Seize the opportunities that are at hand
- Tuesday 14 May 2019
This is the full text of Unite general secretary Len McCluskey’s keynote speech to the Unite Ireland Policy conference, Malahide, Republic of Ireland.
Delivered 14 May 2019 (check against delivery).
Sisters and brothers, comrades and friends,
It’s a privilege to be here in Ireland meeting with and speaking to our Unite delegates from both the north and south of these isles.
Can I first pay tribute to Jimmy Kelly… And to welcome the new Unite Irish leadership team - Jackie Pollock, Jimmy’s successor, and Brendan Ogle.
It’s fitting that this policy conference, which will help to set our course for the next two years, takes place so close to the great Rebel City of Larkin and Connolly, the birthplace of the Irish Labour Movement, culminating in the Great Lock Out of 1913.
The lock out remains the most important labour struggle in Irish history and, indeed, one of the most important in British history. And is as relevant today, and to the work of our movement, as it was then. It is a lesson – that strong trade unions are the best guarantee of working people holding on to what we’ve fought for and secured.
When right wing governments are in power in Westminster or Dublin, trade unions are the best and often only line of defence we have.
And when unions are weakened, as they have been in the UK by all the legal and economic restrictions placed on us by the Tories during the 1980s and 1990s – restrictions disgracefully never repealed by the New Labour governments of Blair and Brown – then the welfare state is degraded.
The Great Lock Out took place against a backdrop of globalisation and rapid economic growth, and a stark divide between the fortunes, working and living conditions of the rich and poor. And while the right to organise had been largely accepted by bosses in the rest of the UK, it produced a savage conflict here. And let’s not forget that workers in the Republic still don’t have the right to bargain collectively through the union of their choice.
It’s no coincidence that at that time only 20 per cent of workers in Dublin were employed in manufacturing. Most working people were service workers, suffering from precarious conditions – treated in effect as throw-away commodities. And difficult for unions to organise as a result.
Today, some 44 per cent of workers in the Republic of Ireland are precariously employed, and insecure work is all pervasive in Northern Ireland as well. Today, in cities throughout the UK and the Republic of Ireland, built on once-proud manufacturing industries, thousands of good, unionised jobs have been lost over the last decades.
The industries from which the labour movement and socialism grew are being replaced with low paid, insecure, zero hours work. We’re returning to the days of the Dublin Lock Out. From powerhouse to poorhouse, with the vulnerable at the mercy of the powerful ruling classes and a neo-liberal system destroying community after community.
Comrades, our challenge in organising in Ireland’s climate today is perhaps as great as it was for James Larkin back then.
This region is unique. It straddles a jurisdictional border – a border under threat of being hardened by Theresa May’s Brexit red lines.
While the Tories in Westminster, propped up by the DUP, have heaped misery upon misery on the lives of working people in Britain, the suffering they’re inflicting as a result of the disastrous mess they’ve made of Brexit goes far beyond the UK now.
We know the impact this bungled Brexit has had on the economy across all parts of this island.
The last two years of Tory Brexit chaos have been hugely detrimental to Northern Ireland’s economy in particular – the only part of the UK having a direct land border with the EU. It’s estimated that investment into Northern Ireland has fallen by 54 per cent. What business wants to invest when they cannot be confident of the trading or customs arrangements in six months’ time?
Of course the ramifications aren’t restricted to concerns around a hard north-south border. There are three potential hard borders, each threatening economic dislocation and constitutional upheaval. Those are the borders between Northern Ireland and Great Britain – into which the bulk of its trade is sold – and between the Republic and Britain.
But while our concerns for jobs and skills in the Irish agri-food sector in particular cannot be downplayed, the consequences for the Good Friday Agreement of hardening borders must not be underestimated. Hardening borders only risks the delicate constitutional balance at the heart of the peace process.
Colleagues, if Brexit is delivered it will mean that our members here in the Republic will be the only Unite members remaining in the European Union. Unite has shown how a working class organisation can operate across differing cultures and histories. And yes, across borders too. So I’m confident that you, here in Ireland, will continue to lead by example, in the interests of workers, their communities and the factors that shape their lives.
