Challenges facing the working class during the coronavirus period

Speech by Claire O’Connor to the Kranthi May Day Commemoration, 15th May 2022

Good afternoon comrades,

I am very glad to have been invited to speak here today on behalf of the Workers’ Party. I would like to particularly thank Kranthi and everyone involved in organising today’s May Day Commemoration.

May Day is one of the most important dates in our calendar. It is a time for us as workers to reflect on the challenges facing us and our organisations, and to remind ourselves that we are part of a bigger movement, not just in Ireland, but one that extends around the world, that is struggling for freedom and justice for all working people.

I know that today’s commemoration is the first in-person commemoration Kranthi have been able to hold for May Day for two years, and I’m sure it is a relief to be able to come together in person again to celebrate this event, after two difficult years of pandemic.

With an estimated global death toll of almost 15 million – there is no doubt but that the COVID pandemic has been a devastating and deeply traumatic chapter in the pages of human history. And just like so many other similarly distressing moments for humanity in the past – those who have suffered most as a result of this virus are not the captains of industry nor the political elites, but rather our people, our class, the working men & women of the world and their families.

I have been asked to speak today in the context of the challenges facing the working class in the corona period. Indeed, a very wide variety of themes and perspectives could be encompassed in this question. Certainly, from an international perspective, the challenges we face in this time are immense – from unsustainable inflation to the prospect of climate catastrophe, from increased militarisation to incipient world war.

Lenin said that “Sometimes history needs a push!” and it is clear that the dawn of the Corona period has accelerated the urgency of undoubtedly seismic issues and catapulted them to the forefront of our consciousness.In an Irish context, if you ask a politician of a Left or even moderately social democratic party or perspective – they are likely to tell you about how the virus laid bare stark inequalities in the capitalist system, or how it has exposed the gaps and weaknesses in our state public service provision. They will wax lyrical about the sacrifice of essential and frontline workers and how this has yielded some small but significant incremental reforms – such as improved sick pay at work, enhanced social welfare safety nets or increased flexibility for workers with regard to the right to request remote working.Ask the employers – and you will quickly see that they never waste a crisis! COVID has been used as a cookie-cutter excuse in many industries, not just here but across Europe, for long-planned efficiency-generating measures. This includes the acceleration of the development of automation and artificial intelligence to replace paid jobs. Although many sectors of the economy certainly experienced a decline in trade, the employing class ultimately emerge the victors of the pandemic era, with workers in those sectors which have seen an increase in their profits over the past two years receiving a smaller and smaller share of the pie.

If you spend some time talking to people in working-class communities or in their workplaces – as all of us in this room will know as politically active people – a different picture again emerges. Here you will hear about the fears and reservations deeply held by many in relation to compulsory mask-wearing, lockdowns and other public safety measures. You will likely hear some scepticism about mega pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer, who – far from being credited with saving the world – are viewed as having raked in exorbitant profits throughout the crisis, off the back of a vaccine which many were never properly educated about, as to its benefits, social necessity, and workings in the human body. In the absence of a strong, coherent Socialist movement, it is easy to see how working people’s justified opposition to the unfairness of the society around them has become expressed in a confused jumble of conspiracy theories and superstitions. In some instances, their fears have been stoked and manipulated by nefarious elements on the political far-right.

The experience of the working class in the corona period has been one of trauma and betrayal. It has been the reality of lay-offs, redundancies, and unemployment. For others, it has been the reality of having to go to work in a high-risk site of infection and risk transmitting the virus to you and your family, for fear of losing your livelihood. It has been the unacceptable reality of missing the opportunity to attend the funerals of loved ones, while at the same time members of the Oireachtas golf society broke restrictions with impunity to travel to Clifden, to carouse and enjoy a cosy round of golf. The line that we were “all in this together” rings hollow.

The truth is that the hardship and suffering visited on our society by COVID has been anything but equal and proportionate. I work for an organisation which represents working people, as a union organiser in the private sector. This gives me some insight into this inequality, as nowhere was it symbolised more clearly than in those sectors of the economy where workers were on the frontline, as I’m sure many of you here today will know, as frontline workers yourselves.

