I am in New York this week for the annual Clinton Global Initiative event. It is the 8th year of the CGI and in that time it has raised billions of dollars for underdeveloped and struggling nations around the world, as well as investing in projects in more developed countries aimed at creating jobs, improving the environment and promoting education and health
This week the CGI is bringing together more than 1,000 people from the world of politics and business and community. It includes current and former heads of state as well as NGOs, business and community leaders. Its focus this year is on designing solutions to empower girls and women to be full participants in the global economy, to spur development, and improve global health and technology.
The idea behind the CGI is simplicity itself. To provide a location where business leaders, politicians, non-governmental organisations, activists and representatives of charitable foundations, can come together, talk about issues affecting people around the world and then make partnerships and commitments to take actions than can alleviate poverty or provide health care or education or water or sanitation and much more.
But as well as attending the Clinton conference on Monday night I was the guest speaker at a celebration of Irish America’s contribution to the Trade Union Movement organized by the Irish Echo.
It was an excellent event honouring the dedication and commitment of 50 Irish American trade unionists. Speaker after speaker referred with pride to their Irish heritage and all deferred to the activism and example of James Connolly.
The Irish in America, as well as elsewhere around the world - in Canada, in Britain and Australia - have played a significant role in building the trade union movement. The importance of and the role of trade unions in defending the rights of working people cannot be overstated.
This is especially true at this time when in the midst of a world-wide economic recession there are those arguing for strategies and policies that are about cutting wages and sacking and undermining workers’ rights and protections.
These conservative and right wing elements see the recession as an opportunity to increase profits irrespective of the social and human cost. The trade union movement has to be in the frontline battling that strategy.
It is important to remember that it is only a matter of a few generations ago that workers’ had no rights whatsoever. They were hired and fired at the whim of unscrupulous employers. The children of workers had no childhood and little hope of a future. They too worked from a young age.
In the Belfast of the 19th and early 20th centuries the linen mill-workers lived under the shadow of the mills where they worked. Female and child labour predominated. Children, mostly girls, worked the same hours as adults. But the children were called half-timers. They worked three days one week (Monday, Wednesday and Friday) and went to school on Tuesday and Thursday. The following week it was the reverse and they did this until they were 14.
They lived in appalling conditions. The greater number of these workers died before the age of forty-five. Children generally were badly developed and small.
The great American writer Jack London’s description of a child worker was equally applicable in the USA or in Belfast at that time; ‘He did not walk like a man. He did not look like a man. He was a travesty of the human.
It was a twisted and stunted and nameless piece of life that shambled like a sickly ape, arms loose-hanging, stoop shouldered, narrow-chested, grotesque and terrible.’
One answer to this misery and exploitation was the establishment of workers federations, craft unions and trade unions. Workers combining together to use their collective strength in common cause to achieve better conditions, decent wages and a better future for them and their families.
Trade unions were frequently outlawed, their right to strike suppressed and many have been killed and imprisoned and victimized. Sometimes unions have won a battle for recognition or better wages and conditions and sometimes they have lost. But they have never given up!
One such dark period in trade union history will be marked next year in Ireland when we commemorate the 100 anniversary of the Dublin Lock-out. That experience exemplifies much of what workers and trade unions here also faced at that time.
Every day Trade unionists confront and combat inequality. Every day anti-union laws are advocated. Every day trade unionists strategise and plan and campaign to ensure their members have decent health care and insurance; safe working conditions; decent wages and security from exploitation.
Multi-nationals, and those who advocate globalisation, are in the business of making a profit over workers rights and entitlements.
A few years ago I addressed the Transport Workers Union local 100 surrounded by banners proclaiming the contribution of Connolly to Trade Unionism in the United States and Canada.
Connolly spent 7 years of his life here in the United States where he helped found and organise the Independent Workers of the World and campaigned tirelessly for workers rights.
Connolly understood the connection between Irish freedom from Britain and the rights and freedoms and future prosperity of workers. His great slogan, ‘The cause of Labor is the cause of Ireland; the cause of Ireland is the cause of labor’ is as relevant today as it was when he first penned it.
Today in many places there are laws defining and protecting workers rights. But there is still a battle to be won in many parts of the world to introduce legislative protections for workers.
Everywhere workers rights have to be constantly defended. That is the primary role of the trade union movement. But it is also a duty for everyone who cherishes citizens rights. Workers rights and citizens rights – human rights – are indispensible.