Tommy McKearney on the State of Labour

Sandy Boyer (SB) interviews Tommy McKearney (TM) author of the book, The Provisional IRA: From Insurrection to Parliament, via telephone from Monaghan about issues concerning labour and unions in Ireland today.
WBAI 99.5FM Pacifica Radio
New York City
30 August 2014

SB:  And now we're changing gears.  We're going over to Monaghan to talk to Tommy McKearney about the state of labour in Ireland on this Labour Day. Tommy, thanks very much for being with us.
TM:  Delighted to be with you, Sandy. 

SB:  And Tommy, you're now an organiser for the Independent Workers Union. But before that - going a ways back - you were the Officer Commanding for the IRA in East Tyrone which led you mysteriously to the H-Blocks of Long Kesh – and you were on hunger strike.  Do you see any contraction between your Republican background and being an organiser for the Independent Workers Union?

TM:  Absolutely none whatsoever, Sandy.  In fact, I would see it as an imperative actually to marry the two: Irish Republicanism and the cause of labour. I was at a meeting this evening in Dublin of the National Graves Association.  We were reflecting on the leaders of 1916 and there was a very excellent address made by a man, a man called Michael Kenny, talking about The Proclamation of 1916.  But he also drew attention for example to the 1867 Proclamation of the Fenian Movement of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in which they mention the fact that to labour had to go the just rewards for their endeavours. 

And it's quite in keeping with Irish Republicanism that we would also hold very dear the cause of labour.  As Connolly said: “the cause of labour is the cause of Ireland” - so not at all perfectly in keeping and I was seeing it as a continuation of the Republican endeavour. 

SB:  And Tommy, this is Labor Day in the United States. Labour is under really fierce and sustained attack.  I mean right now only 6.7 percent of the private sector workers are in a union at all! And public sector unionism is just under a continual attack – political attack - to make it more and more difficult for them to organise and bargain for wages – all things that unions do. Is that replicated at all in Ireland? 

TM:  It is.  There's a similar attack on organised labour in Ireland.  The private sector might not be as low in density here as it is in The States but at the same time we're probably talking about fifteen to sixteen percent in reality – as distinct from what the figures that you have quoted – but it's still - fifteen-sixteen percent of the private sector unionise and organised is still dreadfully low.   

The public sector would be higher, significantly higher, but as you have indicated about the public sector in the United States, in Ireland organised labour within the public sector is under enormous pressure.  There is a very, very calculated attempt being made on an ongoing basis to contrast the weekly income of the private sector against that of the public sector.   

And there's a campaign afoot constantly to create that the impression that the public sector is costive, that it's overpaid, that it is in a privileged position and instead of – instead of the word out and about that in fact all workers are entitled to a decent income and a secure old age - what's been attempted in Ireland is to drive the public sector workers down rather than to promote the good of all workers. So I would suggest that the attack in the public sector in The States is probably part of a universal campaign by capital and employers to undermine the income of workers.   

At the end of the day what we're seeing - and have been seeing now for over thirty years - is a very constant factor where the portion of the world's wealth - or the national wealth - is increasingly going towards a smaller number of people – towards the employers – towards capital – and a smaller proportion of the “national cake” - if you'd like to call it that - going to labour. And it's happening in Ireland.  It's happening in Britain and it certainly, from what I've read, it's happening also in the United States. 

SB:  Now Tommy, I know that there's a very critical strike going on in Dublin now and it's called the Greyhound strike which puzzles us because here Greyhound is a bus line. 

TM:  Yes.  Well, I can understand the confusion because even on this side of The Atlantic we've heard of the Greyhound bus, the very famous bus company in the United States. No.  It's not.  In Ireland, in Dublin here, it's actually a recycling plant-cum-refuse centre. 

Over the last twenty years in Ireland there has been this enormous drive by the state to privatise what previously was within the orbit of the public sector, in this case the refuse collection – bin collectors as we call them in Ireland. And where previously all over the Republic – the local council – that's local government or I think maybe city hall as you folks might call it - had responsibility and directly employed working people to collect the rubbish bins and dump it.  This has now been privatised. 

And in turn this was supposed to reduce cost – the usual story which is:  that it would bring down the cost – it's more economical.  In effect what it means is that the price of labour is coming down and people are asked to work for less and less. 

But in this case what happened was some of these men – all of these men who are in the private sector recycling and sorting rubbish and refuse they have now been told that they're being replaced by cheaper, temporary contract labourers - with what we call “zero contract hours” where people are told that they don't have a permanent contract that they're working on a day-to-day basis.   

