“Mandate Trade Union members employed by Arcadia (Topshop, Topman, Burton, Miss Selfridge, Dorothy Perkins, Burton, Outfit, Wallis and Evans) held a socially distanced protest on Kildare Street yesterday (Tuesday, December 22nd) where they handed a letter into the Dail demanding stronger protections for workers losing their jobs due to liquidation scenarios.
“We’ve seen workers in Debenhams, Clerys, the Paris Bakery, La Senza, and many more other companies lose their jobs while their employer abandoned their obligations. The government commissioned its own report on this issue in 2016 (Duffy/Cahill) and for more than four years has refused to implement it.Every day workers are losing their jobs while our government procrastinate and sit on their hands. We need action, and we need it now.” (Mandate, on their website)
The ruthless action of capitalists in sacking workers — often without even paying agreed redundancy pay — to safeguard their rates of profit during the Covid19 crisis is a harbinger for the austerity they will force on working people with the collusion of the government as soon as this pandemic has been quelled.
Few Irish American women have led a more controversial life than Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. A fiery orator with a passionate dedication to social justice, Flynn dedicated her life to the working class. A militant’s militant, Flynn was arrested dozens of times fighting for the causes she espoused and served a prison term for her political beliefs. Flynn became one of the most influential labor organizers of the early 20th century, while also becoming the first female leader of the American Communist Party. Famed international journalist Eugene Lyons praised her intelligence saying she was “the most brilliant woman I had ever met.”
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the daughter of Irish immigrants, was born in Concord, New Hampshire on August 7th, 1890. The family moved to New York’s impoverished South Bronx in 1900,where Flynn attended the local public school. She later recalled, “I hated poverty. I was determined to do something about the bad conditions under which our family and all around us suffered.” Influenced by her parents to become a socialist, Flynn was kicked out of high school for giving her first radical speech, What Socialism Will Do for Women , at the Socialist Club of Harlem.
Not yet eighteen years of age, Flynn became a full-time organizer for the radical labor group The Industrial Workers of the World, or as they were more commonly known, the Wobblies. A passionate devotee of free speech, she led the first of three free speech fights in 1909 as an I.W.W organizer and over the course of her life Flynn remained a dedicated advocate for free expression, freedom of the press and assembly, and the right to a fair trial for all labor activists, regardless of their political affiliation. In 1907, Flynn met a much older Minnesota local I.W.W. organizer, J. A. Jones. Flynn later stated in her autobiography, “I fell in love with him and we were married in January 1908. She had two children with Jones, one who died as an infant and her son Fred who was born in 1910. The marriage broke up and Flynn returned to her family.
Her first major involvement in an I.W.W. job action was at the famous Lawrence, Massachusetts Textile Strike of 1912, which began when the American Woolen Company there tried to reduce the wages of its largely immigrant workforce. The workers walked off the job and the I.W.W. formed a strike committee with two representatives from each of the striking nationalities sitting on the committee. The strikers demanded a 15 per cent wage increase, double-time for overtime work and a 55 hour week. Using her powerful oratory, Flynn became one of the leaders of the strike, which became very violent. Reporters from around the country covered the strike and filed stories on the violence and the poverty of the Lawrence workers. Eventually, after management realized that it was losing the publicity battle, they settled with the strikers, giving Flynn and the I.W.W a great victory.
The following year Flynn gained even more fame for her role in the famous Patterson, N.J. Silk strike, which saw three hundred silk mills shut down by thousands of striking workers, many of whom were female. Flynn set up weekly women’s meetings on the issues. Flynn wrote in her autobiography of her experience in Paterson:
“Sunday after Sunday, as the days became pleasanter, we spoke there to enormous crowds of thousands of people — the strikers and their families, workers from other Paterson industries, people from nearby New Jersey cities, delegations from New York of trade unionists, students and others. Visitors came from all over America and from foreign countries. People who saw these Haledon meetings never forgot them.”
Unfortunately for the workers, management was able to drive them back to the mills without achieving their strike demands. Flynn continued to organize restaurant workers, silk weavers, garment workers and miners across America. She was often arrested, but never convicted. She became such a celebrated labor activist that leftist songwriter Joe Hill wrote a 1915 song, reputedly dedicated to Flynn, called The Rebel Girl. A feminist, she began to write articles and make speeches criticizing labor unions as being male dominated and deaf to the needs of female workers.
She later became romantically involved with Carlo Tresca, a fellow I.W.W labor organizer and writer. When Flynn discovered that her sister was also romantically involved with Tresca, she suffered a mental breakdown that prevented her from working for eight years. During this period Flynn lived in Portland, Oregon with birth control activist, suffragette, and I.W.W activist Marie Equi.
Returning to politics, Flynn joined the Communist Party of the United States in 1936 and began to write a women’s column for the Communist Party newspaper the Daily Worker. She quickly was elected to the party’s national committee, but as a result of her party membership she was ejected from the American Civil Liberties Union as part of a pre-World War II red scare. During the war, she played a central role in the campaign for equal economic opportunity and pay for women, as well as the establishment of day care centers for working mothers. She ran for Congress in New York and received an astonishing 50,000 votes in a losing effort. In the Red Scare that followed the war, Flynn was arrested under the Smith Act, which made it a crime to support a violent overthrow of the American government. She was convicted and sentenced to a three-year term. Flynn served her sentence in the Alderson Federal Penitentiary in West Virginia. During her incarceration she wrote a memoir entitled, in The Alderson Story: My Life as a Political Prisoner (1955). That same year she published her memoir, I Speak My Own Piece: Autobiography of “The Rebel Girl.
