No to another decade of austerity!

Austerity kills
2012 Dublin demonstration against austerity

As the EU line up to kick Ireland again, unions must lead in defending jobs, sustainable Irish business & provision of improved public services

Brendan Ogle: As the ESRI predict the worst recession in our history, trade unions and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) have led the way in providing a comprehensive and workable counter-analysis to the hawkish calls for austerity from Ireland’s crushing neoliberal consensus.

In the very weeks when Fine Gael and Fianna Fail first seemed to rule out tax increases going forward (including the ongoing refusal to accept the Apple Tax), and then state-led borrowing, an attack began on the COVID-19 payment, with people who have been forced into isolation being targeted for ‘being better off’ on €350 a week. Now we learn that, of €750bn targeted by the European Commission in a recovery fund of grants and loans for 27 member states, Ireland is earmarked for just €1.9 billion, a tiny 0.25% of the total. This for a country that Eurostat found had been forced to pay 42% of the total cost of the European banking debt following the financial crash.

“The Trojan horse that was ‘moral hazard’, used to administer austerity for a full decade from 2008, was cruel, unjust and ideologically-driven.”

It would appear that there are those in Irish political and public life, cheered on by much of the media, who are only happy when they are targeting Irish people with the harshest possible prescriptions for illness – literally in this case – not of our making at all. The Trojan horse that was ‘moral hazard’, used to administer austerity for a full decade from 2008, was cruel, unjust and ideologically-driven. It created a massive socialisation of private debt and a massive wealth transfer upwards, heralding an era of social inequality and deprivation. But even that concept is completely absent in a global public health emergency, where sustainable Irish business, and the jobs depending on those businesses, were forcibly put into cold storage as a public health measure.

There is certainly no ‘moral hazard’ now, but that isn’t stopping the ‘kick down economics’ impulse of the political elites, high on the very thought of imposing another austerity era.

In the run up to MayDay 2020 Unite published our paper Hope or Austerity – A Road Map for a Better Fairer Ireland after the Pandemic. In it we outlined how a recalibration of our tax base towards the EU average in terms of collection, supplemented by supports including rent and mortgage moratoria and relief on rates and insurance for business and households for the forced lockdown period, could greatly assist job protection and recovery. We further called for those supports to be linked to adherence to basic worker’s rights (we have some of the worst worker protection in our EU peer group), and for us to build the single tier health system which is now clearly necessary, expanded to include child and elder-care as a universal public service based on need.

“… we found out who the real heroes in our labour market were. They were the ones out there saving lives and putting their own at risk!”

This week the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has published No Going Back – A New Deal towards a safe and secure future for all.  Unlike in 2010, ICTU has produced a strong progressive policy alternative for the challenges we all now face. The call for a ‘universal public healthcare system free at the point of use’ must now be our most basic demand following a public health emergency where we found out who the real heroes in our labour market were. They were the ones out there saving lives and putting their own at risk!

Workers’ rights too must now be viewed through a different prism. Across the board we have now seen that our individual wellbeing is linked into our collective wellbeing. The public need to be safe, but who better to give a customer that assurance in a restaurant, bar or shop than the staff who work there? Workers need to be respected and supported now, and unfortunately in many employments it is only when workers are allowed to respond to issues collectively that they feel secure enough to do so. These collective protections have been obstructed in Ireland almost as a matter of public policy. But they are now a matter of public interest.

The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of workers’ health and safety, and unions have been leading the campaign to ensure that workplaces are ‘Covid-safe’ as the economy starts to re-open.  We also need to make sure that strong workplace safety measures and enforcement remain in place once this pandemic is over.

Remember this, when our economy re-opens if a worker serving you is sick from COVID you may well get sick too. Do you really want those workers not to be safe and protected?

“As we transition from lockdown to stimulus, households and businesses that were viable ‘pre-COVID’ cannot be saddled with debt that they accrued solely because of their compliance with a lockdown imposed for public health reasons”.

But businesses, especially small and medium enterprises, need to be supported. The current lockdown is a public health emergency of an unprecedented nature. It can only be tackled with unprecedented measures. As we transition from lockdown to stimulus, households and businesses that were viable ‘pre-COVID’ cannot be saddled with debt that they accrued solely because of their compliance with a lockdown imposed for public health reasons. This would be beyond unfair. Such debts would act as a brake on business and a barrier to employment.

ICTU is calling for a debt write-down of COVID related mortgage, rent, utility and insurance debts. I personally look forward to the paid representatives of business joining these calls. It is necessary and it is just. And we now require a response from business to this emergency that goes beyond habitually kicking down at workers and attacking the minimum wage. After all, as we keep hearing, ‘we are all in this together’.

I have been critical of the role the trade union movement played for decades in ‘social partnership’, and remain so. I am also critical of the movement’s lack of a response to the last fiscal emergency. History will show that there was no major fight-back against austerity until the water charges movement arose six years in, in 2014.

“Union? The clue is in the word. We must Unite now and come together in our collective interests, in the public interest.”

But I am also very clear on this: If the majority of people in our society are to seize the nettle here and deliver a better, fairer Ireland post-pandemic then it is only by coming together that we can do so. There is little time for past enmity and point scoring. Union? The clue is in the word. We must Unite now and come together in our collective interests, in the public interest. It is often our divisions which allow a small group of vested interests to pursue policies that hurt us, endanger our elderly, harm our children’s futures, and that wreck community.

‘Hope or Austerity’? We have tried the latter, it didn’t work. There truly can be ‘No Going Back’.

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