As workers prepare to celebrate all of the hard fought victories won by their united efforts over the past century and a half, Liam Gallagher, Derry Trades Union Council chair, is well placed to assess the unique challenges and opportunities facing the Derry labour movement today.
An activist all his life, Mr. Gallagher was involved in the civil rights movement of 50 years ago and, as well as chairing the DTUC, has formerly served as chair of the Unite trade union’s all-Ireland executive council, one of its highest offices.
Speaking to the ‘Journal’ in advance of DTUC’s May Day rally in Guildhall Square tomorrow, when workers will reflect on exactly what was achieved by the civil rights movement of 1968 and what has yet be realised, the Creggan-native acknowledges that the first week of May is always a time of evaluation.
“May Day is a very emotive time for trade unionists,” he explains.
“In a way you are taking stock of where you are at in terms of your own trade union activity and obviously it’s a day for celebrating workers’ rights and for bringing into focus the campaigns we want to take forward.
“This year, because we are coming up to the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement we’re looking at, and taking stock of, where Derry is in terms of that civil rights campaign. As a young man I was involved in the civil rights movement and in 1968 the squalor of people living in cramped conditions in housing was disgraceful.
“However, that time was an age of hope and aspiration. You had the situation in Paris, Czechoslovakia, Martin Luther King. Worldwide young people were energised. There was a whole movement towards reform and civil rights.”
Mr. Gallagher believes most of the demands of the civil rights movement - ending sectarian gerrymanders and housing allocations, for example - were quickly met through the establishment of the Housing Executive and the reform of local government. However, joblessness, homelessness and endless social housing waiting lists have died hard and are still problems that trade unionists must be concerned with today.
Mr. Gallagher suggests ‘one man, one job’ and ‘one family, one house’ should now replace the old ‘one man, one vote’ clarion call.
‘Civil Rights in Derry 2018’, as theme of tomorrow’s rally, will put in firm focus the continuing dearth of secure jobs in the city, a deficit that wasn’t closed by the campaign of half a century ago, and one which has arguably grown larger since, with the decline of textiles, manufacturing, the docks and the railways, among other formerly staple sources of employment.
“What comes into glaring focus is the unemployment situation. What makes it even worse is that we are now being told that there is full employment. We are reaching the barometer of three per cent, three and a half per cent, and that represents full employment. That makes people quite angry in the North West when they here that kind of news.
“What those figures represent is those who actually claim job seekers’ allowance [or Universal Credit]. Even by that barometer Derry is way down the list. It’s one of the poorest areas council by council in the United Kingdom.
“What you need to start looking at is the number of people between 16 and 64 who are of working age. How many of them are actually working? There are 55 per cent in that category are and the rest are economically inactive. The situation in the North West is critical.”
Workers, Mr. Gallagher remarks, have been particularly dismayed by the creeping growth of ‘zero hours contracts’, which he sees as an antediluvian throwback to the days of day labour and hiring fairs.
“People working on ‘zero hour contracts’ don’t know from one week to the next whether or not they are going to be in a job or not.
“The right to paid holidays, the right to a 40 hour/36 hour week, the right to maternity and paternity leave, the right not to be arbitrarily dismissed, the right to a contract of employment. All of those rights, have been undermined. Young people in this city don’t have those rights. We would urge people to get back to the fundamentals of trade unionism and start demanding those basic rights. Encourage young people to join a trade union.”
Mr. Gallagher considers it is ironic how the old patrician Tories of the 1950s and 1960s, who shared with the British Labour Party of the time John Maynard Keynes’ belief that governments should spend their way out of recession and crisis by investing in public infrastructure and services, would nowadays be too left wing for many of the mainstream parties of today.
The free market apostles of Hayek, Friedman and Thatcher have wielded undue influence over the past 30 years and wrought terrible damage, he believes.
“After the two world wars you had people coming back determined to have a better vision, to build a ‘New Jerusalem.’
“It was a very simple philosophy: create employment using the Keynesian argument. When you have depression or an economic downturn you create demand by investing in infrastructure, putting money into hospitals and schools, a reflationary argument, but obviously when you got into Thatcher’s era that was all done away with.
“The vision had been to provide public services and social security by a fair and equitable taxation system based upon your ability to pay.”
These ideals have now been largely supplanted by the dogma of ‘trickle down economics’ - the notion that low taxes create more wealth at the top of the pyramid, which flows down to the bottom, says Mr. Gallagher.
But that theory, christened the ‘Laffer curve’ after US economist Arthur Laffer notoriously sketched the formula on a napkin after cocktails with US free market conservatives, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney in the 1970s, has been discredited, claims Mr. Gallagher. Just look around you, he says.
“The post-war consensus went out the window with the neo-liberal society which basically said that if we can create wealth then there will be a trickle down effect to the poor and the least well off will benefit. It never happened.”
Today he recognises that, in Brexit, Derry workers may be facing their own epoch-making moment, just as their forebears did during and after the Second World War.
“Brexit is doing two things from a socialist and trade union point of view. It is compounding an already serious situation. We rely on cross-border trade. You can take one view or another over Brexit but what is a fact is that it will impact on employment. The other fear is that workers’ rights, the EU Working Time Directive, for instance, will come under attack.
“The second and more serious problem is that the Brexit thing has opened up the whole border issue, the whole Orange and Green agenda. It has served to divide people and take them away from what the real issues are. That’s been an unfortunate side effect of Brexit.”
Notwithstanding Europe’s reputation in Derry as an honest broker, that for years plugged infrastructural funding gaps left by Belfast, Dublin and London over the decades, Brussels’ own neo-liberal tendencies have not always played in workers’ favour, contends Mr. Gallagher. Anti-intervention rules directly contributed to the decimation of Derry’s manufacturing base over the past 20 to 30 years.
“Europe is a double-edged sword. It’s a sore point. We sat back and watched all of our manufacturing base disappear over a period of 25 years and part of the difficulty with that was that the European rules on not intervening, the ban on state intervention to help. We were badly hampered by that. In fact, people hid behind that argument.”
Mr. Gallagher says that in order to redress the regressive developments working women and men in Derry have suffered over the past several decades a manufacturing strategy should be implemented immediately.
“We have urged government to bring forward a strategy that will bring together all of the stakeholders and expertise we have to set realistic targets for the North and particularly for the North West, of attracting manufacturing jobs.”
He applauds Derry City & Strabane District Council and its Mayor, Maolíosa McHugh, for this month leading a trade and cultural mission to the Chinese port of Dalian.
“The Mayor going out there is definitely a good thing. We really should be looking at gathering a pool of manufacturing and investment expertise, we have plenty of them, to go out and sell Derry, not as a low wage economy, but as a place where people can do business, where there is already a pool of labour who need employment.”