Jack O'Connor, General President, SIFTU, speaking at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, March 2, 2007
I would like to begin by congratulating Sinn on the progress it has made, and the courage of its leadership in working towards a just and lasting settlement of the issues that have divided the people of this island for so long.
In more ways than one we are living through a remarkable period in our history, one which is laden with potential for good but one in which danger lurks as well. We have unprecedented levels of prosperity but are also experiencing the most sustained assault on the gains made by working people here, and across Europe, since 1945.
This offensive is carried forward under the banner of market liberalisation, exploiting millions of vulnerable people who have no alternative but to work for half nothing. This assault is conducted with the assistance of a neo-liberal creed that depicts the world as locked in a battle between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys. The Good Guys are consumers and the Bad Guys are producers. The Good Guys are champions of free choice and competition, while the Bad Guys are protectors of selfish vested interests in this virtual universe. Naturally workers are among the Bad Guys.
We all know of course that this is a completely artificial division of humanity because workers and consumers are the same people. Like designers of video games, the neo-liberals have to erase certain realities to make this paradigm work. The most important of these is the inalienable right of every citizen in a democracy to a fair opportunity of experiencing a full, free and happy life.
Despite our prosperity and being spoilt for choice as consumers, this is becoming increasingly difficult. The reality is that many things people took for granted in less prosperous times such as occupational pensions, the 39 hour week, security of employment and being paid the rate for the job, are being systematically dismantled.
Now, in a world that confuses cheapness with value for money and wage cuts with competitiveness, we are witnessing a dramatic casualisation of jobs through bogus self-employment in some industries and the outsourcing of jobs in others to employment agencies who compete with each other in a relentless race to the bottom - driving down and undermining terms and conditions of employment.
Last week I saw a contract of employment in one of our premier industries, aviation, where a worker with an employment agency was paid the princely sum of ¤9.21 an hour. In return they were obliged to work a shift roster which had no regard whatsoever for any entitlement to rest, relaxation or participation in family life.
Indeed, if you look at CSO figures on trends in average pay across industries such as construction, hotels and catering, you will see they are only half the rates provided for in 'Towards 2016' and also substantially less than inflation. It is ironic that this is happening as we approach the centenary decade for the critical years in the founding of the modern Irish state, including the formation of the first of the unions that eventually gave birth to SIPTU, the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union. In fact it is exactly 100 years this week from the day when Jim Larkin addressed his first meeting of workers from the Belfast docks and events were set in train for the 1907 general strike in the city, which not alone united catholic and protestant workers, but picketers and policemen in a demand for better pay and conditions!
I am very conscious therefore of the significance this decade has for Sinn Fein and of your dedicated commitment to the aspiration of a free and independent Ireland. But I want to remind you of what Connolly wrote, not 100 years ago but over 110 years ago, 'The struggle for Irish freedom has two aspects; it is national and it is social. ... Nationalism without Socialism - without a reorganisation of society on the basis of a broader and more developed formŠ is only national recreancy'.
Present day patriots who violate the rights of ordinary working people are certainly recreants by Connolly's definition. For them the Tricolour is nothing more than a flag of convenience.
Along with the battle for independence in the political arena there is an equally important struggle underway in the workplace, the outcome of which will determine whether working people in this country, who constitute the vast majority, will have any say at all in determining the shape of the future. Otherwise it will be shaped exclusively by those whose only preoccupation is the accumulation of profit to the exclusion of every other social and human consideration. In their vision of the world everything should be decided by what happens in the supermarket and the stock exchange, rather than through the democracy of the ballot box.
It is an unequal battle in which those endowed with wealth and privilege enjoy enormous advantage, but I know I am speaking to people who are not overawed by long odds, and they are not as long as some would have you believe. Despite all the negative criticism from the right wing press there are actually more people in trade unions on this island now than there have ever been before, and this reflects a passion for justice and fair play that is deeply embedded in the history of our society.
It is this sense of justice and fair play that has seen Irish people stand up for the rights of migrant workers. As internationalists we have actively sought to recruit them and non-Irish nationals now comprise ten per cent of SIPTU. As you will recall from the Irish Ferries dispute we insisted on taking the issue of workers' rights to the top of the agenda in negotiations on a new national agreement and secured significant improvements in employment legislation, as well as better enforcement of existing regulations. Our whole policy in this area has been determined by the principle that every member of the workforce is entitled to the same rights, to be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace, irrespective of their country of origin.
I want to conclude by thanking the Ard Comhairle for the opportunity of speaking here today and to wish you every success with your conference. I look forward to the participation of Sinn Féin activists in the trade union movement, in encouraging people to organise in unions and to have the confidence to stand together in solidarity in the fight for a better future for all.