“Partnership” and the Corruption of the Irish Trade Unions

22 Oct

The lurid details of the SIPTU National Health and Local Authority Levy Fund scandal have been popping up in bits and pieces in the papers recently. The angle being taken in the media is one simply of more government waste, tax-payers money being flitted away by the public services, trade union fat-cats living it up with high-flying trips abroad etc etc.

Notably absent has been the most glaringly obvious aspect of the scandal: that Irish trade unions have been completely corrupted by government hand-outs under the guise of “partnership”. That during the “Celtic tiger years” Irish trade union leaders’ interests diverged strongly from that of the ordinary membership. That “Partnership” and “Benchmarking” significantly advanced the interests of the managerial class within the trade unions, while yielding miniscule cost-of-living pay increases for ordinary members in a time of rapid inflation. That these same union bosses need removal every bit as urgently as do the current crop of Irish political and financial leaders.

Of course, such a reading of the affair does not fit well with the ideology gripping the Irish media: that trade unions represent the interests of their lazy, cosseted members too well. Let’s have a closer look at this scandal and see what it says about the Irish union-government nexus and the spotlight it throws on the misguided “social partnership” group-think that has played no small role in the current catastrophes engulfing the country.

Rumbled Down Under

To date the story that has come out through the Comptroller and Auditor General’s Office, the Public Accounts Committee and the media is of a €4 million slush fund, deposited by various government bodies into an unofficial bank account over a decade, used by two trade union officials to pay for extravagant junkets to far-flung parts of the globe involving union and government officials under the guise of partnership.

While the full story will probably take a while to come out, the details so far are pretty damning, if at times comical. In fact, the manner in which it was uncovered in itself is somewhat amusing. Apparently, while attending a high-profile conference in Australia, HSE chief Brendan Drumm was surprised to bump into trade union and HSE officials on a “study trip” down under. Presumably, he was even more surprised when he found out that his own organisation was picking up the tab for these officials through an account controlled exclusively by the union officials!

Who Paid How Much?

It then turned out that the “unofficial” account in the Bank of Ireland on O’Connell Street was controlled by SIPTU officials Matt Merrigan and Jack Kelly and had been active for almost a decade and over €4 million had been funneled through it from various government agencies and departments. The biggest, €2.3 million, came from the HSE through its Skills programme, designed to up-skill health workers. But others were involved in keeping the trough full. The Department of the Environment disgorged €950,000 into the pot, while the Local Government Management Services Board threw in another €800,000.

Of course the Ministers of the day, Michael Martin and Noel Dempsey, now deny any knowledge of the account and are distancing themselves as best they can from the scandal. Interestingly, they do say that it was all a part of “supporting partnership”, a view also espoused by the secretary general of the Department of Health, Michael Scanlan, when he claimed that having union and management officials on these junkets reflected a policy of “developing and supporting a partnership approach”.

Never one to demure from spreading the blame, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, said through a spokesperson that he didn’t know anything of the details of “partnership”, and what he did know he learnt through various meetings attended by union leaders and officials.

What Did it Buy?

So what did such largess to unaccountable officials buy? Central to the scandal are 31 trips abroad to far-flung destinations such as Hong Kong, the US, Canada, Australia, as well as to Brussels and the UK. The supposed purpose of the trips was listed variously as “SIPTU study visit” or “social partnership visit”. However, the coincidence of many of the dates of travel with St Patrick’s Day celebrations abroad was noted by a member of the PAC.

Given the costs involved, the hotels weren’t at the bottom end of the market either. In fact, the only specific hotel mentioned is the Sheraton in Manhattan. Curiously, the travel party required a courier to deliver an “unknown item” to this hotel, although we will probably never find out exactly what it was. It was probably something essential, as our officials would never sneak to the low uncovered in the German Volkswagon management/union scandal of a few years ago, which involved endless rivers of champagne and Brazilian prostitutes. No doubt the presence of three Department of Health officials’ wives on some of the trips kept things under control.

Also on the tab were laptops for union members (€30,000), a DVD (€30,526!), personal mobile phone costs and numerous taxi rides, including an amazing round-trip from Dublin to Tullamore via Louth (€544)! On the larger side there were “consultancy services” which were not put out to tender to the value of €526,444. This seems to have been for “Partnership training for SIPTU shop stewards and general operatives”, whatever that might mean. To the lucky member of the Skills steering group who was hired to provide the service it meant a tidy €73,000.

Also, it seems that the money was used to top up someone’s pension. Neither the amount nor the individual involved have been disclosed.

Who Was Involved?