Because, while Unite campaigned for Remain, pointing out the impact on jobs of leaving the EU, and that it would open the door to a race-to-the-bottom on workers’ rights, environmental and consumer protections, we recognise the democratic legitimacy of the Brexit vote even though Northern Ireland voted to remain. The challenge now is to make it work – to secure a Brexit on our terms. Unite has been at the fore in challenging the Tories’ red lines and making the case for free and frictionless trading relationships going forwards. We’ve highlighted the risks not just to industries and workers in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but across Britain – in particular in the manufacturing industries.
The tariffs regime proposed by the Tories as the framework for a no-deal Brexit will have had an immediate impact, threatening not tens but hundreds of thousands of jobs across these islands. While the price of a Tory Brexit and their pursuit of free trade deals includes opening the door to cheap steel and tyre imports and US companies buying up NHS trusts – leaving working-class people in Britain to pick up the tab – the price for working class communities in Northern Ireland includes political instability and a possible return to violence.
I’m proud that Unite activists have, with so many others, stood firm against both the recent car bomb attack and the atrocious murder of journalist and NUJ member Lyra McKee. Our union will always stand against a return to conflict. These attacks are not just reactionary they are self-evidently futile. Let’s be clear. They are an attack on working people. An attack on our class.
But they don’t happen in isolation. The failure of parties to negotiate a return to power-sharing in Northern Ireland is inexcusable. It’s created a political vacuum. A vacuum into which the politics of sectarianism and hate walks easily.
Of course I welcome the resumption of talks to revive power sharing under the Good Friday Agreement. Though the priest conducting Lyra McKee’s funeral couldn’t have been more right when he asked why, in God’s name, it should take the death of a 29-year-old woman to bring the parties back around the table.
Clearly compromises now need to be made on all sides, but let me be clear. Our union is unequivocal in our support for LGBT rights and for women’s equality. It’s a disgrace that women in Northern Ireland are now among the last anywhere in Europe to be unable to access basic reproductive rights under the healthcare system.
I want to pay tribute to the efforts of all those women, and indeed men, in the Republic of Ireland who fought so long to secure the right to choose. I’m proud that Unite has stood as the foremost advocate within our movement for choice, and proud of the Unite activists who played an active role in this campaign, helping to lead the trade union campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment. And I want to assure you of our union’s continued support for your efforts to bring women’s equality north of the border. Northern Ireland will be next!
Comrades, if ever there was a time for governments of the left in Britain and Northern Ireland and in the Republic, it is now. Here the Republic continues to be ruled by an effective coalition of the right. Successive right wing governments offer nothing more than neoliberal economics which ignore the needs of working-class people. Here in Malahide, as in other prosperous areas, austerity barely bit into the lives and lifestyles of Ireland’s elites – although here too there are pockets of deprivation.
But just down the road, in areas like Kilbarrack and Coolock, austerity has become embedded in the lives of working class communities. The housing emergency is testimony to the political failure of government to address the most basic of human needs – the right to a home. The fact that more than ten thousand people are officially homeless here reflects this failure.
But I’m delighted that Unite has played a leading role in building the campaign to demand an extensive programme of public housing. Just as the Right2Change initiative, coming on the back of the Right2Water campaign – spearheaded by Unite – is our union’s attempt to secure a progressive left government. And I wish the 15 members of our union – members of Unite Community – running in next week’s local elections, campaigning on the Right2Change principles, every success.
I mentioned earlier the DUP propping up the Tories in Westminster. Now I know and respect that many Unite members in the north vote DUP and I welcome more money for Northern Ireland communities and services that the deal provides – I just hope the benefits are being felt.
But the fact is that our members didn’t vote to prop up the Tories’ vicious austerity policies. In a region where nearly 400,000 people are living in poverty, including over 100,000 children. Nearly 37,000 emergency foodbank parcels delivered here in the North last year. I would also, once again, urge the region to continue to explore the prospect of developing a political party that can bridge the divide in Northern Ireland and unite both Catholic and Protestant workers around a radical socialist alternative.
That’s what Brendan Ogle has been charged to do here in the Republic following our disaffiliation from the Irish Labour Party – to seek a political platform where Unite’s radical alternative can flourish. There will be obstacles in this wonderful nation steeped in history. But I wish him well.
