Speech to the Labour Party Trade Union Section


 William Norton House, 14th June 2014

Alex White SIPTU

Thank you very much Chairman, Joan, friends and comrades. I want to thank you for affording me the opportunity to be here today and to participate in this debate. It’s terrific to see such interest and involvement in the Party and the trade union movement. It is also heartening to see the solidarity and collaboration that we have as a Party with the trade union movement.

I’m very proud to stand here today as a candidate for the leadership of the Labour Party. I’m a trade unionist myself and a former member of the old FWUI no. 15 branch as it was known back then. I was a representative and an active trade unionist for 10 years. I am particularly proud to recall that I was Vice-Chair of the first Regional Executive Committee of SIPTU between 1990 and 1994 on the Dublin Executive Regional Committee. I think we called ourselves the Transitional Regional Executive Committee at that time. The merger was a remarkable achievement and a great experience to be part of.

Since that time, as many of you may know, I have worked as an employment lawyer - - for almost 20 years. The biggest part of my practice has been in labour and employment law; working with important protective legislation covering unfair dismissals, equality legislation, fixed term work and part-time work legislation. The range of statutes that have built up over the years have arisen very often as a result of the Labour Party being in Government and bringing forward the agenda that we wanted to see achieved in legislative form.

The title of today’s debate asks how can Labour principles shape Ireland in the twenty-first century and what is the role of trade unionism in the century ahead. I think that’s a very stimulating question for us to address.

In broad terms, the social democratic project is under threat. What we want to see is for the great social democratic project recover and be a beacon for progress in our country and in our world.

The economic crisis seemed to pose an opportunity for the left, but in truth the crisis revealed its weakness and inadequacy. This may be because the left abandoned so much of its programme during the period before the collapse - whether it was surrendering to the agenda of light-touch regulation in banking and finance in the UK under the Labour government, or adopting a supine attitude towards the low-tax and “shrink-the-state” programme of right-wing and centre-right parties here and elsewhere.

So when the music stopped, our chairs were gone and we have to accept that in some instances we actually removed the chairs ourselves.

We are living in an age of uncertainty. Economic recovery is not assured, and to the extent that it can be seen in Europe, it is two-speed. The fiscal constraints that were agreed in the Eurozone have not yet even begun to be matched by credible and sustainable policies for investment and growth, particularly in the so-called peripheral countries such as ours.

A critical task is to re-open this front in Europe and to press our case, not just for relief on the crippling debt, which was never the debt of the Irish people, but also on the urgent necessity for action on growth and action on investment.

We must understand the impact of global forces on our economy. They are very real and very extensive. But in recognising those forces, we should not imagine that we are powerless to act in the face of profound change that is happening in our world –change in the very nature of capitalism arising from exponential advances in technology, and the further decline in Fordist mass production that we’ve seen in recent decades. It seems to me that these issues are of enormous relevance both to the parties of the left and social democrats, and also to trade unions.

What we both need to do is not to abandon our traditional values and principles. On the contrary, what we need to do is to find policy instruments which seek to realise these values in a rapidly changing world.

For Labour, it means fashioning a new strategic role for the State in economic and social development. For the trade unions too, it requires new thinking on how best to represent and succeed on behalf of your members.

We need each other in these respective endeavours.

We have experienced, and in many ways are still living through an economic crisis; a crisis that pushed up public debt against a background of collapsing tax revenues.

As noted by Andre Sapir of Breugel, the crisis is also exposing and even accentuating the impact of long-term structural trends, including the ageing society, soaring health costs, and rising demand for public and social care services that were already there before the crisis began.

That austerity burden is exacerbating income and inter-generational inequalities. All the evidence is that younger age cohorts have been the most acutely affected by the crisis and I think that this is an unanswerable truth of what we’ve seen, specifically with what we’re seeing in the rise of youth unemployment.