What we have seen very clearly comrades over the past two years is that when the chips were down, it was those workers who are the most low-paid, most exploited, most abused and most put upon who literally kept the country going. When case numbers of the virus were at record highs and the country was in varying levels of lockdown – who kept our supermarkets shelved? Who kept our cities and towns moving, providing vital public transport services? Who kept our healthcare service functioning and our hospitals clean and safe? Who made sure our waste continued to be collected? Who made sure our Deliveroo takeaways got delivered and our meals readily prepared? In a country with one of the worst rates of low pay in Europe, essential workers in all of these categories and others – rose to the challenge.Much has been made of the need for respect and recognition for these essential workers. Despite all the praise and platitudes we have heard from the Oireachtas plinth – I believe we have a long way to go before these workers and their families get their due. One key challenge here – is the fact that workers in this country have no legal right to Trade Union recognition. What this means in practice is that if a group of workers in any private sector workplace in Ireland decide tomorrow to come together to improve their lot, to join a union and to organise in building their union – there is no law making it mandatory on employers to recognise their union for bargaining purposes. The employer can – legally – refuse to engage, consult, negotiate or otherwise deal with the union. If you’re an individual who has been treated unfairly at work and you decide to take a case with your union representation under the Industrial Relations Acts to the workplace relations commission or the labour court – unless your case pertains to a very specific area of legislation in employment law – your employer can legally refuse to turn up. An exploitative boss can quite simply say sorry, no that’s not for me, not my cup of tea, and choose to ignore you. The law will respect that choice – but not the choice of the worker to be represented by their union.

So we have this utterly ridiculous, broken situation, which flies in the face of not only numerous international human rights declarations and treaties, but the right to freedom of association guaranteed by our constitution. If all of those politicians in power clapping for frontline workers really cared – they would (and I believe could!) legislate to remedy this in the morning. I think we owe frontline workers a little more than a round of applause and a pat on the head. Winning the battle for collective bargaining rights is indeed a major challenge on the horizon.

Those of us who are active in the union movement and other workers’ organisations will know well from engaging with workers on the ground over the course of the past two years that many in lowpaid, non-unionised settings suffered serious workers’ rights abuses. They report having contracted the virus at work, having had to work in unventilated workplaces without adequate PPE at times, having to show up even when they felt sick for fear of sanction for absenteeism and having risked infection in customer-facing roles, especially in sectors like retail and hospitality. COVID exposed the glaring deficiencies in health and safety legislation for workers, in particular the lack of any meaningful legal right to refuse work which is unsafe. This became egregiously clear in meat factories and private nursing homes, where implementation of infection control measures proved impossible in containing deadly COVID clusters. We have still not seen accountability for these gross abuses from the powers that be in these industries.However, the story of the Corona period for the working class in Ireland is not just one of savage inequality, but one of profound lack of democracy, one which sees us deprived of any meaningful say in the direction of the country – even when our lives are at stake. I have followed Irish politics avidly since I was a child. I find it hard to recall a more shamefully dishonest and dishonourable episode in public life than that of December 2020. As a new more infectious variant arrived from the UK, we witnessed the spectacle of barons of the hospitality and retail industries and their representatives in IBEC, coming together to clamour for the relaxation of COVID restrictions in the run-up to Christmas. They had no qualms about articulating their view that the season of goodwill was just far too profitable to become about keeping society safe. The shops and the restaurants and the food-serving pubs must be open, they demanded. Let the deadly variant rip through. The ‘’greasy till’’ must have primacy.

The studious dodging of courageous political decisions by our elected Oireachtas members on this occasion was really something. Their cowardice and palpable antipathy leave me cold. Like a lapdog, the Taoiseach Micheal Martin obediently unveiled his blueprint for “a meaningful Christmas” He was cheered on by opposition leaders in the weeks previously, who got to their feet in the Dáil and performatively urged government to act to “save Christmas” In flagrant breach of the advice of NPHET and public health experts, the government reopened shops, restaurants and food-serving pubs. Then, two weeks later, it permitted extended families to gather and socialise together. The number of COVID cases surged. Barely a month after Ireland had led Europe in suppressing the coronavirus, the infection’s spread reached a record pace. The result was unmanageable pressure on our hospitals and intensive care units – and an estimated death toll of approximately 3,000 deaths (in a relatively small island population).The horrors of December 2020 would be similarly replayed in June 2021, when the same hospitality bosses who forced re-opening before Christmas insisted that restrictions on indoor dining be relaxed, in the face of the spread of the Delta variant. This was followed by the controversy surrounding a curfew on pubs and restaurants in the run up to Christmas of 2021, when Omicron was raging. This time the stream of opposition against public health restrictions among government TDs was more overt and emboldened. A backbencher revolt was unleashed by a group of Fianna Fáil TDs who opposed the proposed curfew. The image of these seven parliamentarians, led by FF TD Lisa Chambers, standing on the plinth at Leinster House is forever etched into my memory. Despite all the egregious injustices of Irish society which the pandemic had laid bare – their brave stand was for the right of pub owners in their constituencies to continue to sell pints, without the burden of considerations for public health and preventing further deaths. Nothing symbolises the Corona period in Irish public life better than this incident.