Back to Brexit. You know, Tony Woodhouse, the president of our union, often says that whether we’re in or out of Europe, it makes no difference as long as the Tories are in government. That may be too simplistic for some, but it’s not far from the truth. Which is why I say that working-class people have the right to aspire to a government which serves their interests. And why, above all else, in the UK we have to support Jeremy Corbyn, who speaks for the whole nation, for the leavers and the remainers.
Only the Labour Party is committed to finding a solution which can bring the country together. Which is why I say to those demanding a 2nd referendum that YES, I want a people’s vote, but a real people’s vote. It’s called a general election. I want the opportunity to return a Labour government in the UK. So we can start talking again about the issues that affect the everyday lives of working people, the vulnerable, the sick, the young and the elderly.
Colleagues, across the world, the far-right is stirring. Right-wing leaders are coming to power and challenging our democratic values. With the European elections next week, we must face down the far right. This island is no exception. Here in the Republic several candidates are running on hard anti-EU, anti-immigrant and anti-minority platforms, including Hermann Kelly, who leads the Irish Freedom Party and is a close associate of Nigel Farage and has links to far right groups in Britain.
In Northern Ireland of course the picture has always been complex. But we’re seeing the new Yellow Vest Movement of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, cynically appropriating the intended symbolism of workers united against neo-liberalism, while UKIP also has candidates.
Let’s be clear, the far right never has, and never will, serve the interests of our working class. They have no answers to the despair that has gripped so many of our communities as a result of a decade of failed austerity policies.
Far right parties like UKIP and Farage’s Brexit party only seek to exploit and benefit from that despair, channelling anger away from the greedy bankers and unscrupulous bosses towards the weak and vulnerable, and to peddle the politics of hate when people need the politics of hope.
And hope is something the people of Ireland desperately need right now.
Colleagues, our union is inherently political and I make no apologies for that. We want to transform a system in which working-class people are structurally disadvantaged. But our focus always remains on our members.
The last two years have been ones of huge success for Unite in Ireland. In Northern Ireland, members working for Bombardier first faced the prospect of the devastating imposition of punitive US import duties on the C-Series aircraft. I’m so proud of the way in which these workers rallied to build an unstoppable campaign – taking the message out to every council area in Northern Ireland, to Dublin, to London, to Brussels, Toronto and Washington. We highlighted how the surcharge threatened the livelihood of every Bombardier worker in Northern Ireland and what that meant for the regional economy. Such was the pressure put on the politicians by this grassroots campaign – led by Unite shop stewards – that we forced Theresa May to raise the issue in a summit with president Trump. Within days the tariffs had been removed.
But Bombardier workers had little time to savour this victory. Since then they’ve had to withstand a series of further threats to their jobs. Only last month our union’s power was demonstrated again when the company agreed to re-employ 32 workers who’d been made compulsorily redundant, in order to avoid a ballot on strike action. But just days after this concession it announced its intention to sell off all Aerostructures operations. Again, our union faces another huge battle to defend jobs and skills – but we are confident and determined to win.
Already, our assistant general secretary, Steve Turner has obtained a commitment from the company through the business secretary Greg Clark that Bombardier will not close the sites should no buyer be found. In our unity, there is strength. Bombardier workers can be sure of the support of every member of this union, and of my own support as your general secretary.
Should the worst happen – which we are determined to avoid - we will wage a relentless campaign to force the government to intervene and nationalise the business, in order to secure jobs and skills. We will not accept this world-class skills base being threatened due to the financial pressures facing the owners.
We have also fought and won campaigns to defend free school transport, to halt the closure of five special needs schools in Belfast, to halt the handover of Belfast’s bus lanes to privateers. Our activists mobilised repeatedly to halt the closure of Stroke and A&E units at Daisy Hill in Newry and in South West Acute Hospital in Enniskillen.
Our activists overturned a decision to outsource Craigavon’s new leisure centre in Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon council. It was Unite who led a campaign which forced a U-turn on proposals to close Kilroot and Ballylumford power stations – saving 270 workers’ jobs.
It was Unite who secured the employment of almost 500 Carillion workers who lost their jobs when the company went into administration.
Our team of shop stewards in Moy Park led a powerful campaign which overturned first a ban on the Regional Officer entering the premises and then to defeat management attempts to slash and burn hard-won terms and conditions.
