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.

Google and Facebook workers’ protests grow

On 1 November 2018, workers at Google’s HQ in Dublin struck

Back in the late 1980s, after the defeat of the air traffic controllers in the USA and the miners in the UK, a great many activists gave up on their hopes that working class people could lead a revolt against capitalism. Andre Gorz, for example, had written a book, Adieux au proletariat (Farewell to the Working Class) which became popular on the left. His argument was that the traditional working class had changed in such a fundamental way that we would never again have the power to lead a transformation of society.

What the book (and those influenced by it) failed to appreciate is that the working class is always changing. Industries rise and fall, with consequences for patterns of employment. But the fact that all companies exploit their workers to maximise profits is a constant. And it is a constant that means after a new company has been running for a while, its employees will try to organise themselves.

Take Google and Facebook, two very important examples of new workforces, especially for Ireland. Right now there is major unrest by staff worldwide in these companies along with a drive to unionise.

The struggle for trade union rights at Google

At the end of October 2019, a row broke out at Google over a new tool for Chrome that automatically launches a pop-up when staff book a room capable of holding 100 people or more. Google says that it’s just a roadbump to stop unnecessary invitations but employees anonymously leaked news of this tool with the allegation that it was designed to warn management of attempts to hold organising meetings.

Workers have mocked the tool, circulating memes such as one showing Professor Dolores Umbridge teaching a defence against the Dark Arts class. Beneath her, it says: ‘Google decree number 24: no employee organization or meeting with over 100 participants may exist without the knowledge and approval of the high inquisitor.’ Another shows a bunch of male managers in suits laughing as one of them says: ‘and then we told them “we will not make it appear to you that we are watching out for your protected concerted activities” as we pushed a Chrome extension to report when someone makes a meeting with 100+ people.’

This came shortly after a meeting, 21 October 2019, in Switzerland, where for several months, over 2,000 Google staff had been attempting to organise a meeting addressed by the trade union Syndicom. Management attempted to thwart the meeting and at one point sent a message around to employees saying, “we’ll be cancelling this talk.”

In the end, some 40 workers insisted on their right to hear the union representative and this issue is likely to culminate in a fierce battle for recognition.

To some extent the drive to unionise was trigged by the massive walkout on 1 November 2018, a strike that was very well supported by Dublin Google workers at the Barrow Street headquarters. Google employs around 7,000 workers in Ireland. Over 20,000 workers in 47 countries held a wildcat strike to protest at massive severance payments made to male executives accused of sexual harassment.

Google workers have recently leaked information on issues they feel are morally wrong in the direction of the company, such as censored search engines for China; co-operation with armies, or with the fossil fuel industry.

On 25 November 2019, the New York Times reported that it had seen a memo where four Google workers associated with organising their colleagues were fired.

Facebook has over 4,000 employees in Ireland and here too there have been leaks, not least in regard to making contracts public. This has been an important contribution to a legal case against Google contracts where the plaintiffs want end to compulsory arbitration of workplace discrimination cases.

One Facebook worker described to Independent Left how the company started in Ireland in a non-traditional way, making an effort to create a team spirit through twenty-four hour, free access to a variety of food and drink, including a bar. But now, most of that has gone and the company manages its workers much like any other.

Life in Google and Facebook for workers is unrecognisable in the Hollywood versions of these companies (e.g. in The Social Network or The Internship).

What this discontent among workers in the giant tech companies shows is that although the decline of old industries can indeed shatter working class organisation and confidence for a few years, the rise of new ones (and, indeed, the return of confidence to traditional ones) brings back the fight to organise against exploitation and unfair practices.

And what this means for the big picture is that the potential for workers to lead a massive, fundamental change to how the world currently works is as great as ever.

Facebook Staff Protests Against Trump: Update 2 June 2020

It is not only the issues of working conditions that is driving Facebook workers to organise themselves. The wider social role played by Facebook is leading to its own workers attempting to instil ethical values on their practices. In particular, there is a growing desire by workers to curtail the use of Facebook by Donald Trump to promote his side of the growing social split in the US. Many staff held a virtual walkout on 1 June 2020 to challenge the way that the US President was using Facebook to spread misinformation and incite violence.

A tweet by Jason Toff (@jasontoff) which has 187k likes. It reads:
I work at Facebook and I am not proud of how we're showing up. The majority of coworkers I've spoken to feel the same way. We are making our voice heard.
It is dated 5.55am June 1, 2020.
Posts by Facebook workers concerned to implement an ethical policy about the use of the platform are gaining hundreds of thousands of likes.

A design manager tweeted:

I’m a FB employee that completely disagrees with Mark’s decision to do nothing about Trump’s recent posts, which clearly incite violence. I’m not alone inside of FB. There isn’t a neutral position on racism.

Placing a logo of a fist with a hart on their posts, another Facebook team joined the walkout en mass. It is widely reported that Trump spoke to Zuckenburg on Friday 29 May after Zuckenburg asked him to amend a post.

While the head of Facebook holds back from acting against Trump, his staff are sharing a quote from Anti-Apartheid leader Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.