Ireland after COVID19: Unite the Union’s ‘Hope or Austerity’ road map

Nine workers, dressed in black, at least two metres apart, wearing masks are facing the camera outside of a Debenhams shop, beneath the store's sign, which is white writing on a black background.
Debenhams’s workers (members of Mandate) protest at shop closures and layoffs 21 April 2020

To date 3.6 million people worldwide have been infected by Covid-19, with over a quarter of a million (258,000) dying from the respiratory illness that attacks the lungs and airways. From December 2019 the virus travelled from its original source in southern China to all of Asia, Europe and the rest of the world in the space of two months, resulting in the World Health Organisation (WHO) declaring a global pandemic at the end of January. The pandemic has forced governments the world over to close their economies and lockdown their societies.

With more than four fifths of workers globally living in countries affected by full or partial lockdowns, a global public health crisis is leading to a global economic recession, with the International Labour Organisation stating that 6.7% of working hours globally have been wiped out in the second quarter of this year alone – equivalent to 195 million jobs worldwide. The global economy is in recession and may yet head into an economic depression.

Here in Ireland, north and south, there have been 22,248 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 1,375 deaths (6 May 2020). In the south we have spent the past five weeks effectively living in lockdown, instructed by state authorities to stay indoors, to go no further than a radius of 2km (now 5km as of 5 May) for our daily exercise and only engage in essential consumption – our weekly grocery shop.

The Irish economy has been deliberately shut down by the government: 598,000 people have lost their jobs, with another 427,000 people having their wages paid via a state subsidy; tax revenues are projected to shrink by 14 billion this year, and in their spring forecast the European Commission predicts that the Irish economy will shrink by 8% this year. It took more than two years during the last national crisis – the financial crisis of 2008 – for such numbers to develop, this time round it has happened in a little over two months.

The world has been rocked by the coronavirus, peoples’ lives have been turned upside down; shock, grief, fear and anxiety caused by pandemic and its economic consequences have left millions people reeling, with many feeling vulnerable and isolated. Ideal circumstances for the ruling class, the multinational corporations and their local political allies to take advantage and pursue a shock doctrine response to this global pandemic: to force the cost of the crisis onto the backs of the working class worldwide, to push more privatisation and deregulation, to further increase their wealth, power and influence.

We refuse to repeat the sacrifices of 2008

So whilst we have to remain physically distant we must remain socially close and politically critical. Some would want us to suspend not only our parliamentary democracy (with caretaker Fine Gael ministers last month bemoaning the convening of Dáil Éireann), but our critical faculties also. The old trick from the last crisis, the call to ‘don the green jersey’ in ‘the national interest’ as ‘we’re all in this together’ as a way to stifle criticism and suppress political debate has been used again during this crisis but this time it is not working.

People have lived with the consequences of the political decisions taken during the financial crisis of 2008 for more than a decade now, indeed the decade of austerity and the massive transfer of wealth from the working class to the rich resulted in the state being ill-prepared for the outbreak of such a pandemic and will likely mean that our societal and economic lockdown will last longer than many other countries.

The ease with which the cost of the financial crisis of 2008, resultant bank bailout and decade of austerity was foisted upon the people was in large part due to the lack of real opposition from the trade union movement. Insofar as there was opposition, small and sporadic though it was, it arose through the efforts of the small radical left parties. This was not effective in stopping the austerity. It was not until an alliance of trade unions, community groups and left parties formed to fight the water charges that a movement of critical size and power emerged to oppose one item on the austerity agenda.

This cannot be allowed to happen again. The trade union movement has to become the dominant force that shapes the response to the Covid-19 crisis to ensure that workers, families and communities throughout Ireland are not forced to pay for yet another crisis not our their making .

Unite the Union’s response to Ireland’s post COVID-19 economy

To that end, the Unite trade union recently commissioned the left-wing economist, writer and activist Conor McCabe to produce an analysis of what has happened to date and to sketch a socially just, economic fair and environmentally transformative pathway forward out of the economic and societal crisis we are currently living through, a document intended by the author to be ‘a tool to feed into the conversations we are having and the strategies and tactics we will pursue’ so that the Left does not ‘allow the right-wing and neoliberal voices in Ireland to dominate and shape the pathway out of the current crisis’.

You can read the Hope or Austerity document here.

Independent Left commends Unite for taking the initiative in commissioning the document Hope or Austerity as too often the Left is reactive rather than proactive. Indeed as the author notes ‘we cannot build the future we need unless we plan and fight for it’. In times of crisis we need clear thinking, critical analysis and robust debate, which this document provides.

Of course the crisis is evolving and as the author himself stated during a Unite May Day lecture it is a working document, written to feed into an on-going process of critical discussion and debate. There are parts that need expansion, like childcare and home care, and others that need to challenged, like the normalisation of the regressive and dysfunctional Local Property Tax.

Independent Left recommends a close reading of the document, welcomes the opening of discussion and aims to be a part of the comradely yet critical debates ahead as together we debate the best tactics and strategies to purse as we struggle for a better world.

Debenhams Workers in Ireland on Strike

A battle between Debenhams management and workers is a key one for all workers, at it is likely to shape the wider issues of who will pay for the impact of the COVID19 crisis on the economy.

On 9 April 2020, Debenhams Retail Ireland told 1,500 workers their jobs were gone as all 11 of its stores were closed. The company offered no redundancy.

The workforce is represented by Mandate, who have pointed out that the shops still have stock worth an estimated €25m and this should be sold to provide redundancy payments to the workers.

Mandate is demanding that more than a million items of stock currently in Debenham’s 11 closed Irish stores should be sold and the proceeds, estimated at €25m, distributed to former workers as part of a redundancy deal.

Even though it is extremely difficult to organise at a time of social distancing and closed stores, the workers voted to strike and deserve the support of all Irish workers.

Below is an interview with Councillor John Lyons and Debenhams’ strikers at the Henry Street Store, recorded 23 June 2020. The Debenhams workers are asking people to boycott the online sales of the company until the dispute is resolved.