Flynn became national chairman of the Communist Party of the United States in 1961. She made several visits to the Soviet Union and died there unexpectedly in September 1964. She was given a state funeral in Red Square. In accordance with her wishes, Flynn’s remains were flown to the U.S. for burial in Chicago’s Waldheim Cemetery, near the graves of I.W. W. Members Eugene Dennis and Big Bill Haywood.
Rebel Breeze comment:
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was indeed an Irish UStater and made a point of her background, keeping the surnames of both mother (Gurley) and father (Flynn) and stating it in her autobiography.
Her ashes being taken to Waldheim Cemetery near the grave of Big Bill Heywood can be viewed as something of an irony as in 1916 she had a major rupture with Big Bill over a plea bargain that she and another organiser, Joe Ettor, had counseled three innocent miners to accept when Heywood thought they could beat the charges. In addition, the one year jail time part of the plea bargain somehow ended up as 20. According to some accounts, she and Ettor were expelled from the IWW but according to others, Ettor left and Flynn remained but generally avoiding Heywood from then on.
During the years of Flynn’s labour organising in the USA, employers often hired company thugs (including the (in)famous Pinkerton Detective Agency) to beat up those they considered agitators or union organisers, who were also targeted by reactionaries including racists and fascists. Many worker organisers were killed or permanently disabled. In addition, many were jailed by the UStater legislature or even executed, as were the Molly Maguires, Saccho and Vanzetti, five of the Chicago Eight and Joe Hill. Being even a moderate union organiser in those years required courage and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was far from being a moderate.
Michael Quill forever changed labor relations in the USA. The founder of the powerful union representing New York City’s bus and subway workers, Quill’s numerous achievements helped transform the lives of millions of workers by his setting national standards for equal pay for women and minorities, health benefits and paid medical leave. However, it was his leadership of the 1966 Transit Strike that made “Red Mike Quill” a celebrity, famous for defying the Mayor and a jail sentence, when Quill shut down public transportation in the nation’s largest city.
Born in 1905 into a humble, Gaelic-speaking family in rural Kilgarvan, Co. Kerry, which was restive under British rule, Quill inherited his desire to fight for justice from his father. “My father,” recalled Quill, “knew where every fight against an eviction had taken place in all the parishes around.”
During the War of Independence, the fifteen-year-old Quill fought in the 3rd Battalion, Kerry No. 2 Brigade of the Irish Republican Army. On a solo scouting mission, Quill stumbled on a patrol of Black and Tans asleep in a ditch. Instead of fleeing, he quietly stole all their ammunition, gleefully returning home with his stolen loot.
During the war, Quill fought bravely and met almost all the top military leaders, providing him the rare opportunity of personally knowing many of Ireland’s most famous patriots. The war also started in Quill a lifelong animosity towards the Catholic Church. While on the run, Mike and his brother were gutted when their parish priest refused their request for temporary amnesty to attend their mother’s funeral.
Opposed to the Treaty creating the Free State with a partitioned British colony, Quill fought against Michael Collins’ National Army and in the conflict Kerry Republicans suffered greatly, especially at Ballyseedy, where 23 anti-Treaty fighters were murdered with dynamite by Free State soldiers. That fight’s unbelievable brutality and injustice never left Quill.
Being on the wrong side of the Treaty, Quill, unable to find work, left for America, arriving in New York the day before St. Patrick’s Day in 1926 with just $3.42 in his pocket. Through his uncle who was a subway conductor, Quill got a job on the Interborough Rapid Transit company (which ran the original subway system in New York), first as a night gateman, then as a clerk or “ticket chopper”. The IRT quickly employed many of Quill’s comrades who were also ex- anti-Treaty fighters. Moving from station to station, Quill got to know many IRT employees. He learned they craved dignity and wanted to be treated like human beings, but Quill knew this meant fighting. He said, “You will get only what you are strong enough to take. You will have to fight for your rights—they will never be given to you. And you cannot win if you fight alone.”
While working night shifts, Quill, who had only attended national school, used dead time to read labor history, especially the works of James Connolly. To fight the low pay, terrible working conditions and long hours of I.R.T workers, Quinn used Connolly, the leader of the Transport Workers Union in Dublin, executed by the British for his role in the 1916 Rising, as his inspiration, and Connolly’s ideas guided Quill throughout his life. Like Connolly, Quill believed that economic power precedes political power, and that the only effective means of satisfying the workers’ demands is the creation of an independent labor party, which creates and supports strong unions. He would honor Connolly by also calling his American union the Transportation Workers Union and years later, as president of the TWU, Quill only had two pictures on his office wall, Abraham Lincoln and James Connolly.
In his union-organizing activities, Quill got the cold shoulder from many established Irish-American organizations. “When we first started to organize the union, we asked for help from the Knight of Columbus and the Ancient Order of Hibernians”, he said. “We were booed and booted out. The Irish organizations did nothing for us, and the Church campaigned actively against us.”