So who exactly went on these junkets which, according to the HSE, had “little or nothing” to do with the intended use of the Skills funding? The highest profile names on the trade union side that have emerged are

  • Matt Merrigan (SIPTU)
  • Jack Kelly (SIPTU)
  • Peter McLoone (IMPACT)
  • Kevin Callinan (IMPACT)
  • Peter Bunting (ICTU)

while on the government side the names that have emerged are

  • Alan Smith (HSE)
  • Frank Kelly (Dublin City Council)
  • Tom Dowling (Department of Finance)
  • Martin McDonald (HSE former Director of Human Resources)
  • Bernard Carey (Department of Health)
  • Frank Ahern (Department of Health)
  • Se O’Connor (HSE)
  • Larry Walsh (Health Services National Partnership Forum)

Further fueling the controversy was the fact that separately the Skills programme was paying SIPTU’s Bill Atley €1,000 a day for chairing meetings of the steering committee. In addition, the general manager of the training programme received €34,969 in expenses to cover mileage, lunches, dinners, Eircom home broadband, gifts and gratuities.

The Fallout

The revelations have been greeted by the predictable ducking-for-cover, denial and damage limitation exercises. Those not directly named are of course publicly saying that while such serious breaches of regulations was “unacceptable” (Cathal Magee, CEO HSE), they had “no involvement” (Noel Dempsey), or even “no involvement in, or knowledge of” (Bertie Ahern).

We also had HSE audit official Geraldine Smith admitting that the Skills programme had acted as an independent republic with no questions asked. Of course, there’s always someone looking to turn a crisis to their benefit, as the newly appointed HSE Chief Executive Cathal Magee said the body needed a new IT system to make sure such things didn’t happen again!

In an almost comical piece, we had the most serious out-break of the “no-nay-nevers” from SIPTU’s general secretary Joe O’Flynn. Apparently, they “never sought”, “never received”, were not “consulted”, did not “approve”, had “not operated” and had “no legal liability whatsoever” with regard to the slush funds.

Mind you none of this stopped SIPTU from coughing up €348,000 to try to calm the waters. Without any acceptance of guilt, naturally. More quietly, we had IMPACT stumping up €112,791 and INMO shelling out €127,491 to try to stay out of the firing line.

In typically Irish form, the scandal has yet to claim a single scalp, although, with three on-going investigations into the affair, it may be early days yet. However, it is worth noting that in the case of the German VW scandal, in which a private company bought the favours of union officials, it meant a jail-sentence for some of the protagonists. And this included a very high-profile advisor to the then-Chancellor. We can only hope for such decisive action in what is arguably a much more serious affair involving public money double the amount involved in the VW scandal.

What This All Says About “Partnership”

The scandal, which no doubt will sputter on for a while more, is vindication of the stance taken almost a decade ago by many trade union activists: that partnership corrupts, that benchmarking and the attendant linking of public and private wages was a strategic mistake and that it served government and union officials more than it did ordinary union members.

Recall the “only-show-in-town” rhetoric of union leaders at the time, the INTO’s Joe O’Toole equating benchmarking to an ATM machine, the shameful pillorying of the ASTI for refusing to sign-up to national agreements and the ghastly spectacle of union general secretaries and presidents traipsing around the country selling the “deals”.

And then there was ICTU using all of its might to quash dissent. We had the TUI membership decisively rejecting the PCW despite Herculean efforts by general secretary Jim Dorney and president Alice Prenderghast to force it through, only to have them accept the majority decision of ICTU. A lasting image of this betrayal was the cover of the TUI News in which the general secretary was shown raising his hand to vote against the national deal as he had to, smiling broadly because he knew full well that the ICTU majority would vote for the deal and that he and his officials could then insist on the TUI accepting the majority decision. The list goes on – every union has its own stories of arm-twisting, conniving officialdom and outright betrayal.

Where did all of this get us? It depends upon what we mean by “us”. For the current crop of trade union leaders it meant nice government-appointed positions on state bodies. After all, ICTU’s David Begg was at the helm of the Central Bank as the economy collapse – a seat that SIPTU’s Des Geraghty is now filling. This is, of course, the same Des Geraghty who sat on the Fás board during the days of parties and junkets, kept company, no doubt for her sterling work foisting the PCW on an unwilling TUI, by Alice Prenderghast, who also sat on the Fás board.

These same people are now doing their final bit of dirty-work for the government they’ve loved so well – the Croke Park Deal, the “return to partnership”, the feet under the table, the cosy consensus with those that they have always identified themselves with: those on the same salary scale. Having secured these, they will drift off into well-heeled retirement, where, they hope, their expertise may then be of some service on one board or other.

