January 2013        

Back to the future

As celebrations of the centenary of the 1913 Lock-Out begin, one feature of workers’ terms and conditions, then and now, is becoming increasingly clear.
     One of the reasons for the emergence of the ITGWU was the harsh working conditions of the Dublin dockers and carters, with long hours, poor pay, and casual work at the whim of the foremen. The majority of workers remained unorganised, with trade union membership confined mainly to skilled craft workers.
     Today again we have a growing number of casual workers, more and more short-term contracts being offered, more flexibility being demanded.
     This is happening in all industries as well as in the health service, tourism, financial services, and retail. Transnational corporations are increasingly using short-term contracts to fill gaps and cope with peaks.
     This is a result of the decrease in union membership throughout the private sector and the increased privatisation of services once provided by the state. Trade union density is now concentrated in the the public sector, which now dominates the ICTU’s thinking and strategy.
     The debate about casualisation has been one-sided. It has been sold in the main as the “modern way,” giving parents more time with their children. The day of permanent pensionable jobs has past, and people should have the “right” to work as long as they like.
     The ISME and other employers’ groups have had a free field in regard to this fundamental issue for workers. The idea has been sold that every individual who has been made redundant from a permanent job and then sets up a market stall is an “entrepreneur.”
     We are returning to a nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century model of employment, where workers could be hired and fired at will. It took decades of hard, bitter struggle and sacrifice by previous generations to establish proper conditions and terms of employment. If present trends continue, workers will have few rights and instead will be vulnerable to abuse and super-exploitation.
     The more casualisation that takes place or is allowed to go unchallenged the more it will undermine workers in permanent jobs. The precarious employment of a growing number of workers will continue to undermine wages and conditions; it will also undermine the whole idea of old-age pensions as a right.
     Yes, a century later it’s back to the future, and workers are being driven back. We need to halt the growth of casualisation and precarious employment with a militant and active trade union movement.
     The lessons of history are staring us in the face. The very future of the trade union movement depends on its response to this issue. If you don’t resist and are not prepared to defend what you have, you will lose it.

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