Rejected by mainstream Irish Americans, Quill was embraced by the American Communist Party, which helped him obtain the money, the mimeograph machines and the manpower to launch the Transport Workers Union. Quill, though, merely used the Communists, while knowing he wanted no part of them. When they thought he should attend “Workers School” for indoctrination, Quill told them he needed no indoctrination and soon left the party.
Fearing anti-union informers, Quill organized the TWU, using the methods of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret Fenian society dedicated to a violent rising against British rule. Employing cells of five so that no man knew the names of more than four other workers in the organization, messages were also sent in half-Gaelic and half-English to confuse company spies, known as “beakies.” One night, the “beakies” attacked Quill and five other activists in a tunnel as they were returning from picketing the IRT’s offices. Falsely arrested over the incident for incitement to riot, Quill gained huge notoriety amongst his fellow workers and the charges were eventually dismissed. On April 12, 1934, fighting back against 12 hour days, six days a week, at 66 cents an hour, Quill and six other men formed the T.W.U.
Quill soon became union President and succeeded in getting his union into the American Federation of Labor. He then began unionizing the other transportation companies of New York. In January 1937, the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Coorporation dismissed two boiler room engineers from their power plant in Brooklyn for their union activity. Quill immediately called a successful sit-down strike and the BMT had to reinstate the men, which further raised Quill’s standing amongst the rank and file.
At a time in American history when bigotry and discrimination were commonplace, Quill became famous for fighting prejudice. An ardent opponent of the pro-Fascist Fr. Coughlin, Quill said, “Anti-Semitism is not the problem of the Jewish people alone. It is an American problem, a number one American problem.” He also fought for African Americans against the prejudice of many in his own union. He explained, “The bosses hired you and the same bosses hired the blacks. You are on one payroll; you come to work and leave through the same gate; you punch the same time clock. Unless there is one union to protect all of you, the employer will train these men and use them to displace you—at half your wages.”
Quill became an early ally of Martin Luther King who referred to Quill as “a fighter for decent things all his life” who “spent his life ripping the chains of bondage off his fellow man.” Quill once asked, “Do you know what I’m most proud of? That in TWU we have eliminated racial discrimination in hiring and in promotions and within the union’s ranks. Blacks, Hispanics, Orientals, American Indians and women are holding appointive and elective office.”
STRIKE AND JAIL
Perhaps Quill’s finest hour was during the Transit Strike of 1966. Newly-elected patrician Mayor john Lindsay wanted to get tough with Quill and the TWU. Journalist Jimmy Breslin summarized the conflict succinctly: “…[Lindsay] was talking down to old Mike Quill, and when Quill looked up at John Lindsay he saw the Church of England. Within an hour, we had one hell of a transit strike.”
Quill attacked the Mayor just as if he were a British soldier, chiding Lindsay for his “abysmal lack of knowledge of the fundamentals of labor relations.” He castigated Lindsay as “a pipsqueak, a juvenile” and jested: “We explored his mind yesterday and found nothing there.” To add insult to injury Quill intentionally repeatedly mispronounced the mayor’s name as “Linsley,” proving that even in the heat of battle Quill never lost his sense of humor.
Then Lindsay made a fatal mistake, jailing Quill, who defiantly said, “The judge can drop dead in his black robes!” While in prison, Quill suffered another heart attack and was sent to the worst of city hospitals. The only person who called Mrs. Quill asking if he could help was Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York. No other politician inquired about the stricken Quill. While Quill was in the hospital a deal was reached granting the TWU a 15% wage increase along with improvements in the health, welfare and pension systems. In all, it was a great victory. The strike over, he was released from police custody, but just three days later Quill died at age sixty with many claiming that the stress of the strike led to his premature passing.
Mike Quill left an enduring legacy. Today the Transport Workers Union is composed of an estimated 60 percent minorities and Quill is still revered within it. He had an inclusive vision of labor, which minority workers respected, strengthening the movement. Pete Seeger dedicated a ballad to Quill and producers Macdara Vallely and Paul Miller have made a biographical film about Quill entitled Which side are you on?
POSTSCRIPT: Mike Quill and Vice-Admiral Nelson
In the Dublin City Centre, in the middle of its main street, is a curious steel erection which most people call “The Spire”. But from 1809 until 1966, something else stood there: a granite column with the English naval hero Nelson atop it, very much in the style of the one that stands in London’s Trafalgar Square today.
About 50 metres away from what was colloquially called “The Pillar” stands the General Post Office building, which operated as the command HQ of the 1916 Easter Rising and is therefore a traditional gathering place for State and other commemorations of the Rising.
As the 50th Anniversary of the Rising drew near, Mike Quill contacted Dublin City Council and offered to have the statue removed for free and replaced with a more suitable monument. Quill’s first choice was a statue of Jim Larkin, who led his and Connolly’s Irish Transport and General Workers Union in resisting the 8-month Dublin Lockout – the tram crews had walked off their vehicles once they reached the Pillar and Dublin Metropolitan Police had run riot against the people in O’Connell Street shortly afterwards on Bloody Sunday 1913. But Quill offered the Council other options too. A private trust and not Dublin City Council owned Nelson’s Column, he was informed and there the matter rested. Until, on 8th March 1966, the Pillar was blown up by Saor Éire, a socialist split from the Irish Republican Movement, in advance of the 50th Anniversary commemorations.
