DELEGATES to the Technical Engineering and Electrical Union (TEEU) biennial conference in Kilkenny on Sunday called on the Irish government to abolish the proposed water charges ‘with immediate effect’.
They said that they ‘will campaign to achieve that outcome while supporting the ICTU call for a constitutional referendum to retain water in public ownership in perpetuity’.
While there was disagreement over what some delegates described as an ‘urban, rural divide’ between those already paying charges as members of group water schemes and those who were not, as well as the best way to deal with the conservation issue, they were united in opposing any plan to use water charges as ‘another stealth tax’ or prelude to privatisation.
The conference called for the ICTU to ensure that all public sector employers lived up to their commitments under the Public Service Agreements to take on apprentices in all the crafts to ensure a consistent supply of skilled labour as economic growth resumes.
The TEEU also expressed concern at the drastic reductions in recruitment levels of apprentices in the private sector, as well as the continued refusal of the government to reduce fees for apprentices who have completed their training.
Many delegates expressed concern at the new system of regulation for electrical contractors that did not require them to employ qualified electricians.
Delegates gave examples of contractors hiring handymen to wire new houses and apartment blocks where even simple single loop systems did not work.
Instances were given where light switches in one part of a dwelling activated lights in another room while one TEEU member found a heating system controlled by the light switch in the bathroom, which also regulated the flow of power to the boiler so that it never heated the radiators sufficiently.
Government policy on pensions also came in for severe criticism. The pension levy had been introduced as an emergency measure but now appeared to be permanent and the government was deferring the pre-retirement payment to 68 by 2028 without making any allowances for workers whose contracts of employment ended at 65. Delegates said such dismissals should be challenged on grounds of ageism.
They called for a statutory Pension Protection Fund similar to those in Britain and the United States to be set up that ensured that pensioners and contributors had their savings adequately protected if their fund became insolvent.
Delegates condemned the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks which they said would undermine workers rights, lead to the privatisation of utilities and the elimination of public services where these interfered with the rights of multinationals to make money.
They called on the trade union movement to work with other organisations in the community to stop the TTIP negotiations before agreements became binding on sovereign governments. Delegates said that, like water charges, the TTIP posed a threat the whole community and the campaigns to stop them should be part of wider protest movements.
TEEU General Secretary Eamon Devoy told the conference on Saturday that water charges protests reflect an anger over growing inequality in Irish society.
He said: ‘The huge outburst of anger over water charges has put the government on notice that people will no longer accept austerity policies that put the burden for paying off the bankers’ debts on the backs of ordinary citizens.’
Devoy continued: ‘But this is not just about extra taxes, it is calling a halt to the legacy of decades of deregulation that has seen workers’ rights eroded while the wealthy are given a free ride.
‘We now have a water tax that doesn’t conserve water, that makes families struggling to survive pay as much as millionaires watering their well manicured lawns; and the legislation is still on track to privatise our most vital natural resource, just as previous governments privatised eircom and Aer Lingus.
‘People are therefore understandably angry, but it is an anger that needs to be directed constructively at those responsible, not at ordinary workers, who are trade unionists and employees simply trying to do their jobs and make ends meet like everyone else.
‘Apparently it is okay for (former Minister for the Environment) Phil Hogan to ride off into the sunset with 336,446 euros in his saddle bags as an EU Commissioner for this year alone, while ordinary workers trying to clean up the mess he left behind to get by are to be pilloried, obstructed and even threatened with violence over a so-called “bonus” that will actually mean they forego pay rises in future.
‘Nor should we allow an atmosphere of fear to be created that allows Irish Water or any other company to unilaterally tear up contracts of employment and force workers to do more, for less. Unfortunately that has been the experience of far too many employees for far too long in this country.
‘There was a time when most workers were members of trade unions and could negotiate decent rates of pay and conditions, raising living standards generally and giving them a fair share of the national wealth they had created.
‘But successive governments have facilitated ruthless, anti-union firms in eliminating collective bargaining from many workplaces, so that today the only way in which thousands of working people, and thousands more who are locked out of the labour market can voice their anger or seek a fairer share of the nation’s wealth is by taking to the streets.
‘We are putting the government on notice that we expect it to honour its commitment in the programme it adopted in 2011 that it will “reform the current law on employees’ right to engage in collective bargaining . . . so as to ensure compliance by the State with recent judgements of the European Court of Human Rights”.
‘Unions play a vital role in championing social equality and it is no accident that countries with high union density also enjoy greater social equity.
‘If the government continues to deny workers access to decent representation in the workplace for fear of antagonising some investors then it can expect people denied legitimate access to decent employment, pay and conditions to continue voicing their anger on the streets.
‘Meanwhile we want to put the government and employers on notice that whether it honours the commitment in its own programme or not, we will be launching a campaign aimed at securing five per cent pay rises for our members across all sectors in the coming months, as well as seeking to recoup all the concessions made on issues such as pensions and working conditions over the past seven years.
‘After seven years of hardship we are once more witnessing growth and an opportunity for workers to secure their just reward for the sacrifices made to pay for the mistakes of bankers, developers and other irresponsible elements in our society.
‘We are also learning how to harness our collective power creatively, not alone nationally but across the world through the new alliances we are building with the Global Power Trade Union Congress, IndustriALL Global Union, the Building and Woodworkers International, and the United Association of Plumbers, Pipefitters, Steam Fitters, Sprinkler Fitters, Service Technicians and Apprentices of the USA, Canada and Australia.
‘Our movement will co-ordinate its activities across Europe, North America and Australasia so that we can serve claims and, if necessary, take strike action that brings the consequences of breaching agreements to the door not alone of the main contractor in any dispute but that of sub-contractors, clients and spurious employment agencies they may try to hide behind.
‘In this regard the TEEU has been invited to make a presentation to the Socialist Group in the European Parliament. An opportunity we welcome.
‘In the words of James Connolly, ‘our aims most modest are, we only want the world’. It has been denied to us for far too long by a greedy, short-sighted elite.’