Realising the dream a century on
This year we mark the centenary of the First Dáil. The Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress played a significant role in shaping the ‘Democratic Programme’ of the Dáil meeting in January 1919. Yet, much of what was contained in that document was subsequently forgotten or dismissed.
Along with other trade unions, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union – now SIPTU – played a constructive role in helping to steer Ireland towards a coherent social vision for the entire island of Ireland.
The challenge remains. Following a bruising economic crisis after 2008, the lessons of economic and policy development have not been learned or applied by Government. Witness, for example, the partial or complete non-implementation of the ‘Vacant Site Levy’ tax across local authorities in the midst of a housing crisis. The rights of property still come before the rights of workers, families and children to a home and a living wage.
Reclaiming the debate from a tired and lazy group-think will require a programme of systematic education and organisation on the part of the trade union movement. We need to move towards a new democratic programme informed by the same principles as those enunciated in 1919 but against a very different global and local context.
Three big challenges confront us: (1) a growing and ageing population with all that this implies for housing, healthcare, pensions, education and many other areas; (2) new technologies that will transform the way we work, travel and live; and (3) the crisis of the environment that will threaten life on this planet for our children and our children’s children.
We must not let others claim those areas vital to a progressive social and political vision. In the trade union movement we need to claim work, the ‘social wage’ and ‘enterprise’ development.
Work – paid or unpaid – is central to who we are. It is vital that people have access to all forms of work that match their skills and needs. Employment rates need to be higher. However, we need to pay more attention to the quality of work including the wider array of benefits, rights and guarantees.
Reconciling the different roles of work, caring and participation in the cultural and community life of the world around us should be made easier by creating pathways that are flexible and that give access to the supports and services that are needed. A living wage is one essential part, only, of an effort to eradicate poverty among those at work.
Reclaiming the ‘social wage’
The ‘social wage’ refers to public goods such as education, health- care, income support, transport and other services. Work is the basis of the social wage through taxes and the employment of those in the public service. The best way to tackle poverty is to secure jobs and wages that pay.
Well paid employment enables people to live with dignity and provides the resources for investment and maintenance of a high level of ‘social wage’.
Reclaiming enterprise/ industrial policy
To be for equality is not to be anti-business. A dynamic, pro-business environment can co-exist with a strong social protection safety net as well as a creative and dynamic partnership between public, private and voluntary bodies. A greater role in the running of enterprises for workers, consumers and communities could boost productivity and address some of the challenges posed by climate change and the need to switch away from fossil fuels.
Now, let’s leave the last word, here, with George Bernard Shaw: “You see things, and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were, and I say ‘Why not?’”