Mick Healy of the Irish Marxist History Project was kind enough to interview me about some of the issues about which I have been active. Parts I and II were published together a couple of months ago and here’s Part III now.
Mostly its snippets about the founding of the Irish in Britain Representation Group, my involvement in the foundation of the Lewisham branch of IBRG in SE London and from there, the Lewisham Irish Centre. Also my participation in Kurdish solidarity and a trade union delegation to Turkish-occupied Kurdistan (the YPG placard photo is of me in Trafalgar Square, London a couple of years ago when I was over visiting kids & grandkids) and the anti-water charge campaign in Ireland.
We hear talk from time to time about essential frontline workers, a discussion the origins of which can be traced to the call on the Government to shut down all non-essential work. That of course raised the issue of what is essential work and therefore, who are the essential workers. High among the category considered essential were health practitioners and their rate of infection, when statistics were published, was exceeding 25%. But there is another group of workers who are essential and vulnerable and although most members of the public are in contact with them on a weekly basis at least, nevertheless they are given little protection and rarely mentioned.
Essential workers include, apart from healthcare workers, those maintaining our supplies of clean water, electricity and gas, sanitation, agriculture, production of necessary equipment, public transport, transport of essential supplies, fire-fighting, telecommunication (but not commercial call centres), postal services …. All of these should be in the first rank of consideration for protection from the Coronavirus-19, because they are vulnerable and for the selfish reason that we need them. But much more exposed on a daily basis to a greater number of people are the shop and supermarket workers.
They are the most numerous of the essential workers in daily contact with the public, which puts them at risk and, if they become infected, puts the general public, the shopping customers at risk too. And yet, their levels of protection organised by their employers are very poor overall. Despite this, we rarely hear them mentioned in public discourse, they do not receive particular attention from the Left and even their own trade unions are inactive on the issue.
WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN DONE
Let us take a moment to consider what should have been the measures put in place for these workers and for the public coming into contact with them:
Immediate training program in prevention for all staff, with regular refresher or reinforcement measures
Immediate supply of protective clothing, disposed/ washed after each break and shift, this to include face-mask and gloves
Hand-sanitiser at every work station
Wrap-around screens at all checkout points
Disinfection routines for all work stations at shift changes
No shelf-filling during hours open to the public or non-essential interaction between public and staff inside of six feet distance
Staff in necessary close proximity to members of the public, including security staff, to be given special protection in clothing and in shift arrangements and testing
Safe social distances enforced by restrictions on numbers of customers in store at one time
Safe social distances marked for queues and enforced
Regular disinfection of automatic checkout machines
Supply of hand-sanitiser at all entrances/ exits and checkout machines for the public
Prevention informational visual and audio prompts for public and staff
All companies obliged by Government to publish their protocols so as to educate staff and public and also give a point of correction if either feel that the protocols are not being adhered to.
Some readers may protest that management had no previous experience of a pandemic, that some of these measures were implemented but a delay was inevitable and some measures are too extreme. I would respond that any group of reasonably intelligent people, knowing the danger and typical transmission routes, sitting down to think of precautions, would come up with a similar list. Companies are supposed to carry out risk assessments of their procedures. Trade union officials and representatives would be trained in how to assess levels of risk and how to employ measures to eliminate or reduce the level of risk as much as practicable.
Should anyone consider any of those measures excessive, they should be able to point out which and to say why. Or likewise justify the claim that late implementation was unavoidable.
WHAT WAS DONE
Let us now take a moment to review which of those measure have been implemented, how and when.
I am not in a position to give a definite answer on whether staff were given intensive training in avoiding infection or not but from my observation while shopping of staff in a number of supermarkets I would feel confident in saying that they had not or, if they had, that the required practice was not being monitored by management.
Even to the day of writing this piece, in only one workplace, Eurospar in Fairview, have I seen all the staff wearing face masks. Workers in a number of other companies have told me that they are not supplied with them.
Hand-sanitiser was supplied to work-stations in some supermarkets (possibly all) but weeks after the pandemic hit Ireland (though it had been raging abroad for many weeks before that and covered in news reports).
No screens were in place at work-stations until weeks after the arrival of the virus and even now are rudimentary in many places. Single screens with spaces between permit staff and customers to position themselves in the open spaces, which I have seen both do at times. A number of cashier screens with an open section for customers to receive and load their checked-out purchases are well inside six feet of the staff member.
Whether there are any such shift-change disinfection routines at any supermarket I cannot say but in some supermarkets I have seen staff leave or take up work at a station without any evidence of its disinfection.
I have seen frequent shelf-filling during-open-to the-public hours in Dunnes, Tesco, Centra and Aldi (I have not been in a Lidl since the virus arrived) and even without gloves; also unprotected staff moving among customers on other pieces of work, including stacking and removing empty baskets. Even this evening in a Tesco outlet, although at least they were wearing orange (?) gloves, staff were attending to shelves (and without face-masks, as was the staff member stationed near the automatic machines).
In addition to the above, staff maintaining queue lines, including security staff: every single one without masks and all being passed by customers at distances inside of six feet. The most shocking case was of a security guard in Tesco Drumcondra being passed by customers at distances of between one and three feet – he had no mask and only his company uniform, which he probably takes home to his family and puts on again next day. As to testing, given the long waiting times reported for testing and even longer for results, along with the general level of care for employees shown by the companies, how likely is any are being regularly tested?