Would you be surprised to learn that the hospitality industry is, relatively speaking, one of the most viciously anti-union and anti-worker? It is also one of the most heavily state subsidised, by virtue of the fact that the wages paid in the industry are so low that the majority of workers must be supplemented by government Social Welfare payments to make ends meet. In 2011, it was responsible for one of the most extreme and neoliberal assaults on workers’ rights we have seen in recent history, when John Grace Fried Chicken – as a front for fast-food employers – successfully took a High Court challenge against the Joint Labour Committee system. (This is the system for sectoral bargaining in low-wage sectors in the economy, which seeks to take wages out of race-to-the-bottom competition and set statutory minimum conditions for workers). The argument of these employers was: WE OWN THOSE JOBS. Therefore, forcing us to have to listen to or engage with or bargain with workers or their organisations is an infringement on our private property rights. The judge agreed and not only tore up the Joint Labour Committee in the restaurant and catering sector – but the entire Joint Labour Committee system. It was subsequently reinstated but only as a voluntary mechanism – with the result that thousands of workers in the hotels, retail, agriculture and other industries now have no sectoral bargaining, as employers in those sectors veto it.

The barons of these sectors are the industrial despots of modern Ireland. Yet the state will bend to defend their interests in pandemic times – even at serious human cost to its people. This is a searing indictment of the need for a drastic recalibration of the relationship between the forces of capital and labour in this country. Government pandering to the demands of a small profit-crazed minority in this manner is irrational and has no place in a modern democracy.

Thus, so much of the experience of the pandemic has been down to political choices. Choices made. Choices not made. It has revealed a stifling poverty of ambition among our political leaders. When irresponsible and reckless decisions are made in the pandemic era – such as the “meaningful Christmas” of 2020 – who dies? Who suffers most? Given the highly contagious nature of the infection, all sections and classes of society are effected. But for those reliant on an under-funded public healthcare service, or living in overcrowded housing, or depending on overcrowded public transport to get about – the challenges are starker and more dangerous. History tells us that epidemics thrive in overcrowded tenements and slums. COVID-19 is no exception. It is no coincidence that Dublin Northside and Dublin West, the areas with the most overcrowded housing in the country, were identified by the HSE as having higher concentrations of COVID-19 clusters. The public health crisis triggered by this highly contagious coronavirus has laid bare serious public health risks posed to those forced into multiple occupancy housing. It has further exposed the systematic discrimination experienced by tenants, in a system divided along the class lines into landlords and renters, haves and have-nots. While the FF-FG-Green government continue to permit the development of build-to-rent units around the city, replete with apartments the size of car parking spaces, another key challenge emerging from the Corona period is the fight for a system of universal decent public housing provision. We cannot allow this toxic nexus of housing and profit to create cracks for COVID and future infectious diseases to exploit.

Furthermore, COVID demonstrated the jeopardy of living on an island which is partitioned. The crisis required a unified all-island response – as coronaviruses don’t respect borders. In reality – this did not emerge. The unionist representation in Northern Ireland looked to London, to Boris Johnson’s Tory administration in the beginning, who were content for herd immunity to be the response. That changed when the full ravages of the Coronavirus came to light. However, it ultimately weakened our ability to take on a proactive all-island response when the pandemic was in its early phases. The question of reunification of the island – which has become all the more topical since Brexit and, indeed, the recent assembly elections in the North – is a significant challenge facing our class. It must be addressed by an anti-sectarian politics of unity and any discussion about potential constitutional change must be peaceful and democratic.

I believe all of these challenges and battles – the struggle for a decent public healthcare service, for universal public housing, for decent public services, for economic democracy and for genuine empowerment of working people in the workplace – can only be fought and won by mass organisations of working people, run by working people in the interests of working people. The challenge which falls to us as Socialists is to strengthen our labour movement, not just to win improvements in the standard of living, but to give confidence to our class, to raise political consciousness, and to make workers aware of their power through organisation – both industrial and political.

The Corona period made plain how abjectly the status quo is failing working class people on so many fronts. I believe this is an indictment of a poverty of ambition on the Irish Left – as much as it reflects the deep injustice which prevails as a result of neoliberal economic dogma. Working people choose their own leaders and will always build units for their own defence. We can decide to build alongside them or we can choose to become increasingly more irrelevant. I believe the latter is an unconscionable option.As the politics of nationalism, xenophobia and even fascism once again rears its ugly head across Europe – the political battle to be waged across working class communities over coming years will be one of right versus wrong, light versus darkness. Whatever happens – we must continue to stand with the working people of the world and struggle for the Socialist alternative.