28/04/2019 Comments are off Patrick Cole
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“Remember the dead; fight like hell for the living”

The Occupational Safety and Health Act in the US became legally effective on April 28th 1971.

This significant piece of legislation sought to ensure that employers provide employees with an environment free from recognized hazards, such as exposure to toxic chemicals, excessive noise levels, mechanical dangers, heat or cold stress, or unsanitary conditions.

The American trade union confederation, AFL-CIO, used the passing of the Act to declare that 28 April should be marked as a commemorative day for those who had died or been injured at work. In 1984, the Canadian Union of Public Employees did the same in Canada. This led, in 1991, to the Canadian federal government declaring April 28 to be a National Day of Mourning.

Various official commemorations are held to this day, and the Canadian flag is flown at half-mast from sunrise to sunset on all federal government buildings.

The idea has spread globally over the years and up to 80 countries now mark Workers’ Memorial Day, many of them with official recognition by the state. Everywhere, the purpose is the same. We seek to commemorate those who have died or been injured because of their work.

While every year we still have too many people who die in accidents at work – 37 died in 2018 in the Republic – many more are affected by occupational illnesses.

Some of these prove fatal while countless others suffer from both physical and psychosocial disorders arising from their work. Alongside our commemoration therefore, we also try to use the day to create awareness and to commit ourselves to creating safer workplaces.  This is why we use the motto based on the words of Cork-born Mary “Mother” Jones – Remember the dead; fight like hell for the living.

Trade unions have been the crucial force in the past in protecting workers and raising the bar to ensure people can return home safe and well after their day’s work.

There is no room for complacency and we need to continue this work.

11/11/2018 Comments are off Patrick Cole
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SIPTU porters in Limerick Hospital take a stand

Last Thursday, (8th November) SIPTU members working as porters at University Hospital Limerick protested over managements refusal to engage with their union and address the workers concerns.

They feel let down and discarded by management. The union stands with them. The community support them.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back in this particular instance, on behalf of the portering section, is that the portering section has had a restroom where they can take their breaks, for an excess of 25 years. A number of months ago, management closed that restroom without any discussion or agreement.” – Tony Kenny, SIPTU Sector Organiser.

28/10/2018 Comments are off Patrick Cole
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Retrospective – The Presidency of Michael D Higgins

The last seven years have been eventful ones for our union and our country.

To the fore for both has been President Michael D Higgins, who has placed progressive causes and commemorating the history of the labour movement high on his agenda during his time in Áras an Uachtaráin.

From the launch of his campaign to become President in October 2011, when he batted away a hostile question from one journalist from the right-wing press with the putdown “being called independent and having independence of mind are two different things”, it was clear he was not going to shy away from his lifelong allegiance to progressive politics.

As a long-time SIPTU member and trade union activist, Michael D made sure that the role of the socialist and labour movements was given their rightful place during commemorations of the Dublin Lockout of 1913, the 1916 Rising as well as the First World War.

Early in his presidency he summed up his views on the importance of trade unionism when he said: “The trade union movement has been central to the development of community for over a century and I believe that the trade union movement…will, or should I say must, play a pivotal role in rebuilding our damaged society.”

Labour Rights and the Rising

Among the commemoration events, the President attended was the unveiling of the Green Flag of Ireland hoisted over Liberty Hall in the lead up to the Rising. The flag was loaned to the union by the Inniskillings Museum in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. It had been captured by members of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers from a ruined Liberty Hall in the aftermath of the Rising.

The first major event of the SIPTU calendar of commemorations was the showing of the iconic films Mise Eire and Saoirse? in Liberty Hall on Sunday, 13th March, which featured a presentation by President Higgins to the director of the two epics, George Morrison. He also attended a gala concert on Easter Saturday, 26th March, in Liberty Hall featuring Christy Moore, Damien Dempsey, Karen Casey and other performers.

On Easter Tuesday, 29th March, President Higgins laid a wreath at the statue of James Connolly opposite Liberty Hall on Beresford Place in a State commemoration of those who lost their lives fighting with the ICA in Easter week 1916 and in the executions that followed.

