Why students should oppose Feargal Quinn’s bill

This year is the centenary of the 1913 Lockout in which Dublin workers and their families laid down their lives, and sacrificed their health and their bodily strength in order to defend their right to union membership and, by extension, their right to strike. The workers held out for half a year against gnawing hunger, against the truncheons of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, against the condemnation of the Catholic church, and against the savagely prejudicial attacks of the media – the most vituperative of which were belched forth by the Irish Independent, owned by William Martin Murphy, the leader of the employers’ union.

Eventually, the workers were forced back to work. James Connolly summed up the despondent mood: “And so we Irish workers must go down into Hell, bow our backs to the lash of the slave drive. … and eat the dust of defeat and betrayal.” But it was a pyrrhic victory for the bosses. They had seen that labour had the power to “shake or overturn the whole social order”, as AE Russell put it in his famous letter, and were reluctant to test that power again. In practice, labour had won the right to organise in unions and, as such, their right to strike. Today, workers still hold that right. For now.

ESB workers recently won a victory over senior management in a pension dispute. Following failed mediation and resolution measures, the union announced that they would go on strike on December the 16th if the ESB management did not honour certain commitments made regarding employee’s defined benefit pension scheme. It was the position of the union that ESB management has failed to uphold contractual and statutory regulations in guaranteeing that workers will not have to cover any shortfall in the pension scheme.

Last week, senator Feargal Quinn proposed a bill in the seanad that would criminalise workers in critical utilities such as electricity supply for going on strike. Under the proposed legislation, striking workers in those sectors could face 5 year prison terms or fines of up to a quarter of a million euro. Quinn told the Irish Independent that he had been planning on implementing the bill for some time but that recent events “have given it a real sense of urgency” – ie: he aimed to take advantage of the backlash against ESB workers to win attention and sympathy for his bill.

In the face of this attack on workers’ rights, we should appropriate that well-worn rhetorical device, much beloved of the reactionary windbags who crowd out the letter pages of the respectable newspapers, in which the author decries some new modern calumny by appealing to the heroic sacrifice made by preceding generation. “A century ago, our forefathers laid down their lives for the cause of the Irish Republic” the correspondent will splutter through their mustachios before embarking on some rant about single parents or tampon ads.

This device should be reclaimed from the puffed-up armchair patriots:  “A century ago, our forefathers and forewomen laid down their lives and their livelihoods to win the right to unionise and the right to strike.” Indeed, the historical parallels are apt: Feargal Quinn, like William Martin Murphy, is a wealthy capitalist and politician. Unlike the ESB workers, Quinn can confidently look forward to a comfortable retirement. Besides a substantial oireachtas pension, Quinn, whose family were placed at number 56 on the 2011 Sunday Time rich list, will reap the fruits of various lucrative investments.

Furthermore, the ESB workers came under severe attack in the mainstream media. Just as William Martin Murphy’s Independent savaged the Dublin workers of 1913, Denis O’Brien’s modern incarnation has been equally eager to prejudice the public against organised labour. The paper has run several panic-mongering stories warning of the “crippling” ESB strike with headlines such as “Blackout: the price you will pay for ESB strike” and “ESB unions are holding the country to ransom”. Rush-hour commuters will face “widespread chaos” while parents will face the “crippling double blow” of ESB and ASTI strikes (as draconian government measures introduce mandatory pay cuts for the secondary school teachers). “Colour” columnists such as Jody Corcoran and Eilis O’Hanlon write painfully unfunny “humour” pieces about how “we will all end up hating” the ESB workers, warning that if “Brenadan Ogle [ESB union leader] wins, the country is finished”, and speculating that Ogle “will have a comfortable retirement on a beach in the Caribbean, cigar in mouth and glass of rum in hand, as he fantasies.”

 “Last week, senator Feargal Quinn proposed a bill in the seanad that would criminalise workers in critical utilities such as electricity supply for going on strike. Under the proposed legislation, striking workers in those sectors could face 5 year prison terms or fines of up to a quarter of a million euro.”

Needless to say, these columnists don’t have “the balls” (to borrow a term from Corcoran’s article) to take on their own boss Denis O’Brien who, with his investments in Haiti, almost certainly has spent time on a Caribbean beach in the company of cigars and rum. That is a pity, because O’Brien would seem to offer rich pickings to any investigative journalist worth their sodium chloride. The Irish Independent has been silent on the above issues and, as the Phoenix points out, readers of INM publications will “search in vain for references to the Moriarty Tribunal, whose conclusions included the finding that Michael Lowry, the disgraced former communications minister, “secured the winning” of the state’s second mobile phone licence for O’Brien’s Esat Digifone in 1995”. O’Brien had made payments to Lowry of almost half a million punt.

