The State may need to contemplate becoming an employer of last resort to tackle unemployment, according the ICTU General Secretary David Begg.
Addressing the Technical Engineering and Electrical Union conference in Portlaoise, Mr Begg said the Government's €2.25 billion stimulus programme was welcome but was not enough to tackle unemployment, which remains stubbornly high at just under 15%.
He said congress had proposed a three year, €9bn stimulus programme aimed at creating 100,000 jobs over that period.
However he said that ultimately, the State must be willing to contemplate being an employer of last resort through local authorities or social employment.
He said the lessons of the great depression may have been lost but they were as valid in social terms now as they were in the 1930s.
He said no country or society could afford to regard so many of its unemployed citizens as expendable.
Earlier, the TEEU said it would seek pay rises of at least 5% in profitable enterprises where it represents staff.
Delegates at its annual conference overwhelmingly backed an emergency motion instructing the union to present significant pay claims in all profitable companies and sectors.
With 40,000 members, the TEEU is Ireland's largest craft union and a major player in manufacturing, construction and energy.
General Secretary Eamon Devoy described recent revelations of large pension contributions for senior executives and directors as "sickening".
He highlighted ESRI research showing executive directors earned on average ten times more than other company employees, but enjoyed 27 times more in pension contributions - as well as generous tax subsidies.
He said this was at a time when what he called the "Sword of Damocles" was hanging over the State pension and the few fringe benefits enjoyed by older people, many of whom had no other source of income.
Mr Devoy said it was no accident that what he called this growing and increasingly flagrant return to the worst era of robber baron capitalism had coincided with a decline in trade union organisation.
He noted that for the first time the right to workplace representation was in a Programme for Government but posed the question of whether it would be delivered.
He said it would be naive in the extreme to rely on the goodwill of the dominant partners in power, Fine Gael, and said the TEEU was going on the offensive.
He told delegates that in the process they would be demonstrating to thousands of non-unionised workers that they too needed union power to improve their lot.
Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Employment Richard Bruton said pay increases would be premature as the country has not yet addressed its competitiveness issue.
He said there was a lot of ground work to do before the Government could say it had dealt with the issues thrown up by the boom and its subsequent crash.