Insufficient wages ‘socially obscene’, Siptu general secretary says

Event marking 75 years since Jim Larkin’s death hears of need to eradicate low pay

Working for a wage that is insufficient to make ends meet is "socially obscene", Siptu general secretary Joe Cunningham told an event marking the 75th anniversary of the death of trade union leader Jim Larkin.

The founder of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) and the Workers’ Union of Ireland (WUI), demanded a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, Mr Cunningham told the gathering at Mr Larkin’s graveside in Glasnevin Cemetery.

He had organised the low-paid workers of his day, who worked in precarious conditions.

“Today, Ireland is a low-paid economy – one of the worst in the EU – with hundreds of thousands working on precarious contracts,” Mr Cunningham said.

During the lockdowns, there was increased public appreciation of the work done by nurses and care assistants, retail workers and cleaners, meat-processing workers, contract caterers, delivery workers, those in emergency services and local authorities, and many more.

Exploitative employers

People’s experience of solidarity during the pandemic has created growing antipathy towards exploitative employers and the general public has begun to question why people in essential roles are paid so little, he said.

Workers can only gain power and respect in the workplace by acting collectively in their dealings with their employers.

“We have only one goal: the abolition of low pay and all the conditions that maintain it. Larkin would have approved,” the Siptu leader said.

The Labour Party spokesperson on workers’ rights told the gathering that Ireland has the “ignominy” of having the highest rate of income inequality across the EU.

"Every time the issue of income inequality comes up, Government claps itself on the back and points to how progressive our tax and welfare system is in reducing inequality," said Senator Marie Sherlock.

“But in that we are letting capital and employers off the hook. We have let the State shoulder the burden for that redistribution rather than looking at how capital in this State can and must play its part.”

Broken economics

Anyone trying to rent or buy a house in Dublin would tell you that so much of our economic model is broken, she said.

Ms Sherlock said her party stood in solidarity with the people of Derry on the anniversary of the events of Bloody Sunday.

A day like today should highlight the absolute necessity of resolving the conflict over Northern Ireland on the basis of consent, a concept that Jim Larkin had subscribed to all his life, she said.

“It was Larkin who had the unique experience and insight from uniting the cause of Catholic and Protestant workers in the great dock strike in Belfast of 1907.”

A number of wreaths were laid at Larkin's grave, including one by his granddaughter, Stella McConnon. Among those at the event were former Siptu leaders Jack O'Connor, Des Geraghty and Billy Attley. The ITGWU and the WUI merged in 1990 to form Siptu.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent