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Solidarity Has No Nation

At the 2016 Jim Connell Red Flag festival in county Meath in May, SIPTU researcher Tish Gibbons delivered a powerful message on the importance of international workers solidarity.

In this decade of centenary commemorations, it’s no harm to remind ourselves of our pathetic attempts to provide homes for families – security of tenure for Wolfe Tone’s “men [and women] of no property”. Prior to independence we always had someone else to blame for the urban slums and tenements and the one-roomed bothán shared with livestock in rural areas.

We always had perfidious albion to blame – well think on because we don’t seem to have done too good a job on our own – the first Cumann na nGael administration focussed on owner-occupancy and introduced tenant purchase schemes priced out of the reach of those who needed housing most and which did nothing to clear the slums and tenements. Fianna Fáil built houses alright – tiny houses with large rents and later privatised what little public stock there was. All through our history, successive Irish governments found ways to deal with housing in so as to give profit to developers; interest to banks and working people’s hard-earned rent money to private landlords.

But James Connolly had warned us, hadn’t he? Remember exactly what he said… under the title ‘Let us free Ireland’, James Connolly spoke of those patriots “who won’t touch socialism”, and warned against changing merely the nationality of the ruling classes; all it would mean afterwards was that “you can go back to your slums same as before” and “you can go scraping around for the landlord’s rent or the money-lenders’ interest same as before”.

Meath native Jim Connell’s inspiration for The Red Flag came from a number of issues current at that time – the London Dock Strike of 1889 for one. These Dockers worked in horrendous conditions and lived in worse. Their pay was low even by the standards of their time; their contracts casual and precarious. One of the main points of contention was however the system of “call-on” – where dockers would assemble twice a day, usually in a shed, and bosses would come along and pick and choose which if any would get work that day, and who would also decide whether it would be one hour, or 5 or 12 – an early form of the zero hours or ‘if-and-when’ contracts many workers currently endure – yes over a century later, still an issue, still listening to the management mantra of ‘flexibility, flexibility, flexibility’ when what they really mean is ‘profit, profit, profit’.

Jim Connell was also inspired by events in Chicago a couple of years earlier, when thousands of steel-workers went on strike on the first of May in pursuit of the eight-hour day. And we must note, a century and more later and despite all the progress we have made, that working time is still an issue for many, still an issue for care workers who are paid for the hours they spend with clients but not for travelling from one to another; still an issue for workers in the hospitality industry who are not paid cleaning up time and still an issue for truck drivers, hired on bogus self-employment terms who spend large parts of the day in unpaid queuing.

Let’s remind ourselves too that it was the centenary of the 1798 Rebellion which prompted Jim Connell to write his pamphlet ‘Brothers at Last’ – a call to Celt and Saxon, to Irish and English workers, to unite and stand together in face of the common enemy. And it is still a common enemy – whether we call it “call-on” or zero hours or if-and-when contracts; whether we call ourselves the precariat or the proletariat; whether we call them rackrenters or vulture capitalists; Moneybags or entrepeneurs; there’s nothing new, it’s the same issues we face and have been facing for 100 years and more.

But at least we face them together because there’s nothing new about our solidarity either – the London Docks Strike could not have continued without the financial aid sent by Australian dockers; in Ireland we’re acutely aware of the support of British trade unionists in 1913; we hope we made good on some of that during the miners’ strikes.

In this world gone mad, such class and trade union solidarity is essential.

The above is an edited version of Tish Gibbons speech at the Jim Conell Fesitval.

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