First, I would like to extend thanks to PAME (the All Workers Militant Front, Greece) for organizing this Pan-European Trade Union Teleconference and for inviting us to participate at this critical time in an exchange of our experiences as trade unionists and labour activists.
In recent years we have experienced a major assault against the trade union movement and the rights of workers across the European Union. The introduction of the Industrial Relations Act 1990 in Ireland represented a major inroad into trade union autonomy and reflected a growing trend of intervention in the organisation of a trade union’s internal affairs. This legislation has been used to attack and obstruct industrial action by workers.
A year ago today, workers in Ireland who were employed by Debenhams were notified by email that they were being made redundant. For an entire year they have been fighting for their rights. When the employer refused to pay a fair redundancy package, as negotiated by their trade union, workers took to the streets in protest at the employer’s actions and the government’s failure to act and the workers then took action to prevent stock being removed from stores.
The workers’ resistance continues. Their determination to fight remains strong despite the government’s attempts to use Covid legislation and increased repressive police powers to harass them in a vain attempt to break their resistance. They have maintained a presence outside 11 stores, have organised protests and campaigns winning support from the people. I would ask those participating in today’s teleconference to send a message of solidarity to the Debenham’s workers currently struggling for their rights in Ireland.
We have witnessed strike action and mass mobilisations across Europe. There have been rail
strikes in Finland, the strike of the Arcelor Mittal workers in Taranto, Italy, the protest by tourism workers across Greece and the massive demonstrations organised by PAME, to mention but a few. In many cases the Covid legislation has been deliberately manipulated to interfere in workers’ disputes with their employers and to curtail industrial action. Of course, while the EU, governments and employers collaborate to cut jobs and worsen conditions of employment, the capitalist system still expects workers to pay the price of the pandemic.
In Ireland Retail & Distribution workers are demanding action by the government to tackle low pay and insecure work worsened by the conditions of the Covid 19 pandemic. While increases in the pension age are taking place in most capitalist countries, the 2011 Social Welfare and Pensions Act set Ireland on course to have the highest pension age in the OECD in 2028, despite having the youngest population in Europe. Increasing the pension age represents a major attack on the social rights of working people.
The political line of the European Union and its capitalist member states has inflicted immense suffering on workers and their families and committed itself under the mantra of “competitiveness” and “flexibility”, to an all-out attack on workers and their rights. The judgments of the European Court of Justice in the Laval, Viking and similar cases have further undermined workers’ rights by attacking the right to strike and wage agreement.
The capitalist system, built on exploitation and oppression, promotes a regime in which low- pay and precarious employment are predominant; where workers are often expected to work “for free”; where hard won work-place rights are dismantled; where public assets are privatised for private profit; where wages have been falling in real terms; where the bargaining power of labour is diminished; where the gender pay gap continues and where restrictions are placed on trade union freedom.
From the start of the pandemic it became clear that many workers delivering essential services were being put at risk by their employers who were refusing to adhere to public health guidelines on social distancing and personal protection measures, including the failure to provide personal protection equipment. It was also clear that a number of companies, whose businesses were not essential in the current crisis, were continuing to trade and were putting the lives of workers at unnecessary and unacceptable risk.
Many thousands of workers employed in non-unionised firms were at the mercy of employers who placed the relentless pursuit of profit above the health, well-being and life of workers and their families and communities. Some of the most essential workers were on minimum wages, zero hours contracts and in precarious employment. Meanwhile their employers were amassing huge profits.
The new problems created by the Covid-19 pandemic have to be considered in context of the underfunding of public health infrastructure and the commercialisation and privatisation of
health and social care in the pursuit of profit which fulfils the privatisation agenda of the European Union. The depth of the crisis revealed the deep structural problems of the capitalist economy.
Locally and globally, capitalism is already preparing the ground for the world after Covid-19. Rather than improving pay and conditions for those workers who have stood in the frontline the capitalist class is moving to further privatise and profit from public and personal health; to cut back on public housing and education funding; to undermine social security; to place even greater restrictions on trade unions; to renew the attack on wages; to limit the minimum wage, extend precarious employment and to attack and further dilute workers’ rights.
It is the task of the trade unions to strengthen the struggle of the working class, to ensure that the working class does not pay for the crisis, to demand the improvement of the public health and social care system; the protection of all workers and the introduction of all necessary safety measures; full compensation for workers affected by the pandemic, including continuing pay; the rejection of mass layoffs and redundancies; resistance to all efforts to further diminish workers’ rights together with additional protections and supports for workers, the vulnerable, poor and homeless. We must condemn and resist the physical attacks and repressive measures against workers and their organisations.
It is important to expose the agenda of the EU, the governments of the member states and the employers which act in the interests of capital. The pandemic has further revealed the contradictions and failings of capitalism which have exacerbated the effects of this crisis and which demonstrably cannot meet the needs of the people. This system has failed and must be abolished. A better future which protects the interests of workers and their families can only be constructed in a socialist society.