as Jobs Plus, Labour Ministers are advancing policies to increase employment, even if our prospects rely much on recovery in Europe and in the global economy.

While accelerating employment growth remains the number one priority for the Labour party, it is also important to recognise the challenges many workers face in the current economic climate. A strong trade union movement is essential for the protection of labour rights. The Programme for Government commits to reforming the law on the right to engage in collective bargaining, and I look forward to these proposals being advanced in the coming months.

We have a new “precariat” in some sectors of the labour force, with people working on zero-hours contracts, short term contracts, or for free on unpaid internships. These trends can undermine rights earned by workers in the past, and the relevant statutory protections may require strengthening, or at least review. Zero-hours contracts shape a life of uncertainty for people where their ability to budget for the future or manage a stable family-life is particularly difficult. Surely at this time we can strive beyond the prescriptions of William Martin Murphy, who thought that working people should receive a wage sufficient to “live in frugal comfort”.  For citizens to derive value from their work, they need a level of security and fairness.

If as a country we accept any jobs at any cost, and try to compete with low wage economies, we are destined to lose. Equally, if we forfeit hard-won labour rights or the means of their vindication, we risk undermining the welfare of the next generation. We will only thrive as a nation if we have decent, high quality employment for those who can work, and a secure social safety net for those who cannot.

We face enormous challenges today, with so many people unemployed and many more in financial difficulty as a consequence of political and economic failure. However, it is nevertheless the case that the Ireland of 2013 would be unrecognisable to the workers and citizens of 1913 Dublin. We have seen enormous progress in employment rights, education, social protection, housing, and the ending of Church control over social policy. It is indisputable that much of this progress has been achieved by Labour participation in government.

Our task now is to look forward ambitiously, and to re-imagine a society and economy where everyone pays their due, employees achieve their full potential, and society strives to protect the most vulnerable. With prosperity and solidarity interlinked in this renewed social contract, the Ireland sought by the strikers of 1913 can be realised.