And what of the next layer of union officials? The Skills scandal answers that question definitively. They became extraordinarily close to their opposites on the government side. They dined with them, went on holidays with them, they scratched each others backs to an unbelieveable extent. The government officials siphoned off money intended for training lower-paid union members, the union officials then lavished the money on themselves and the government officials. How many “partnership” jokes did they share over drinks in the Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan, while their wives went shopping together in Macy’s? How many, like Michael Martin’s policy advisor Deirdre Gillane a former industrial relations officer with the INMO, decided to move outright to the other side? And how many stayed on the union side despite identifying completely with the government side?

And what of the general union membership? In the meantime, the ordinary union members face a bleak future. We face the inevitability of further savage pay cuts, the destruction of public services, the prospect of long-term unemployment and the dismantling of our pensions. All of this will be implemented by an unholy alliance of political parties and union leaders bereft of ideas and self-serving to the last.

And Now?

The outing of this corruption is long overdue and it is important that we consider it in the current context. We stand at a very important cross-roads for the Irish trade union movement. We face unprecedented attacks on the living standards of union members, which is the only organised resistance for the work-force in general. Government strategy has been clear from the outset: divide the working population into easily attacked sub-groups and set one against the other. Divide and divide again, and again and again…

First start with unionised workers versus non-unionised workers, then public sector versus private sector, then new-entrants versus existing members, then SIPTU versus the rest, then pro-Croke Park versus anti-Croke Park, then TUI versus other anti-Croke Park unions, then third-level TUI members versus second-level TUI members, then trades lecturers versus non-trades lecturers…

None of this is surprising – anyone with even the foggiest notion of labour history could predict this strategy. What is much more inexplicable is the complete absence of resistance on the part of the Irish trade unions to this assault. How can it be that, despite unprecedented attacks on workers, to describe our paid officials as supine would be a gross understatement? Why, when the pension levy was first mooted didn’t the public sector unions flex their muscle? Why did they call off the second strike day in order to crawl into government buildings again to seek agreement with a government that had simply torn up every agreement it had ever made only months before?

Why was there absolutely no resistance to the decimation of pensions for new entrants into the public service? How could David Begg simply wring his hands and say on national television that he “understood” the need for pension reform? Ultimately, how can a direct assault on 300,000 Irish workers and their families by the most unpopular government in history have gone unchallenged? How is it that the trade union leaders see it as their job to appease the government and to stifle protest?

The answer to all of these questions are contained in a nutshell by this scandal: during the past decade our union officials have been entirely corrupted by the government through a process named “partnership”. This has reduced our union leaders to one-trick ponies who endlessly beg to be let back into the golden circle that they have recently been ejected from. They want only to get back around the table with a government that even a fool wouldn’t trust.

They have completely accepted even the language of the employer. Objecting to “revisiting” Croke Park? Or “renogotiating” Croke Park? How about “reneging on” Croke Park? Or “breaking” Croke Park? No, we have the pathetic spectacle of our former Central Bank board member whingeing about “stability”.

What Needs To Be Done

Given the stark situation we find ourselves in, it is clear that we need a complete clean-out of the leadership of the trade unions. As in the Irish banking and the political systems, the trade unions need a new generation of leadership and this will not come from either the current general secretaries nor their immediate underlings. They know only one thing: national deals and their imposition on members.

For ordinary members there is only one route: that of agitation and resistance. The Irish people are begging for someone, anyone, to put the current government out of its (and our) misery, and the trade unions are the only democratic organisations that have that power.

And that is what we must do: make our unions agents for democratic change. Not the sham democracy of national executive dictat, or rigged branch meetings, or even ballot-stuffing, so beloved of Irish trade unions. We must demand that the organisations to whom we pay our subscriptions, to whom we entrust our labour rights, actively pursue the interests of the country at this time of crisis.

And national unions, such as SIPTU, whose democratic structures are farcical, whose officials have become hopelessly corrupted, whose leaders have become shamelessly supine, must be put on notice: reform, take up the true cause of your members or face internal revolt.


7 Responses to ““Partnership” and the Corruption of the Irish Trade Unions”

  1. ceithearnach October 24, 2010 at 8:04 pm #

    Excellent article. Much needed analysis of the sell-out of the members by the union leadership.
    But where do we go from here?
    The leadership has it very neatly sown up and, with a dwindling membership and seemingly no hunger for a fight, it looks like they’ll win this one as well.

  2. opus diablos October 25, 2010 at 1:44 pm #

    Yes excellent.But did you neglect the original and main division inherent in so much union history?The desertion of the dis-employed by the more fortunately priviledged in the workforce.The workers cannot generate the moral authority required to straighten out the mess if their only interest remains their own pay and conditions.Once you buy into the ‘devil take the hindmost’philosophy you are in the capitalist pocket already.When the worker strikes for SHORTER hours so that all who are willing get a share of the work and reward I might listen to their representatives.Otherwise you are just dealing with ORGANISED scabbery.


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