And there's an attempt being made to actually cut their wages back probably about forty percent.  Now there has been a strike on-going now for the last number of weeks.  There's been a very intensive picket. There's been a lot of publicity about it.  And sad to say of course the company has been able to find scabs - black legs - I'm not sure what you call them in The States ... 

SB:  We call them scabs. 

TM:  Scabs.  Well, it's a good enough word for them! And I think - would they go free and many, many of your great labour bards have adequately described them as “the lowest of the low” and they are attempting to strike-break. 

But what's happening is the working people of Dublin are giving it some considerable support.  Some – not, unfortunately enough - but some of our elected officials - people like Cieran Perry, Councillor Cieran Perry from Cabra - Joan Collins and a few others.  Joan Collins is a TD – in other words a member of the Irish Parliament - have been out standing on the picket line as have other members of the organised labour movement. And they are having a considerable impact.   

And it has become a public case whereas so many of these things the private sector and the state here - because we have after all a very right-wing government in spite of the fact that it's coalition which includes a party which is believe it or not is called the Labour Party which even more incredible it was founded in the long gone-by by the great James Connolly but it has long lost any connection with organised labour or the working man and woman. 

And the state, the official state, is in favour of privatisation and increasing the immiseration of working people.  But there is resistance and could become one of these “crunch issues” in Ireland and we've got to stand up and fight. 

SB:  Tommy, speaking of right-wing governments, something we have in common with you is that the Democrats and Republicans here say that the way to cut unemployment is to cut the corporate income tax - that we're taxing the corporations much, much too much.

Now in Northern Ireland you have the interesting phenomenon that one of the many things the Democratic Unionist Party, of course founded by Ian Paisley, and Sinn Féin, the party of Gerry Adams, one of the many things they agree on is that: Yes. You have to cut the corporate income tax and that everybody's going to be better off if corporations would only have to pay less tax.  Now, do you really think that's going to benefit working people? 

TM:  Of course it won't benefit working people. What we have in the Republic of Ireland is a twelve and a half percent corporate or corporation tax. The British rate of corporation tax is much higher.  It's currently about twenty-five percent although the British government, which is also a very right-wing government, is planning to take it down to about twenty.  So in other words the corporation tax in Northern Ireland mirrors of course the central government in London which is twenty percent. 

So therefore the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin they’re mooting and actually rooting for a concession from the central government in London to have corporation tax reduced to twelve and a half percent in The Six Countries of Northern Ireland so that we would be – and this you may put in parentheses - “competitive” - with the Republic. 

Now effectively that means is that, if it were to come about, that it would be giving large amount of relief - it would be compensation in effect for foreign direct investment companies who wish to come to avail of cheaper labour, who wish to pay less in tax - but what would happen then, because the British government has made it very clear, that what we call the block grant - that's the annual transfer from London to The North - would be reduced commensurate with the reduction in tax. 

Now what would happen is that the large companies coming to avail of this “tax haven” - which it will effectively be - that they would have marvelous concessions – they would have increased profits. But those that need central government assistance - the elderly, those in hospitals, the young and educational,  people that depend on the welfare net - that their access to it would be reduced because there would be a smaller pot.  

And overall the point about it is that the corporation tax rate in the Republic of Ireland is unsustainable in the long term anyway.  Your own President, Mr. Obama, has referred to Ireland very recently as being a state where the larger United States companies actually off-shore their interests so they don't have to pay tax in the United States. 

Senator John McCain, who certainly is not known for his hostility to big business, John McCain, a Senator, highlighted Ireland and actually described it as a “tax haven”. So with the world's largest and most powerful colony taking a dim view of how Ireland behaves Ireland will eventually have to fall in line. So it's not a long-term answer anyway. 

But what it does highlight, Sandy, is the absence of any serious economic thinking within either the Sinn Féin or the Democratic Unionist Party.  They don't certainly – and the DUP – we don't be surprised at as they are proud to proclaim themselves to be a right-wing party - but Sinn Féin would claim to be a left-wing socialist party with a social conscience but they quite simply don't have any pro-working class policies on display in The North.   

Their economic policies are bereft of - it's a very eclectic type of economic policy to have - a little bit snipped out of this and a little bit snipped out of that - but it doesn't have any coherent drive towards supporting organised labour and working class people. 

SB:  Tommy, you're an organiser now for the Independent Workers Union.  Tell us about that.  Is it that just like every other union in Ireland or is it somehow different?