They secured a fantastic six percent no-strings-attached pay increase.
Our union is leading the way on the fight for equality – with campaigns ongoing for marriage equality, for period dignity and ending the gender pay gap.
Our union has pioneered efforts to unionise the hospitality sector, north and south. We have the most dynamic group of young activists anywhere in the trade union movement in Ireland who are taking on exploitation, sexual harassment in the workplace and precarious working.
Together they are demonstrating that it’s possible to organise in the modern hyper-exploitative economy of the hospitality and retail sectors.
Unite members in Glen Dimplex in Portadown and Balcas in Enniskillen took powerful strike action to secure an end to poverty pay. The Balcas strike was so solid that articulated lorries filled with timber turned back from picket lines.
Management was forced to concede a no-strings attached, two-year pay deal guaranteeing workers one thousand pounds more each a year – with a significantly above inflation pay increase in the second year.
Unite is the lead advocate for decent apprenticeships, for rights for agency workers, for an end to outsourcing and privatisation.
In the Republic, we are organising in new sectors – from hospitality to archaeology – and leading the way in the fight against precarious work and poverty pay.
In the growing construction sector our union has spearheaded the drive for sectoral agreements reflecting the skills of our members – agreements that have not only boosted the pay packets of workers but also improved their terms and conditions.
Let me be very clear, that sector needs organising and Unite is well placed to do that. Our agreement with SIPTU last year was to deliver a Registered Employment Agreement for crane operatives as a priority. I know renewed efforts to do this are now underway. If this happens we will, through your Irish Executive Council, then address other aspects of this agreement, such as the Duffy Report, which will be challenging.
But Unite is, and always will be, a proud general workers Union in Ireland and beyond, and we must and will defend ourselves from attack.
In a range of sectors we are helping lead the drive against the scourge of bogus self-employment.
We are very clear: the burden of proof must be switched so employers have to show that a worker is not in an employment relationship.
We have also been to the forefront in highlighting the scandal of companies benefiting from public contracts while declining to engage with the state’s industrial relations machinery.
Low pay and poverty pay are endemic in Ireland, and especially in sectors such as hospitality.
And the bosses’ unions – organisations ranging from IBEC to the Restaurant Association – are never short of reasons not to increase – or even to cut – wages.
Remember when they used the crash as an excuse to depress wages? And then said that raising wages would jeopardise the recovery? Well now they’re using Brexit as another reason to keep pay down.
The fact is that low pay not only impacts on the workers. The fewer the Euros and pounds in workers’ pockets, the worse the impact on communities, businesses and the wider economy.
Businesses and the minister for finance should thank Unite and the union movement for every wage increase won. But I’m not holding my breath. We should all be proud that Unite is known as the ‘fightback’ union in Ireland, north and south. I’m proud that trade unionists call us a radical union. I’m proud that our officials are familiar faces in the media north and south.
We ARE the most radical union. We make the most noise, and we campaign the hardest. We know that, when workers stand together, there are few limits to what we can achieve.
100 years ago, working people on the island of Ireland demonstrated the power of collective action and solidarity – from the Limerick Soviet to the Belfast engineering strike. The slogan above the ‘Free Workers’ Soviet Mills’ in Limerick – “We Make Bread, Not Profits” – remains as defiant a statement of intent today as it did a century ago.
In the space of just two weeks, the Limerick workers printed their own newspaper, established their own currency and controlled food prices. Then, as now, our ambitions for our members know no limits. As James Connolly said in 1907, ‘our demands, most moderate, are – we only want the earth’.
Our union stands for all workers – regardless of religion, colour, nationality, gender, sexual orientation or ability.
We want to take on the bosses, to take on the exploitation, to challenge injustice.
Let all of us at this policy conference recommit ourselves to even more activism.
Unions are only as good as the activists who are at the forefront of its campaigning efforts.
You, the delegates in this hall today, and those shop stewards you represent, are the vanguard of change today. You can transform this society and you can be confident that your union will be behind you every step of the way.
Unite is growing. Workers, young and old, male and female, are looking to us for leadership and for support. The coming years will be truly historic ones for our union if we can seize the opportunities that are at hand.
In our unity, there is strength!