July 2011        

Growing assault on workers’ terms and conditions

Workers’ terms and conditions in all industries, and in particularly those where conditions are governed by the legal provisions of joint labour committees, are under growing assault by employers and the Government.
     The JLC system has been in operation since it was established under the Industrial Relations Act (1946). The ruling by the High Court, delivered on 7 July, means that provisions of the Industrial Relations Acts (1946–1990) dealing with the power of the Labour Court to set minimum wage rates and conditions of employment are unconstitutional. The ruling was in favour of an action taken against the Catering JLC by John Grace Fried Chicken Ltd and the “Quick Service Food Alliance,” which represents Subway, Abrakebabra, Supermac, and Burger King.
     This decision by the High Court will facilitate an open season by employers against workers covered by the JLC. The national minimum wage has now in effect become the maximum wage for workers in such areas as catering and hotel and bar work. It will also have an effect on other workers cover by JLCs.
     After the High Court ruling the Government promised to rush through legislation before the summer recess to plug the loophole and protect the JLC and the workers affected by the decision. Now it has backtracked on this promise and has stated that it will do something after the summer break.
     As the general secretary of Mandate, John Douglas, put it, “the reality is that thousands of the most vulnerable workers in shops, hotels and restaurants will be picked off over the summer period by unscrupulous employers. This will start a race to the bottom where good employers, in order to compete against the wage-slashing of others, will reluctantly have to follow. Exploitation does not take summer holidays.”
     It is in times of crisis that what was unthinkable becomes possible. When workers feel most vulnerable and mass unemployment is the whip to beat workers with, this is when employers move most quickly to take full advantage, to drive workers back, to maximise profit and take back what they have been forced to concede in wages, terms, and conditions.
     The further reduction of workers’ income, coupled with increased levies and taxes, means that workers are being forced to carry the burden of the deep structural crisis in the Irish economy and the global structural crisis of capitalism itself.
     The re-establishment of workers’ rights must not be left to the whims of establishment politicians and their political parties. The over-reliance by leading people in the trade union movement on the Labour Party, in the misguided belief that it would stand up for workers and defend them, is based on a misplaced belief that social democracy still has any interest in, or indeed the stomach for, defending workers and their rights.
     Social-democratic parties have abandoned any pretence of opposing state monopoly capitalism. They have abandoned their discredited “third way” and have openly sided with the interests of monopoly capital. They know which side they are on; it’s about time those who claim to speak for and to lead Irish workers took a similar approach and recognised what side they should be on.
     The Government and employers, the EU and IMF have drawn a line in the sand. They know what they want and how to bring it about. Has the labour movement the same clarity of understanding and the same commitment to its cause? Has it an alternative vision of a different society to present to Irish workers and to Irish society? Looking at the agenda and the debate at the recent ICTU biennial conference, it’s clear that they are a long way off the mark.
     This is the story throughout the European Union. Even if the employers had lost their case in the Irish courts they most certainly would have won it in the EU “Court of Justice” in Luxembourg.
     The only sure defence of workers is the mobilising of all those affected by this decision and winning the solidarity of other workers in defending and regaining the rights now taken off these low-paid workers.
     It is time for a new “reconquest of Ireland” to be put on the agenda, from Belfast to Cork. The labour movement and working people played a central role in the Irish revolutionary process from 1913 to 1921 and gained little. It is now time to take up the legacy bequeathed to this generation of working-class activists, to fulfil Connolly’s political goal and build a new republic.

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