Before covid-19, “normal” was homelessness, a two-tier health service, waiting-lists, precarious work, poverty pay, no sickness pay, a gig economy, pension-age extensions, lack of workers’ rights, exploitation, bogus self-employment and inequality for the majority of people in Ireland while the parasitic elite profiteered off this misery.
“Back to normal” must not mean back to being undervalued, underpaid, and under-appreciated!
“Normal” was a life of pain, austerity, and pay freezes. There can be no going back to what was normal before covid. Covid-19 did not cause the crises in workers’ lives, but it certainly emphasised them. It exposed the greed of the rich, who exploited the pandemic to increase their wealth.
Oxfam’s latest report, entitled “Inequality Kills,” finds that Ireland’s nine billionaires have increased their wealth by 58 per cent, to €49.7 billion, since the beginning of the pandemic. This is not unique to Ireland: there is a worldwide pandemic of wealth accumulation, Billionaire Variant, which accelerated on the back of the coronavirus and thrives off the festering wounds of poverty, hunger, and inequality.
Oxfam reports that the world’s ten richest men doubled their wealth, from €610 billion to €1.3 trillion. In that time a new billionaire was created every 26 hours somewhere in the world.
These levels of wealth are obscene. No human being could ever spend such a vast store of wealth in a lifetime, or in a thousand lifetimes—although they try, as they squander the wealth created by the working class of the world, on trips to space and other such profanities, while the world cries out for vaccines and for an end to poverty.
At the other end of the scale, the report finds that 160 million people were forced into poverty. Inequality is contributing to the death of at least 21,000 people each day, or one person every four seconds.
The income of 99 per cent of humanity is worse since covid-19. Widening economic, gender and racial inequalities, as well as the inequality that exists between countries, are tearing our world apart. As Marx put it, “accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.”
A 99 per cent windfall tax on the covid-19 wealth gains of the ten richest people could pay to make enough vaccines for the entire world, and fill financing gaps in climate measures, universal health and social protection and efforts to address gender-based violence in more than eighty countries, while still leaving these people $8 billion better off than they were before the pandemic.
A 1½ per cent wealth tax on Irish millionaires owning more than €4 million could raise €4 billion in tax revenue every year. Instead of this route, our neoliberal crony-capitalist government puts tax on the family home and wages while the capitalist class, the owners of industry, hoard their wealth in offshore accounts and avail of tax loopholes, tax incentives, and government subsidies. The rich get richer while the poor get poorer.
The Oxfam report goes on to say: “Governments must rewrite the rules within their economies that create such colossal divides, and act to redistribute income, change laws, and redistribute power in decision-making and power in the economy. This includes rescinding laws that undermine the rights of workers to unionise and to strike, and setting legal standards to protect them. It includes addressing monopolies and limiting market concentration.”
The report clearly identifies the passing of anti-union legislation as designed purely to tip the balance of power in favour of capital.
Despite this, the trade union movement is still the largest organisation of the working class in Ireland, with close to 800,000 members. Union density is beginning to grow, along with inequality. Trade union membership declined as a direct result of the introduction of anti-worker legislation such as the 1990 Industrial Relations Act, which tipped the balance of power towards employers, leading to restrictions on industrial action, disillusionment, and an exodus of members.
The grass-roots members have not given up, and as a result of pressure from the rank and file it is now ICTU policy to campaign for legislation to return all those rights lost by workers as a result of the introduction of the Industrial Relations Act.
This grass-roots pressure must continue to drive the campaign. The return of these rights will give power to workers to take on employers without fear of litigation. It will lead to victories and will build confidence in the working class as change is forced by them while workers regain power. Class-consciousness will grow with every struggle and every gain.
Trade unions are not schools of socialism, but they can be. Until the power of the 1990 act and the “social partnership” paradigm are smashed and abandoned, trade unions will be on the back foot.
A mass movement of our people needs to be built to bring about change and an end to inequality. A reinvigorated, radical trade union movement can be the foundation stone on which to build this movement.
Trade unionism is not a spectator sport. All workers must become active in their unions and play their part to force the legislative changes required, for the reinstatement of workers’ rights lost and to finally tip the balance of power back to workers. This will be the first step in rebuilding the radical trade union movement founded by Connolly and Larkin.
Capitalism will never willingly change. There is no such thing as a nicer, fairer form of capitalism. Change will only happen when it is forced. Radical organised labour unhindered by draconian laws will give workers the power to force this change. There can be no going back to capitalism’s normal.
Trade unions must be radical or they will become redundant.