Sabina Higgins… actress & activist

IN October 2016, Sabina Higgins took to the Liberty Hall stage in James Connolly’s short play Under Which Flag?. It was just one aspect of the very active role that the wife of the President has taken in the cultural life of our union.

Sabina has often attended SIPTU associated events with her husband in his presidential capacity. However, just as regularly she has visited Liberty Hall or attended union events in her personal capacity or as an active member of Irish Equity, the SIPTU affiliated union for actors.

She was awarded life membership of Irish Equity earlier this year.

Sabina Higgins attended the Jim Larkin commemoration in Glasnevin Cemetery on Sunday, 2nd February 2014. Later that year she was present at the official opening of the Rosie Hackett Bridge which crosses the Liffey under the shadow of Liberty Hall.

Call for action for precarious workers

A NEW progressive ideology must be developed to help organise those in casual and precarious employment into a force that can change society for the better, President Michael D Higgins declared in early 2015.

His strong call for action for workers in precarious jobs came in a speech delivered on 26th February 2015, in the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, to commemorate the role of Irishman Edward Joseph Phelan in establishing the International Labour Organisation.

In the important address, the President rubbished the neo-liberal ideology which has “underpinned the systematic deregulation of national systems of labour and the promotion of competition between them”.

He said such an approach had not only led to economic disaster but also created a new class of worker, the “precariat”, which “is defined by partial involvement in labour combined with extensive ‘work-for-labour’, that is, a growing array of unremunerated activities – often internships of various sorts – that are required to get access to remunerated jobs.”

The speech by the President played an important role in beginning a national debate on the spread of precarious work practices throughout many sectors of the economy. He said: “The shift towards precarious employment is far from being confined to low- skilled jobs.”

He added: “In Ireland today, a considerable volume of teaching and research work is carried out by ‘temporary lecturers’, ‘adjunct lecturers’, and so-called ‘teaching assistants’ who have no job security at all and must repeatedly resume their elusive and exhausting hunt for the next short-term contract.”

Highlighting the fight for global justice

During his years as an activist and politician the President was strongly focused on international justice issues. And President Higgins has maintained this keen concern throughout his seven years in the Aras.

He has made a number of state visits where he has highlighted struggles for justice including during his tour of Latin America and Cuba in 2017 and when visiting a refugee camp in Greece earlier this year.

While in South Africa in November 2014, President Higgins visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. This visit inspired the hosting of a Nelson Mandela exhibition in Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the late South African President and 25 years of diplomatic relations between Ireland and South Africa.

At the opening of the exhibition in July 2018, the President highlighted the strength and breadth of Ireland’s relationship with South Africa, from support for the anti-apartheid movement to the vibrant partnership which exists between the two countries today.

In his speech, President Higgins praised the Dunnes Store strikers action as “a touchstone moment of the protest against apartheid in Ireland” and emphasised the power of workers to bring about political change. He said: “In July 1984, a group of workers mainly young women, in Dunnes on Henry Street, took a moral stand and refused to handle produce imported from South Africa. It was an utterly selfless act.”

He added: “The power of their protest and principled stance eventually led the Government of Ireland to ban South African goods from being sold in Ireland, and this ban remained in place until the end of the apartheid regime.”

Weaving the story of the 1913 Lockout

 PRESIDENT Higgins worked closely with the union in commemorating the Great Dublin Lockout of 1913. In November 2012 he visited Liberty Hall to launch the SIPTU Lockout Tapestry project commemorating the struggle which defined the early years of our union.

At the launch, he said: “It is through the power of collective action that the workers of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union sought to establish their right to organise to secure a better deal for the ordinary workers of Dublin, and it is very fitting that it is through collaboration that they are being remembered.”

23/09/2018 Comments are off Patrick Cole
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After Brexit… Partition on steroids

IF BRITAIN crashes out of the EU, the Irish Government will be reluctantly forced to erect border checks to remain a member of the European Single Market and EU Customs Union.

If Britain agrees on a free trade agreement with the EU, border checks will still be required as the UK is refusing to sign up to full regulatory alignment with the EU.

Either which way the prospects are bleak for a no land border check scenario on the island of Ireland.