Yes but in at least one case, I saw that the security guard on the door monitoring numbers was absent for awhile. Of course, there are calls of nature but shouldn’t the protocols require the temporary replacement of the person at this post? Would we wish to be the ones who were infected because this probability had not been foreseen and provided for?
The safe social distances for queueing customers – but not among staff — are now being enforced in most supermarkets, weeks after the arrival of the virus (but I noticed today that the separation is actually less than the advertised two metres).
I have very rarely seen disinfection of automatic machines.
In a local Centra, the first I saw to erect perspex screens, there was a sanitiser dispenser at the entrance with instructions. On at least one occasion it was empty and I have seen customers pass it without using it or having it called to their attention. I saw none in any other chain supermarket, although in Aldi a spray was provided by the baskets with instructions to use it on the basket handles.
Prevention information posters may be seen but usually of the most generalised kind (like those from the HSE) and asking forstaff to be treated with patience; graphic posters very rarely, film and audio prompts never. In other words, the means supermarkets use when they really want something, like mood enhancement, customers aware of bargains or special promotions, urgent attention to a checkpoint machine or stores about to close – are precisely those that they are not using for promotion of infection prevention.
The Government has not obliged companies to publish their protocols (not even suggested that they should do so) and the companies have not done so themselves.
This is a serious lack of care provision for a large section of essential workers and with a potential collateral effect on most of the public. First in line of responsibility for this failure must beof course the companies but their main motive has always been profit. Next in line must be the Government, which has the power to implement emergency measures (and used it recently with giving extra power to Gardaí an courts to employ against individuals) but our governments have always been primarily in the service of capital. Who do I personally blame most for this area of neglect? Those whose very publicised reason for existence is the protection of workers and the promotion of a just society – the trade unions and the Left.
Among the statistics that are published on rates of testing positive and deaths attributed to the virus, there are breakdowns into age and gender groups and, at least in the earlier days, of healthcare workers. We never see, among those statistics, any for shop workers. Or for those who might in turn have been infected by them. The largest statistic given for route of infection is that of “social contact” and presumably that’s where they are, hidden. We remain uninformed and the low level of protection continues, with no real effort being made to change the situation.
PS: Readers may wonder at the absence of information directly from the workers themselves. The reason is that personally I am unaware of anyone in my acquaintance working in this sector and did not wish to cause the workers more stress than they have to deal with already.
For focus on steps trade unions and the Left failed to take, see article titled WHAT DID NOT HAPPEN in Rebel Breeze.
Mick Healy interviewed me about a number of my experiences in revolutionary work over the years and this is Part 1 (Part 2 will shortly be published), nearly all about some of my three decades in London. It contains a number of errors by me, for example the apartheid rugby team was South Africa’s one which were not called the “All Blacks”, that being New Zealand’s. Also I believe the giant Hunger Strikers solidarity march in London was to Michael Foot’s home, not Tony Benn’s. Still, here it is for what it’s worth with many thanks to Mick.
Diarmuid a long time political agitator was active in London from 1967, in interview part one, he talks about his involvement with Marxism-Leninism-Anarchism. His involvement in the Vietnam and Rhodesia solidarity campaigns, Anti-fascist mobilisation, solidarity Ireland, family squatting. In addition the campaign against the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the 1969 Peoples Democracy march from Belfast-Dublin.
One of the clerical staff knocked on the door of Patrick, the boss of the Irish health worker’s union. “Come in!” called out the latter.
“Eh, Boss, lookit this here,” he said, waving a computer printout.
“Why don’t you summarise it for me,” suggested Patrick.
“It’s about that epidemic in China.”
“Coronavirus-19,” replied Patrick, who prided himself on keeping up with world news. “What about it?”
“It’s coming here,” replied the clerical worker.
“What! Who says? Where does it say that?”
“Boss, it’s spreading all over Italy and ….”
“Yes, well but Italy is far away from here!”
“Not as far as China is from Italy.”
Patrick thought about that but the clerical worker continued: “And the Ireland rugby team is playing there and nobody stopped Irish fans going there …. or coming back.”
Patrick sat silently, the enormity of the situation dawning upon him, then reached out for the computer printout. Among other things, it showed the steep climbing graph of confirmed cases of the virus in Italy.
After the clerical worker had gone, Patrick rang Michael, the President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Then he rang a number of union general secretaries: Brigid, of the shop and distributive workers, Barry of public transport, Jim of post and telecommunications, Josie of the clerical municipal workers, Colm of the manual municipal workers, Jan of construction ….
Two days later they all met in Liberty Hall, Dublin – thirty people, including chiefs of all the main trade unions in Ireland and of a few sub-divisions, along with their note-takers or advisers. By the end of three hours they had a position statement, including demands of the Irish Government, ready to go the moment the first case of the virus was confirmed in Ireland. They had ruled out issuing it until then because they feared it would not have enough effect.
A delegation was chosen to meet the Ministers of Health and of Industry. And pieces of work including research and requirements specific to some branches of the workforce had been distributed, with those responsible noted in the minutes and deadlines given. It was nearing the end of February.
The following day, the first case was notified in Ireland, a person returning from Italy.
ICTU PUBLIC STATEMENT
That afternoon, the President of the ICTU phoned the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Irish Government to alert him to the joint trade union statement and to push for an early meeting with the Ministers of Health and of Industry.
