Left is the new right

Workers' activist Joe Carolan is back from New Zealand where he's helped to ban zero hours contracts. He tells Anne Campbell how now it's time for the left in Ireland to rise

Joe Carolan meets Shadow Chancellor John McDonald

Joe Carolan is a patient man. He'd want to be. Change doesn't come quickly but thanks to the decades of groundwork that he, and many others like him, change is beginning to come.

From Rockmarshall, Joe has been in New Zealand for a number of years and works as a senior organiser for Unite, the union. Just last month, after years of work by Joe and many others like him, the Kiwi government has banned controversial zero hours contracts for workers in the fast food and related industries.

He returns to Ireland every two or three years and, from h is perspective of not being here all the time, he's well-placed to see the changes that have taken place in his home country.

'In 2008, it was the end of the boom and when I came back in 2010, it was a big shock to see how bad things were. The last time I was here was in 2013 and I was seeing depression in people.

'Even people I knew who were always a laugh, always good craic, even they were depressed. People were internalising their problems, suicide was happening again and were struggling to cope with everything that they were facing and the pressures they were under'.

Three years later, he's back again and he's appalled by the housing and homelessness crisis. He puts it simply: 'It's a crime. Housing should be nationalised'.

But he feels there is a 'dawn' coming - that there is 'definitely a change coming'. Joe seems to have grounds for his optimism. He has spent his time in Ireland in Summerhill in Dublin, Derry's Bogside and West Belfast. In the elections for the Northern Assembly, leftist candidates Eamonn McCann in Derry and Gerry Carroll in West Belfast cut through the traditional tribalism to gain a seat.

Joe says that the huge vote in February's general election in the South for PBP-AAA candidate, Gareth Weldon, and the election of a record number of the party's candidates in other parts of the country, also points to the coming dawn.

'I saw on the internet the vote for Gareth and I just knew there was an awakening in the Irish people'. The campaign against water charges was 'a catalyst' for the rise of the left. 'We are the country that gave the concept of boycott to the rest of the world and it's working here now'.

But, as he says himself, none of the electoral successes on both parts of the island could have been possible without the years of hard and painstaking work put in on the ground over many years. Just over ten years ago, the campaign against bin charges, in which Joe was involved, saw people jailed.

'In relation to the water charges, people realise they are already paying for it and they are talking to each other about the campaign against the charges, talking to their neighbours. This is community activism and we are leading the way. It's coming from the people themselves and they are hugely resentful of the fact that they have bailed out the banks, are paying more taxes than ever before and are getting nowhere and they are watching how the rich elite in this country are getting wealthier, paying less to the State'.

It is, he believes, part of a global movement, which started with the 'Occupy' activism, the 1%-99% debate, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour Party and the recent rise of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders in the USA.

Joe recently met Corbyn's shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell and says the party's new leadership are 'old school, with principals' and are 'willing to support workers', particularly those estimated five million British workers on zero hours contracts.

Academia call these workers the 'precariat', a new class of 21st century worker who are unorganised in the workplace and have no guarantees, even of secure weekly working hours. Unite the union, where Joe is a senior organiser, started to organise in New Zealand in the wake of the 'shock therapy' administered to the country in the wake of a recession in the 1980s that saw the corporatisation od state services.

Workers' rights secured over the previous 50 years were rowed back in many sectors in New Zealand. Three years ago, Unite started agitating for three basic rights - a living wage, the abolition of youth rates and security of hours. They quickly achieved the first two, but the problem of zero hours contracts endured.

Joe and the union focused on the fast food sector, often seen as entry level jobs or the 'bottom rung'. Workers in McDonald's in New Zealand went on strike three years ago and throughout that winter, pickets were placed on the company's headquarters. Workers at other outlets, like KFC, Pizza Hut and Starbucks started to join the union, while Joe helped to organise workers in the casino sector.

One of the key moves made in the battle was the media work done by Joe and others ahead of the strikes. He sat down with journalists and patiently explained their point of view. This helped to garner support for the workers when the strike got underway and helped to move public opinion in their favour.

Five weeks of 'an energetic and high profile' strike, where the strikers felt that public opinion was behind them, they secured the scrapping of zero hours contracts in these outlets. The momentum of this victory propelled Joe and the campaign to go for an all-out ban on zero hours contracts. And thanks to public opinion and the unstoppable force of it simply being the right thing to do, last month, the legislation making these contracts illegal was passed, unanimously, in parliament. 'You get a victory like that once a decade', says Joe.

On the current political situation in Ireland, Joe says: 'This government arrangement is set up to fail. It's simple - if you want a left wing government, you need more people in left wing organisations'.

As he prepares to return to New Zealand, Joe has renewed optimism. 'There's great hope in Ireland. I like the idea of the unions here returning to the ideals of Larkin and Connolly. You can feel the people power'.