Despite strong support by the member states towards Ireland’s terrible predicament arising from Brexit, the current or future Irish Government will face a choice between a no hard border scenario or maintaining full membership of the EU with all its associated rules and advantages.

An alternative to a hard border will only happen in one of two ways. In the North, the DUP would have to blink first and concede that Northern Ireland should have special EU protected status. In that instance, Northern Ireland would remain an EU member when the rest of the UK would not. The alternative is that UK will remain in the EU but it is hard to imagine either scenario being realised.

Best case scenario: we are just 15 months away from when the UK fully exits the European Union. Worse case: this will happen in March 2019.

Where did it all go wrong? The original plan was that negotiators would be about to conclude the second phase of the exit talks around now in time for October’s summit of EU leaders.

On March 1st, the UK would enter a new transition period with the clock ticking towards December 2020, the end of the transition agreement.

Sadly, the current mess means that the first phase remains unresolved – the British government has backslided from the ‘backstop’ – the promise that there would be no hard border whether not there was a Brexit agreement.

And the second phase is in tatters. The so-called ‘Chequers proposal’ agreed in May by the UK cabinet was the UK contribution to the second round; the round that would set out the parameters for a EU-UK trade agreement in advance of the technical detail being worked out. EU negotiators rightly highlight that there can be no cherry picking.

There are suggestions now of a CETA-like deal – Canadian Europe Trade Agreement.

More will be known at a crucial informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Salzberg next month. Whether it will be a free trade deal, a regulation and trade deal or no deal, all roads lead to border checks. The question is what type?

The best we can hope for is that it will be a low friction border.

The Swedish-Norwegian border is considered to be the most advanced in the world.

Despite extensive use of technology, a common legal framework for border operations, plus an economic area agreement which sees Norway mirror EU regulatory standards for goods, both countries require a pre-arrival declaration at least one hour prior to arrival at one of the 14 border posts between the two countries.

Some products can cross unmanned border crossing but they too are subject to pre-arrival declarations and additional special conditions.

This is the product of six decades of customs cooperation between both countries.

16/09/2018 Comments are off Patrick Cole
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A New Ambition, New Direction for Health

Next month, SIPTU Health Division activists will debate several key motions at its Biennial Delegate Conference (BDC) in Pairc Ui Chaoimh, Cork that call for a new direction on how public health services are delivered.

Right alongside housing and precarious work, the funding of our health service is the number one concern for SIPTU members.

Over the last number of months, we have seen the tragic consequences the outsourcing of vital work has had on our health services and the chances of low paid health workers owning a home become a pipedream.

SIPTU Health Divisional Organiser, Paul Bell says that SIPTU members will have an opportunity to discuss and debate motions on how health workers can be more ambitious when it comes to campaigning to address these vital issues.

Minister for Disabilities, Finian McGrath, broadcaster and journalist, James Bloodworth whose book “Hired” delves into the ever-expanding growth of precarious work and CervicalCheck campaigner Vicky Phelan are among the several high profile speakers who will address the conference.

An exclusive interview with James Bloodworth will be premiered on Sunday 30th September.

10/09/2018 Comments are off AideenC
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Women’s rights activist Sylvia Meehan dies aged 89

Tributes have been paid to Irish women’s rights activist and trade unionist Sylvia Meehan, who has died aged 89.

Her death follows a long illness, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) has said.

Ms Meehan studied legal and political science at UCD, where she was the first woman to win the UCD Literary and Historical Association gold medal in 1951.

She began her career in teaching, becoming heavily involved with the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland trade union during her teaching years and the Women’s Committee of Ictu.

She served as the first chair and chief executive of the Employment Equality Authority, from its establishment in 1997 until 1992.

In 1977, she left teaching to become the first chief executive of the Employment Equality Agency, which was established to oversee the enforcement of the Employment Equality Act.She has been particularly credited with being instrumental in the movement towards achieving equal pay for women.

In more recent years, she served as President of the Irish Senior Citizens Parliament.

The President, Michael D Higgins, said her pioneering work on equality in education and employment had left a lasting legacy.