By midday four days later, the 1st of March, the updated statement had been emailed and faxed to all union branches, newspaper, radio and television news media and to a number of bloggers, most of which displayed it prominently, especially as that day the second case in Ireland had been diagnosed:
“The Coronavirus-19 epidemic in Italy has now reached 1,694 confirmed cases of contagion with 34 deaths and only four months ago the first case of this virus was diagnosed in China. It has now reached Ireland and more cases will soon be reported here. As trade unions representing workers including those in front-line services of healthcare, food sales and distribution, public transport, post and communications, municipal services …. We call on employers and Government to ensure the following steps are taken as a matter of great urgency.
All front-line workers in essential services be issued with HSE information on the known dangers of the Coronavirus-19 and be updated regularly
Those workers to be issued with hand-sanitiser gel, gloves and face-masks
The term “essential services” to be applied to the following (the list is not exclusive):
general health workers and auxiliary services with special emphais on those to the elderly, disabled etc
emergency services in health, fire-fighting, public order, rescue services
workers in production and maintenance of power supplies for heating, lighting and cooking
workers in water purification and supply
workers in food production
workers in outlets providing food and essential supplies
delivery workers to the above and of these to homes
public sanitation workers
postal and essential telecommunications workers (i.e not commercial call centres)
Those workers to be where possible isolated from members of the public by appropriate measures such as withdrawal from duties requiring contact with the public, placing of transparent screens between staff and the public, recourse to audio and video communication, etc.
All covered public spaces, in particular those supplying essential services such as food shops, to be supplied with hand-sanitiser dispensers and notices exhorting the public to use them to prevent or restrict the spread of the virus
All companies to publicly display the measures they have taken to protect staff and the public
The closure of borders, airports and ports to travel to or from abroad, quarantine measures being enforced wherever arrivals are currently taking place
Should the virus continue to spread, all non-essential services should cease. This measure is not only for the protection of staff and public at the place of work but also in the travelling of workers from their homes to the place of work and back again
The above measure to be announced by the Government through public statements and to be enforced strictly wherever non-compliance should be observed
The Government to urge the public through repeated public announcements to self-isolate and to remain indoors where possible, urging responsible adults to ensure the same with children
The Government to freeze by decree all evictions, all actions for non-payment or arrears of rent or mortgages
likewise with actions pursuing non-payment of bills for utility services
The Government to oblige all companies that can afford it to pay workers they lay off
and to supply all smaller companies and businesses that cannot afford in full such payments, the necessary assistance to meet their obligations to the workers
The Government to set aside an adequate sum to pay all unemployed or on pensions a weekly sum sufficient to meet normal weekly expenses
The Government to propose for Oireachtas approval an emergency law authorising the appropriation of any buildings, private facilities, companies and property necessary for healthcare, production of prevention materials, production and distribution of food etc.
“Wherever we find the necessary measures are not being taken, we will instruct our members to take appropriate action, including withdrawal of their labour, picketing of the offending company or service along with providing comprehensive information to the public on the reasons for our actions and the risks to which they are being exposed through failure of the companies or services to take the appropriate action. We will not be negligent in the face of danger to our members and to the general public.”
Two days later, after the employers and Government had failed to respond in the manner considered necessary by the trade unions, strikes, walkouts and pickets were called at many branches of all supermarkets, postal service depots and public outlets, call centres, public transport depots, construction sites, local authority manual and clerical services, pubs and hotels. The unions of the health service workers, a workforce under-staffed, under-funded and under huge pressure already, maintained a rota picket with placards and leaflets in front of major hospitals and the Department of Health in Dublin. Lawyers and barristers picketed the courts, calling for them to close. All pickets wore surgical-type face masks and disposable gloves, and had with them a mobile stand with a hand-sanitiser dispenser.
By the end of that week, the public pressure on the supermarket chains was such that all had provided sanitiser dispensers for staff at work stations and for customers at entrances and exits, glass screens separated all staff work-stations from customers, staff needing to work in the public area were all wearing face-masks and gloves and a big badge asking people to keep a safe distance. Shelf-filling and price-tagging duties were confined to hours when no public were present. Queue lines were marked out with spacing between customers and periodic announcements instructed
customers on safety precautions. Numbers of shoppers inside were restricted at any one time and lines outside marked required spacing for people queuing outside. All staff were being given health precautionary instructions for a half-hour daily through interactive screens.
Furthermore, all main employers had published a list of their precautionary measures and were updating them in response to representations from unions, the general public and Government instructions or recommendations.
Workers in all main public services had been issued precautionary instructions, face-masks, disposable gloves and hand-sanitiser and workers in some particular conditions had protective suits.
That is what could have happened and would have had an early restrictive impact on the spread of the virus to the public and to workers who provided a public service. The unions had the organisational and communication capacity to to do that. They didn’t do it – it didn’t happen.
Many of the measures indicated above – but by no means all – were taken but weeks later — and none at trade union initiative: unofficial workers’ action, voluntary company action and government order were the means by which they came into being. By that time, many front-line workers and members of the public had been infected.
The trade unions in Ireland, having already failed their members and the working class in general through two decades of “social partnership” (when a healthy “social distancing” would have been more appropriate!), followed by failure to resist (and collusion with) austerity measures, failed once again in anti-virus protection of their members and of the public.
