SIPTU – Too Big to Fail?

1 Dec

The recent announcement by the Psychiatric Nurses’ Association that it is extending membership to other emergency service personnel has sent shockwaves through the unions in Ireland. In particular, the fact that the PNA is outside ICTU and that the new recruits will most likely be coming from SIPTU has left the beards with quite a headache.

Given the very low opinion of the current union leadership, recently evidenced in the booing of O’Connor and Begg at the November 27th protest march, this could well develop into a full-blown migraine.

The main defectors are the nation’s firefighters and ambulance service workers, who’s recent letter makes it quite clear how unhappy they are with their current arrangements with SIPTU. Despite arm-twisting by SIPTU, the new Alliance has had 1300 expressions of interest from current SIPTU members and is now moving forward with recruitment.

The furious reaction of SIPTU – sanctions and expulsion for organisers – is, of course, entirely predictable. It is only a decade ago that the Irish Locomotive Drivers’ Association was formed by SIPTU members in an attempt to protect the working conditions of Irish Rail drivers which were being eroded by the undemocratic collectivization in “social partnership agreements”.

Of course, social partnership being the “only game in town”, the ILDA faced the might of, not only their employer and the government, but that of their erstwhile union.The corrupution at the heart of social partnership, vividly exposed recently in the SIPTU/HSE scandal, is well-documented by the ILDA’s Brendan Ogle in his book “Off the rails“.

Another of Bertie’s toxic legacies

At the heart of the inter-union conflict is the extraordinary difficulty of an Irish trade union to obtain a negotiating license for collective bargaining. This difficulty, which involves applications to the high court, makes Ireland the most restrictive in Europe for establishing a trade union, and was put into law in the 1990 Industrial Relations Act by then Minister for Labour Bertie Ahern.

However, this almost insurmountable obstacle has been overcome by the firefighters and ambulance workers by choosing an alliance with the PNA – which has a negotiating license. Thus the stage is set for up to 3,000 members to jump ship from SIPTU, to add to the 10,000 that  hemorrhaged from the union last year.

An interesting footnote in the tawdry tale of betrayal and savaging of the ILDA is the later career of long-time Irish Rail Director of Human Resources, John Keenan. As Ogle recounts, Keenan’s ties with the Labour party, in particular with TD Emmet Stagg, played a decisive role in the screwing of the ILDA.

Earlier this year, Keenan was at the centre of a massive scandal involving multi-million euro fraud at Irish Rail and the placing of tracking devices on employees cars. Representing Mr Keenan at the High Court was none other than Labour Party councillor Oisin Quinn. Labour, it appears is willing to play both sides of the fence when it suits them.

Raising up Larkin’s image, betraying his legacy

Any takers? Going, going, gone!

The origins of SIPTU lie in the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, founded by Jim Larkin in 1909. However, both Larkin and his follower at the ITGWU James Connolly had an abhorrence of amalgamations, whereby unions joined together in large bureaucratic structures. They fought mightily against such moves which they considered as self-defeating because they believed it kills the natural militancy and spontaneity of the trade union movement.

It is ironic then that SIPTU should emerge from the amalgamation of the ITGWU and a number of other unions. Now comprising almost a quarter of a million members, it is by far the biggest union in Ireland. This has led to severe difficulties for effective trade union action in Ireland.

On the one hand, the increased bureaucratic structure has disenfranchised ordinary union members and made them distant from those in power. Union branches are often big and impersonal, with meetings held hundreds of kilometers away from the workplace. Hordes of paid union officials take on the role of simply disseminating the message from above and keeping grassroots activists in line. The top officials garner enormous salaries and get to hobnob with the elite in return for delivering members compliance.

Even more destructively, the majority voting arrangements  of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions are such that it only takes SIPTU and one or two management unions to force through majority votes in national agreements. This is completely undemocratic and undermines the ability of unions to take independent action. The pillorying of the ASTI a decade ago is another salient lesson of what happens to unions that step outside the cosy ICTU concensus.

We can expect SIPTU to vigorously attack the PNA, the firefighters and the ambulance workers for having the audacity to break away.  While they do nothing but huff and puff when it comes to the current savage attacks on Irish workers, the SIPTU leadership have proven themselves to be amazingly vicious when their own members try to escape their malign control.

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