“In her life, Sylvia Meehan overcame many challenges, becoming a tenacious campaigner for workers’ rights, determined to promote the inclusion and empowerment of women, older people and all vulnerable sections of society.

“Her energy, vision and dynamism were directed at making Ireland a more empowering, informed and welcoming society.”

Ictu General Secretary Patricia King said Ms Meehan’s “pioneering work paved the way for a generation of feminists”.

“Sylvia believed that woman must demand their place at the negotiating table and encouraged greater participation by women in the trade union movement, in civic society and in politics,” said Ms King.

Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland Orla O’Connor said Ms Meehan “will be a great loss not only for her family but for the women’s movement in Ireland.”

Minister for Equality, Immigration and Integration, David Stanton said he was “very saddened” to learn of Ms Meehan’s death.

“An inspiring role model and a campaigner for equality when it was far from fashionable, she has been hugely influential across a long career which spanned teaching, public service as the first Chair of the Employment Equality Agency, and advocacy,” he said.

“We take inspiration from her example as we continue to work for full gender equality. On behalf of Minister Flanagan and on my own behalf, I extend our deepest sympathies to Sylvia’s family and friends.”

Sinn Féin spokesman for workers’ rights David Cullinane said Ms Meehan was an “outstanding advocate and activist”.

Ms Meehan is survived by her five children, John, Niall, Sarah, Richard and Rosa.

This article was written by Áine McMahon for the Irish Times, September 6th, 2018

26/08/2018 Comments are off Patrick Cole
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Hiking up the pension age won’t solve Ireland’s pensions problem

If the Government gets its way, by 2028 Ireland will have the highest pension age across advanced industrialised economies. Ireland is currently just one of three countries across the OECD that plans to increase the State pension age to 68.

Entitlement to the state pension rose to 66 in 2014, it will rise to 67 in 2021, and the third increase is planned to occur in a decade’s time in 2028.

These policy changes were put in place in March 2010.

Now, in 2018, the current Government has set out a roadmap for pension reform over the next five years. Of course, we have been here before – the Green Paper on pensions was published in 2007 and we thought then that it would set in a train a series of changes.

The current roadmap has six strands: consideration of an auto-enrolment occupational pension system, measures to support the operation of the defined benefit scheme, public service pension reform, measures to encourage “fuller working lives” which entail deferral of state pension payment and measures to improve the management of private pensions.

The first and most imminent strand relates to changes to the State pension.

The Government is proposing a change that would see individual entitlement calculated on a total contribution basis, i.e. the total number of contributions over a person’s working life as opposed to a system which considers the number of years and the total number of contributions.

As the changes to the pension age were made in 2011, they are not currently under consideration in this roadmap. They should be.

In effect, the move to increase the pension age without comprehensive reform of the overall pension system amounts to putting the cart before the horse.

There is a strong argument to be made that trans formative changes such as the introduction of a second-tier auto-enrolment system cannot be made without comprehensively assessing all the factors relating to pensions and that includes the age of entitlement.

SIPTU representatives have highlighted that an increase in age will do little to resolve the overall affordability of the state pension system and unnecessarily disadvantage those in physically demanding occupations.

Already, we know that not all workers retire at the age of 65 or 66. Just over half (51%) of all those aged 60-64 participate in the labour market – are either in work or seeking work.

This reflects the sharp fall-off in the number of persons available for employment from the age of 55 so there is also a sizeable gap between the effective retirement age and the age of entitlement to the State pension.

Furthermore, an increase in the State pension age takes no account of the age when a worker actually starts making contributions.

There can be a considerable difference in contribution between those starting their working life straight from school and those entering at a later stage – often after many years of educational attainment and in many cases entering the labour market with a higher wage premium.

Countries such as France, Italy, Spain, Belgium have minimum contribution pension systems, thereby creating differentiated paths to retirement based on length of working life rather than age.

To date, many of our members have found themselves facing the prospect of a forced retirement at age 65 and then waiting a year to receive the State pension.

SIPTU organisers have been working with employers to collectively agree to an optional retirement age while also taking individual employment equality cases.

This problem is only set to swell if the issue of the age increase is not addressed in tandem with those other pension reforms.