So, in Labour, our task is firstly to recover as a party; to renew our organisation; to focus on a realisable set of objectives for the remaining lifetime of this government; and to prepare a manifesto together for the party to present to the people at the next general election.

The focus of this discussion is on the principles that we say must shape the Ireland of the 21st century. I have a number of principles that for me are the bedrock principles of socialism and social democracy that I aspire to.

First of all, government needs to be a force for good in rebuilding a productive economy. This is a critical role for government and the State. We should be unapologetic in demanding this. The case to “shrink the State”has lost any credibility it had, when we see the extraordinary extent of State intervention following the banking crisis.

The second principle I would have is regulation. Regulation is often described as a regulatory ‘burden’. I don’t regard regulation as a burden. I talk about regulation as a necessity, especially in the case of banking and finance, but also in areas such as wage-setting, professional fees whether legal or medical, environmental standards and health and safety standards also.

A third principle is strong, ethical and transparent public institutions. I would raise the reform agenda right across the board from Oireachtas reform which we need a lot more of, to real functioning, local government. Our courts and tribunals must be strong, transparent, ethical and fit for purpose.

The fourth principle is the public space - civic, cultural, physical and environmental.

It is of critical importance that we reach the EU 2050 emission targets, that we expand the use of renewable energy sources and develop ‘green growth’strategies.

A fifth principle is pluralism and tolerance in our society, a society free of discrimination. I think what the Labour Party has done in pressing for constitutional change, for example in same sex marriage and other areas, is critically important. Historically, if you go back over the decades, you can see that so much of the progress that the party made in our country was only done because Labour insisted on it in Government.

A further principle is supports and welfare whether it’s for individuals, families and communities. It is vital that we protect those budgets so we can protect initiatives like early investment in children and young families.

Healthcare - universally accessible healthcare. We will not ultimately solve the problems in our health services, and the additional demands on those health services without installing a proper universal system. We are bringing forward a universal system in relation to access to free GP care and primary care. The only way we’ll be able to run a progressive health service is if we have a health service with universal access.

Education for collective progress and individual fulfilment is a key principle –this means well-funded education, including higher education as a generator and engine of growth as well.

Finally, taxation: to meet fully the cost of public services we have to have a strong revenue base and we should stand up for that and not be apologetic. We only want taxes at the level they need to be, in order to provide services that a civilised society should have in health, in social protection and education. We should be clear on that. We should shift the focus from the taxation of incomes to the taxation of wealth, property and capital. I think a wealth tax should be firmly placed on the agenda by Labour and it should be kept on the agenda by the Labour Party in this period.

In regards to trade unions, it seems to me that the most important thing for the Labour Party to do in Government is seeing through new legislation on collective bargaining.

Jack O’Connor gave a brilliant speech this morning which addressed this important question of collective bargaining, amongst other issues.

The legislation that was introduced in the early 2000s was in danger of being fatally undermined by the Ryanair decision in the Supreme Court. What this Government is doing, at the insistence of the Labour Party, is rolling back that attack on the legislation of 2001 and 2004. This will be an enormous achievement, of historic importance.

The legislation will stand up for the principle in law that trade unions must be independent. The very basis of a trade union is that it is independent and is not the stooge or the plaything of the employer. If you can supplant the independence of a trade union and with a chosen group with whom the employer is prepared to negotiate, there is no real collective bargaining. This legislation will make central the absolute importance of trade union independence.

The legislation will have to include measures against victimisation, and measures to protect people who organise trade unions in a workplace and seek to bring forward demands relating to the terms and conditions for their members. There must be provisions against victimisation. We should include measures like interim relief and pre-dismissive relief in the courts, providing an option for legal intervention before a punitive dismissal takes place.

This legislation is a real example of the movement working together on the common agenda that we have as social democrats, as socialists and as trade unionists to make our country a better place, and to make sure that the legal framework is there for trade unionists to do the job that you are here to do which is to represent your members and advance their interests.

Thank you very much.