Some left-wingers say we should not mention these shortcomings since average trade union membership is low and this kind of discourse will hardly help union membership recruitment. But if unions cannot or will not respond adequately and in timely fashion to the needs of their members in particular and to working people in general, why should people be expected to join them? Trade union membership is falling for a reason.
Perhaps these left-wingers feel that the current unions should not be criticised, without a viable alternative having being put in place first. But what are they doing to provide that viable alternative? The answer is clearly nothing, or as near to that as makes no effective difference.
THE FORBIDDEN DISCUSSION
There is silence on this question from the broad Left, including those parties claiming to be revolutionary. When individuals raise the issue, it is not addressed or the individual is censored.
It is time to end this self-censorship on the Left and to proclaim loud and high that the trade unions in Ireland, despite the presence of many genuine activists, are generally not fit for purpose. What do we do instead? First, admit the problem and its scale – then we can discuss possible remedies. The patient cannot be cured if we refuse to admit the illness and the stage it has reached.
Some of the left-wingers are now saying that this crisis has exposed the unsuitability for society of the capitalist system and that when it is over, that lesson must be put into practice and essential services become national public services. Apart from the weaknesses in this solution, one must ask: who is going to make this happen? If the capitalist system opposes this change, how will the capitalists and their State be overcome? A social revolution without a mass working class organisational base is not possible.
Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU)
There are currently 55 trade unions with membership of Congress, representing about 600,000 members in the …. (Irish state). Trade union members represent 35.1% of the Republic’s workforce. This is a significant decline since the 55.3% recorded in 1980 and the 38.5% reported in 2003. In the Republic, roughly 50% of union members are in the public sector. The ICTU represents trade unions in negotiations with employers and the government with regard to pay and working conditions (from Wikipedia)
Main trade unions
SIPTU: “… is the largest Union in Ireland with over 180,000 members.
SIPTU represents workers in both the public and private sector in almost every industry in Ireland and at virtually every level. SIPTU caters for full-time, part-time, permanent, contract and temporary workers, as well as retired and unemployed members.” (from SIPTU website)
“Fórsa is Ireland’s newest trade union with over 80,000 members. …. represents members in the public service, as well as the commercial sector, state agencies, some private companies and in the community and voluntary sector.
“Fórsa is the second largest union on the island of Ireland and by far the largest trade union voice in the Irish civil and public service.” (quoted from Forsa’s website)
The Connect Trade Union is the largest Engineering Union in Ireland and the second largest in manufacturing representing up to 40,000 workers.
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), founded in 1868, is the oldest and largest teachers’ trade union in Ireland. It represents 40,633 teachers at primary level in the Republic of Ireland and 7,086 teachers at primary and post-primary level in Northern Ireland. Total membershipis 47,719 (August 2019).
The Teachers’ Union of Ireland represents over 17,000 teachers and lecturers in Ireland engaged in Post-Primary, Higher and Further Education. The Union is made up of 62 branches in 19 areas. (quoted from TUI website).
The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is a democratic, affiliate-led federation recognised as the world’s leading transport authority. ….. connecting trade unions from 147 countries …. We are the voice for 18.5 million working men and women across the world” (ITF website).
“Mandate is a union of over 40,000 workers across Ireland.”(Wikipedia)
Unite the Union, commonly known as Unite, is a British and Irish trade union, formed on 1 May2007, by the merger of Amicus and the Transport and General Workers’ Union. With just over 1.2 million members, it is the second largest trade unionin the UK (Wikipedia).
Staff wearing gloves (at last) but no masks. Distance instructions for shoppers at staffed checkouts but no masks — and what about floor staff, tending shelves, collecting empty baskets, ANSWERING QUERIES FROM CUSTOMERS AT CLOSE RANGE? !!
“Every little helps”? TOO LITTLE!
Criminal neglect by big employers of their staff and also, in the long run, of the wider public. And the unions?!!
Lots of empty spaces on shelves by the way. And I remembered the toilet paper!
A packed function room at Club an Múinteoirí (Teachers’ Club) in Dublin last night heard speakers, including Arthur Scargill and the Cuban Ambassador, praise some of the highlights of the life of irish activist Des Bonass (died 26 September last year). The meeting was chaired by Colm Kinsella of Unite.
Strangely, up to yesterday afternoon, many socialist, Republican and trade union activists seemed unaware of the event, organised by Bonass’ branch of the trade union Unite. I only learned of it myself when Arthur Scargill and Nell Myles stopped at our weekly Save Moore Street From Demolition campaign stall earlier in the day and explained that he was in Dublin in order to speak at an event that evening.
The event was scheduled to begin at 7.30pm but by that time there were less than a dozen people present, arousing fear in some quarters that the attendance would be poor. As time went on, the side room leading off the main room was closed and the chairs removed. Some more people arrived and then as if by magic by 8.30 the room was packed, with extra seating being made available for people who arrived even after that.
IRISH TRADE UNIONISTS AND CUBAN AMBASSADOR
John Douglas (former General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, currently General Secretary of Mandate trade union) spoke of how he had come to know Des Bonass when Douglas was a member of the Amalgamated Transport & General Workers’ Union (now part of UNITE), a section catering for bar workers which at the time represented a great many in the trade. He related how the bar workers would come off late shift and go to a union meeting around midnight, a meeting that sometimes would not finish until five a.m! Bonass had asked Douglas for a space to address the union members in support of the British miners, after which he had come away with buckets overflowing with financial contributions from the barmen.
