Cost of living crisis: Trade unions have to act!

By Mick Barry TD 

“We are looking at three years of high inflation” – AIB Chief Economist Oliver Mangan, Irish Times, 9 March  

It is becoming increasingly clear that the inflation crisis is going to be around for quite some time. It is also becoming increasingly clear that the Government’s measures come nowhere near addressing the crisis in household finances. These two facts raise the question – what action can working-class people take to directly tackle the crisis? 

Workers take action in North

In Northern Ireland workers have taken strike action to defend living standards. In recent weeks action has been taken by Caterpillar workers, bin workers, classroom assistants, workers in the housing services executive, education welfare officers and school meals staff. 

In more than 25 workplaces in Britain and the North, ‘cost of living’ pay increases have been won in recent months by workers who are members of UNITE either striking or threatening to strike. Now is the time for this approach to be taken here too. 

Every union should submit pay claims for increases that protect against the price surge. This means claims which are double digit, 10% at a minimum. Unions should ballot for strike action to show the Government and employers that workers mean business. 

Strike action will be needed 

If claims are not conceded by a named date then strike action should commence and a strike wave unleashed. The state’s largest union, SIPTU, announced on 11 April that it intends to submit ‘cost of living’ pay claims and to renegotiate deals which fall short of fully protecting workers against inflation. 

This is a good starting position but must now be followed up with an approach similar to the one outlined above. Union power is most strongly concentrated in the public sector. The public sector unions should not allow themselves to be drawn into a lengthy negotiation process at the same time the Government is ruling out cost of living increases. 

Breaching the pay wall

The Government should be told that the unions’ bottom lines are that workers wages must be fully protected and that strike action will be commenced on a named date if they are not prepared to accept that principle. 

Attempts by the capitalist media to divide public sector workers from private sector workers should be met head on by making it clear that a victory for public sector workers can breach the pay wall and open the way for workers’ progress in the private sector. 

Attention should be paid to the situation at Bausch and Lomb in Waterford where a 1,500 strong workforce has voted 87% to strike to improve pay. These workers are very determined given that they were forced to accept pay cuts and extra hours eight years ago – concessions that have never been reversed by a hugely profitable employer. 

Young workers facing low pay & high rent

A victory for the Bausch and Lomb workers could show the way forward in the private sector and result in other workers joining unions to fight for pay increases. Special steps should be taken to protect the interests of young workers in this crisis. 

Many young workers are hit by a deadly combination of sky-high rents on the one hand and low pay on the other. How are they meant to get by in this situation? There would be a huge response from workers generally, and young low-paid workers in particular, if the trade union movement were to now launch a serious campaign to increase the national minimum wage to €15 an hour. 

Today’s trade union leaders tend to be far removed from the financial pressures on workers (particularly the lower paid) and, with some honourable exceptions, from the fighting, socialist traditions of Connolly and Larkin. That’s why workers must organise from below and exert real measures on the leaders to take the steps necessary to defend workers’ living standards.

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