TM:  We like to think that it is different. Now having said that we have to say that we're not in conflict with other unions.  The union that's organising the Greyhound workers is the largest union in Ireland –  SIPTU - and we take the view that we will support working people - although we have some reservations about the leadership and direction of SIPTU but overall we will side and we will take the part of other unions if we can - there's a certain line we won't transgress. 

But having said that we've very skeptical about the overall leadership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. It has done a fairly debilitating deal in the past with the state and with the large business corporations – it was known as “social partnership” - and it was deemed to be a tripartite agreement between organised labour, between the state and between big business. We described it as a corporate arrangement. 

Ultimately what it done was it emasculated the union movement.  It took out the vital shop steward strata - those men and women who do their daily work and represent workers on the shop floor at the coalface where they were placed by bureaucrats. So what we have found happening in Ireland since the crisis, the economic crisis in 2008, is that our union movement has lost its key cadre of on-the-ground organisers.   

The leadership of the movement has pinned all its hopes on the absolutely helpless and hopeless Irish Labour Party hoping that the Irish Labour Party will, as they say, ameliorate the worst aspects of the very right-wing conservative Fine Gael party with whom they're in coalition. 

And it's simply not working.  It isn't working.  But because we have this close relationship between the leadership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the leadership of the Irish Labour Party - one is attempting to shore up the other to the overall detriment cutting edge of organised labour in Ireland. And against that we have set up a union which is not part of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.   

We're still small.  But we're still in the field.  And we are arguing our case that we have no respect for the big battalions. We see ourselves as a fighting union that's prepared to stand against the employer on behalf of working people whenever the need arises. 

SB:  Tommy, we were talking to Bernadette McAliskey before about immigrants, specifically in The North. Does the Independent Workers Union organise a lot of immigrant workers? 

TM:  Actually, we have a very high percentage of immigrant workers, migrant workers, particularly in the Republic of Ireland – Dublin and Cork. And at this stage – now bearing in mind that we are quite a small union we have a full-time staffer - he's a Polish man - a great young man - obviously speaks Polish - speaks very fluent English as well and he does a huge amount of work - Daniel Snihur is his name.  Daniel does a huge amount of work with the Polish community.  And since he's a very talented linguist from eastern Europe of course he can also speak Russian which is in many ways - like many of the Eastern European folk - is it's a lingua-franca. So he's able to speak with the Hungarian.  We have a significant number of those folks from Hungary and he can communicate with the Hungarian people and those from Russia and The Ukraine. 

So we do have a very considerable number of those people who are probably like in many other countries – migrants come and they're very often abused right off and misused in terms of labour - they don't understand the legislation – they don't understand even the minimal entitlements to which they should qualify for.  And there's a lot of work to be done to protect them from vile exploitation.

SB:  Tommy, before we run out of time here:  We've been talking about the attack on working people:  What's the answer?  What's the fight?  How do we get a fight back? 

TM:  At this point in time I would argue that because of the global nature of the economy – globalisation - we've got to look at two things:  We've got to look at increased international solidarity between working people and secondly, we've got to understand that there is a political content to this as well - that we have got to challenge the overwhelming power of the right wing of big business and its allies in the state. We've got to challenge them politically as well. 

We have to go back to where we come from a century ago and see the importance of making political progress as well as sectoral progress – that being that if we look at the vast contributions big business is making to politicians - big business is able to almost dictate the narrative in terms of in the public mind.  We have got to compete with that and combat it. 

The one thing on our side is that we have the numbers.  And we've got to utilise the numbers.  And we've got to articulate the need to take on the vested interests that see it in their own interests to monopolise and appropriate the vast percentage of the world's wealth to the benefit of a very few but we've got to turn that around with the narrative.   

And we've got to see two things:  We've got to see people in every country in the world as our brothers and sisters and two we've got to contest with them politically and not allow globalisation to have us in Ireland competing with you – well it couldn't anyway – but competing with others - it's not a dog-eat-dog - it has to be brother and sister with brother and sister. 

SB: Tommy, thank you very much.  We'll look forward to talking to you again.


  1. Sandy and the team at Radio Free Eireann do a marvellous job in bringing this discourse to the fore.

    While many of us have been ideologically promiscuous, flirting with different perspectives and ideas, Tommy McKearney has been consistently faithful to a Marxist outlook. Whether we agree with or not, the durability of his tenure in the Marxist school has to be acknowledged.

  2. I have tremendous respect for Tommy McKearney. I will be forever dubious on the practicalities of any branch of socialism, at least people like Tommy strive to make ordinary people's life better. Fair play to him.