Furthermore, as Phoenix magazine notes, the state-owned IBRC facilitated two O’Brien-involved deals last year by writing down debts at a cost of ¤174m to the state. One of those deals facilitated the takeover of Siteserv, a utilities company, by an O’Brien investment vehicle. Siteserv were subsequently awarded the contract to install water meters in Dublin. Even more interestingly, according to Broadsheet.ie, a French company, Altrad, which offered to pay 33% more than O’Brien for Siteserv – thereby reducing the cost of the write-down to the state – was told that “the Irish group was not for sale”. This year, Bank of Ireland, previously bailed out by the government, and the 99.8% state- owned AIB wrote off 141m worth of debt owed by Independent News and Media which is controlled by O’Brien and lieutenants. It would be interesting to learn the opinions of the state-appointed public interest directors on the boards of both banks regarding these huge write-downs. Sadly, the Independent has not thought of questioning them.

The ESB dispute takes place in the context of a huge attack on the livings standards of Irish workers and on Irish people in general. Over the period 2008-11, Irish unit labour costs saw the largest single decline in the Eurozone, falling by over six per cent. Ireland is now, in the euphemistic language of bourgeois economics, the most “efficient” manufacturer in the EU. Skyrocketing unemployment has placed downwards pressure on wages and the unions have largely fought a rear-guard battle, trying to prevent wages and conditions from falling too low. According to the Survey of Income and Living Conditions carried out by the CSO, half the population would be “at risk” of poverty without social transfers. Young people have it particularly bad. Youth unemployment reached a new peak of 30.8% this February with 60,000 young people unemployed. When you factor in the tens of thousands on JobBridge, Fás courses and community work schemes, as well as the 30,000 young people who are classified as underemployed, the number of youth living precariously approaches one hundred thousand. This isn’t even counting the tens of thousands who been spat out the “safety valve” of emigration since the crisis began.

This situation is not showing signs of ameliorating. According to Michael Taft, drawing on the government’s own data, it won’t be until 2024 that Irish employment returns to 2007 levels. The recent fall in unemployment is misleading about the true strength of the economy. Aside from the usual caveats raised about emigration, underemployment, training courses and other arse-covering devices deployed by the government, there are many reasons to keep the prosecco on ice. A large amount of the net jobs created are in agriculture and tourism. Firstly these are low-wage, low value-added industries that will do little to boost domestic demand and GNP growth generally. Secondly, in the case of agriculture, Bríd O’Brien of the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed (quoted in an Irish Times article) has pointed out that “some people in rural Ireland who may have identified themselves as construction workers in the past may also have had farms in their family and now identify themselves as working in farming.” While, in the case of tourism, much of the boost in employment numbers is due to The Gathering which led to a once-off demand spike that won’t be repeated any time soon.

This is the context in which Feargal Quinn’s bill is appearing. His bill is deliberately designed to destroy the right of unions in certain sectors to withdraw their labour. He has been fortunate in that he could time the proposition of the bill to coincide with ESB’s strike threat. The ESB workers are a prime target for union bashers. The average wage at the semi-state company is 65,000 – approximately twice that of the median Irish wage. Furthermore, the consequences of their strike action are more likely to impact painfully on ordinary people’s lives than strike measures taken by other workers. The very fact that it is more difficult to defend these workers makes it all the more vital that we do so. Hard cases make bad law, and many vested interests want to use the ESB dispute to justify the rolling back of fundamental labour rights. The reality is that all strikes, by their nature, are disruptive. As such, to criminalise the withdrawal of labour by certain workers in order to prevent disruption  betrays, at best, a profound misunderstanding of how strikes work.

Organised labour is the most powerful force in Irish society. It is the only force capable of resisting the imposing and oppressive march of market forces, against the overweening magnates of industry, the conceited mandarins of the state apparatus and the house intellectuals who foam and chomp on their gilded bits.  If students and young people want to improve their own conditions of existence, if they want a decent living wage and a functioning economy and society, if they want to halt the trampling juggernaught of capital then they must combine and unite with organised labour. That means, for starters, opposing senator Quinn’s regressive bill. To paraphrase Jim Larkin, by God’s help, and the intelligent use of our own strong right arms we could accomplish great things.

William Foley

William Foley studies Philosophy and Economics. He is deputy editor of Trinity News.