12/08/2018 Comments are off Patrick Cole
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The pipedream of owning a home

What do young workers want?

For a number of years now, we have been told that compared with previous generations, those born after 1980- the so-called millennials are seeking out something different- whether it be “purpose” in their jobs, flexibility to maintain a healthy work-life balance or co-living arrangements.

Yet a number of well-conducted studies in the US conclude that young workers today typically share the same aspirations of previous generations.

Behind all this hype, each worker, whatever their age, requires the basic dignity and decency of having a permanent roof over their heads. And nowhere are the problems associated with precariousness and low paid work more evident than in the area of housing and the capacity to access affordable housing with a certainty of tenure and price, particularly in the main urban areas in Ireland today.

We looked at the CSO’s historical earnings data and national house prices from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government’s database going back almost forty years and we were able to use earnings per age data to establish housing affordability per age.

Over three decades ago back in 1986, a young worker aged between 25 and 29 earning average wages for his or her age cohort was facing house values worth 4.7 times their annual income.

Twenty years on, that ratio has jumped to 11.92 average. This ratio obviously fell during the crash and in 2017, that ratio is back up to 11.1 in terms of house prices to earnings.

It is no surprise then that 45% of all 25-29-year-olds owned their house back in 1991- fast forward to 2016 and that share have plummeted to 12%. The situation for those aged 30-35 is not much better- 50% owning their house in 1991 and the share drops to 32% in 2016.

For today’s average young worker, the prospect of being able to buy a house with their own resources anytime soon is remote.

For young workers in precarious jobs, that prospect is even more distant, the difficulties of affordability compounded by a set of rules that require consistency of income.

And those prospects become even more remote as house prices continue to far outpace the increase in real wages. House prices are increasing almost five times the rate of wages in this country and we can only assume that this ratio is getting worse with each passing year.

During the boom years, we know that cheap credit stepped in to meet homeownership demand. But with tight macroprudential rules, what lower paid and middle-income young workers do now?

Depend on the private rental housing market for their long-term housing needs? For a lucky 25% of first-time buyers, the impossible becomes possible with the help of a gift from parents to help with their mortgage deposit.

We know from the TILDA project on ageing in Ireland that in their wave three survey over 4000 older (aged 54+) persons, that some 48% of older adults provided financial assistance to their children.

The intended purpose of that gift is not clear, however 2013 research published by the Social Market Foundation in Britain on parental transfers to children found that across four surveys, cash transfers are made in lower income families as well as higher income families.

The main difference was that on average lower income household transferred cash for every day consumption as opposed to strategically planned life events such as the purchase of a house. In effect, older higher income generations helping younger generations to buy assets or capital further reproduces inequality within generations.

No official data on housing down payments is available but we can rely on the 2017 work of Central Bank economists Kelly and Lydon that looked at loan data from residential mortgage books within certain Irish banks.

In the CSO’s household consumption and finance survey in 2014, they identify that almost one quarter of first time homebuyers had an inheritance. The median inheritance of €10k (mean €21.3k) was equal to around 50% of the value (2008-2014) of deposits on mortgaged homes for buyers under 40 at the time of purchase.

For the remaining 75%, those that are low or average wages, the future in terms of their housing needs is bleak. Currently, the average worker spends just over 50% of their disposable income on private rent for a one bed apartment in Dublin, with little or no scope of being able to save for a deposit.

Longstanding calls for better rental rules to enable long term tenancies and greater security of tenure must be enacted. But these will only go so far. We all know by now that increased supply is the only solution.

However, the economics of the housing market and the market control exerted by developers means there will no major glut of housing supply any time soon. It is a misplaced expectation that an increase in housing supply will dramatically reduce house purchase prices. The affordability problem for both house purchase and private rental will remain.

In that context, we need to get away from the mindset of thinking about delivering social, affordable and private housing separately. Any basic understanding of the housing market suggests that we need to develop all three in tandem. For it to be financially sustainable for the State, market rate and affordable rate rents need to cross-subsidise the social.

Recall this is not about a once-off boost to housing supply- estimates suggest we need somewhere between 35,000 and 50,000 dwellings per annum between now and 2040 to meet future population demand.