Douglas also related that Bonass was in support of women’s right to choose abortion at a time when that would not have received popular support in Ireland and went on to speak about the strike against TESCO and how Bonass had brought Scargill to a number of picket lines around the city, raising their morale and drawing media attention.
Des Derwin (Executive Member of Dublin Council of Trade Unions and Vice-Chair of SIPTU Dublin District Council) gave what seemed a comprehensive list of the activities of Des Bonass down through the years, including how he had actively supported the struggles in the H-Blocks in the Six Counties and of the Palestinian people, as well as the struggle of the Dunne’s Stores strikers. Unknown to many, perhaps, Bonass had been a founder of People Before Profit and the Unemployed Workers’ Movement.
When the Irish Labour Party conference had voted to go into coalition government, Bonass and Matt Merrigan had walked out together, after they had seen Noel Browne leave the room. The media thought Bonass and Merrigan had led a protest walkout, whereas they said they had followed Noel Browne. When Brown appeared in the lobby, the reporters asked him why he had led the walkout, which he adamantly denied, saying he had only left the conference to go to the toilet!
Subsequently Bonass and Merrigan had founded the Irish branch of the Socialist Labour Party. The Dublin Council of Irish Trade Unions had been another of his areas of activity and Bonass had been President of the organisation; he had also been active in Unite the union.
Also a supporter of internationalist causes, Bonass had been againstsuch as the Chilean coup, for Nicaragua and Cuba, against the South African Apartheid regime and the invasion of Iraq.
Hugo René Milanés, Cuban Ambassador to Ireland, expressed his gratitude to Des Bonass for the latter’s support for Cuba and in particular “against the Yanqui blockade” and for working for socialism throughout his life.
SCARGILL, BRITISH TRADE UNIONIST
Arthur Scargill, ex-President of National Union of Mineworkers (Britain) spoke about Des Bonass’ support for the NUM, particularly those of South Wales, when they were in the big strike of 1984-’85 and how Bonass had agreed to receive money from the NUM to keep it safe from the British State’s sequestration. At first, the money had been couriered by Nell Myles, an NUM official (who was present at the meeting) and delivered to the ATGWU office in Parnell Square; on one occasion she had been mugged on her way but the money stolen was her personal money and not the union funds, which were safely delivered. Six months later, Scargill himself came to Dublin and Des Bonass accompanied him to a Dublin branch of a bank with a holdall stuffed full of a lot more money but the alarmed branch manager referred them to the bank’s head office, where the money was safely stored.
Des Bonass brought Arthur Scargill around to many Dublin pickets during the TESCO strike organised by the MANDATE union, which had been welcomed by the strikers and which had lifted their spirits. He had been happy to attend, Scargill said and related a journalist asking him about his reaction to a bomb threat against TESCO. To laughter and applause from the meeting’s audience, Scargill related his response to the journalist, that neither he nor the TESCO strikers could have anything to with any such bomb inside as they would never cross a picket line! Des Bonass had also got Scargill a spot on the popular Gay Byrne show, where he had been confronted with a Margaret Thatcher impersonator.
Bonass had been a founder of the Irish branch of the Socialist Labour Party which Scargill had founded in Britain as founded by James Connolly.
Paying tribute to the moral and practical support of the Irish people for the NUM’s struggle, Scargill said that their support in ratio to union members in Ireland had been the highest of all and went on to reveal that he and Nell both had Irish ancestry on both parental sides, referring also to the history of oppression of Irish people by the British State. Scargill talked about the financial contributions but also how Irish families had taken in miner’s children for holiday breaks, as British trade unionists had wanted to take in Irish children during the 1913 Lockout.
Later on in his speech, Scargill declared himself a firm follower of the “11th Commandment: Thou shalt not cross a picket line!” (loud applause) and went on to talk about the determination of the Thatcher Government to break the NUM and its leadership. Thatcher and Government personnel had claimed at the time that they had not intervened in the strike, which was allegedly between the NUM and the National Coal Board but Scargill stated that was a lie and the truth had emerged in documentation over the years, available on the Internet to anyone who wished to check it. “Unjust laws have to be broken” he said also because “if we hadn’t done that, women would not have the vote; we would not have trade unions!” He paid tribute to the Levellers, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Suffragettes.
Scargill emphasised that the best way to celebrate the life of Des Bonass and to honour his memory is to continue the struggle for the principles that Des Bonass upheld, then finished his speech to a standing ovation from those present.
Colm Kinsella then welcomed the last speaker, Ciarán Bonass. Ciarán announced that he was the son of Des Bonass and talked about what the family had learned from his father as they had also supported him in his activism. Thanking all the speakers and all others present on his family’s behalf, his mother Eileen and sisters Mairéad and Deirdre, along with in-laws and grandchildren, he ended his contribution to loud applause from the attendance.
Colm Kinsella announced that their branch of Unite was now named “the Des Bonass Branch of Unite” in Des Bonass’ honour, thanked all the speakers and the attendance and invited people to partake of refreshments while listening to labour and other songs performed by Richie Brown (of Unite) and friends.