The State can and should get involved in building housing.

It has the land; the Government itself admits it has 1,700 hectares alone in State agency and local authority control, it has the access to the cheap credit and it has the space within the fiscal rules.

SIPTU Economist, Marie Sherlock

An edited version of this article appeared in the Irish Times on Friday 10th August.

08/07/2018 Comments are off Patrick Cole
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SIPTU to resume Section 39 talks in ‘end game’ for pay justice campaign

SIPTU representatives are to resume pay talks with the Health Service Executive (HSE), the Department of Health and Section 39 health service providers on Monday (9th July) morning at 11.00 a.m.

SIPTU Health Division Organiser, Paul Bell, said: “The talks, held under the auspices of the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), will initially consider the HSE audit of Section 39 organisations. There will then be discussions on how to achieve a sustainable solution concerning how its findings can be addressed, funded and implemented.

“We are now at a critical phase in our campaign. Monday marks the beginning of the end game in a struggle for the thousands of Section 39 workers prepared to commit to strike action to achieve the respect and recognition they deserve.

“The findings of the HSE audit of Section 39 organisations are clear for all to see. There is an established pay link between Section 39 workers and their counterparts in the HSE. The content of the extensive audit document confirms the process for employers to secure funding from the state to restore our members pay.”

He added: “SIPTU representatives remain insistent that pay restoration will commence in 2018 and our members remain committed to this objective. We will also be insisting on an agreed timeline for the commencement and conclusion of pay restoration for workers in Section 39 organisations.

“We are mindful of the delay in the pay restoration process for Section 39 workers when compared to their directly employed HSE colleagues under the terms of the Public Service Stability Agreement.”

24/06/2018 Comments are off Patrick Cole
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Young Workers – Join a Union

Young people who face the scourges of low pay and insecure work need to engage with trade unions.

A great place for unions to start is with the 180,000 students studying on third level campuses across the country.

Every year, SIPTU representatives visit third level colleges in conjunction with the Union of Students in Ireland and embark on targeted site visits to student nursing, healthcare and paramedic courses.

SIPTU organisers and activists run campaign stands, sign young people up to the union and gather signatures for petitions demanding the living wage and secure jobs for all workers.

This year, activists handed out a new Young Worker Survival Guides full of information on workers’ rights and trade unions.

In the last few years, an important partnership has been agreed between SIPTU and the Union of Students in Ireland. Under the agreement, all members of USI can access advice and representation from SIPTU through the Workers’ Rights Centre.

Many young people today face insecurity and hardship in terms of their employment and living standards. In addition to the rising cost of education and housing, young workers often experience precarious working arrangements.

Issues such as low pay, short-term contracts, insecure hours – these were some of the injustices that gave rise to the trade union movement many years ago. Young people today need trade union representation, and trade unions need young people to become members.

Yet while thousands of young people have joined SIPTU in recent years, there is still a very large percentage who are not joining unions. While there are many possible reasons for this, one issue is probably that many young people have never come into contact with a trade union before.

Without having a visible union in their workplace, or having a family tradition of union activism many young people think of trade unions as representing “other” groups of workers.

This is reinforced through the media where most coverage of trade union activity focuses on transport disputes, public sector negotiations etc. – crucial matters but ones which might not seem immediately relevant to many workers in non-unionised parts of the private sector.

Many employment sectors are hostile ground for union organisers and so young workers in these sectors may have never considered joining a union. They might not realise that we represent people in their profession or what the benefits are.

It is crucial that the union movement explores new ways of reaching young people, and SIPTU’s current development plan layout many proposals in this regard.

Increased visibility, campaigning and organising on college campuses can be a crucial part of this. During the college visits, we found great support among the students’ union activists for working with SIPTU.

The USI has adopted strong policies on issues such as the living wage and precarious work.

All workers have the right to fair pay and secure jobs. The growth of precarious work must be challenged. Fairness at work and justice in society are ideas that appeal to all generations.

Through organising into trade unions young workers have a powerful tool for securing these rights, and as Ireland’s largest union, SIPTU can lead the way.