The Labour Relations Commission: a Noxious Mix of the Malign and the Ineffectual

9 Jun

Apparently, the Labour Relations Commission is now beset with an explosion of rights cases from workers claiming unfair treatment by their employers in one way or the other. Given the opportunist tack taken by employers following the economic collapse, this is probably not very surprising.

As the Irish economic crisis enters a new phase, bodies such as the LRC are being put under increased pressure. The mounting contradiction of forcing ordinary working and unemployed people to cover the extraordinary debts accumulated by the wealthy is continuing to cause crisis after crisis for the government. And the LRC has been key to greasing the wheels of this scandalous expropriation.

Even more insidiously, many of the members of the Commission play multiple roles, including as parties to high-profile disputes. The actions of the LRC then take on a much more political complexion and it is worth looking more closely at exactly who is on the Commission and how they got there.

The inescapable fact is that the Labour Relations Commission consists of  Fianna Fáil hacks, failed union and government officials seeing out their golden years, employer hawks, old hands at the partnership game, capped by a Chair with links to child labour and sweatshops.

The Labour Relations Commission

At ground level the Employment Rights Officers of the LRC do a reasonably good job in ensuring employment legislation (such as it is) is enforced. The LRC is also tasked with heading off industrial conflict through negotiation and conciliation. When the going gets rough and there is a threat of industrial action, cue Kieran Mulvey, CEO of the LRC, to hold talks and try to defuse the situation.

In times of political and economic instability bodies such as the LRC play a critical role not only through their day-to-day work, but also at an executive level. In particular, the following take on an added significance:

  • public intervention in high profile cases
  • non-intervention in high profile cases
  • decisions on resource allocation within the Commission
  • issuing press statements
  • interviews, speeches etc

Here the views of Mulvey and the whole Commission become much more important. For example, when the former government tore up all agreements with the public sector unions in 2009, the LRC could have intervened in a way that would have made it impossible for the government to continue in the manner in which it did.

ICTU Huffing and Puffing

Rather we had the LRC “intervene” to break down the trade unions’ resistance. The outcome of this LRC “intervention” was that the unions were split: public sector versus private sector, management/cronies unions versus frontline workers, teachers versus everyone else, third level TUI members versus second level TUI members, IFUT versus the rest.

The final stage of this unwholesome spectacle was when the government and the Teachers’ Union of Ireland failed to agree a document for the implementation of the Croke Park deal to be put to union members.

In steps the LRC, offering a document so odious that the TUI went through the charade of putting to a vote a document they didn’t agree with. This allowed union General Secretary Peter McMenamin to simultaneously distance himself from and promulgate the deal. The combination of public threats of redundancies and a split union executive brow-beat the union membership into acceptance.

In all of this, the LRC acted as the frontline assault on the demonstrably weak union leadership. In contrast, one can consider the refusal of the LRC to intervene in the attacks on the Irish Locomotive Drivers Association a decade ago, as recounted in Brendan Ogle’s book “Off the Rails“. In this case, the ILDA were unhappy with social partnership and the union shenanigans around vote rigging, but the  LRC certainly felt no compunction to intervene, despite repeated requests.

The Commission

The LRC consists of

  • Ms Breege O’Donoghue (Chair) – business executive
  • Kieran Mulvey (CEO)
  • Peter McLoone – trade union, IMPACT
  • Fergus Whelan – trade union, ICTU
  • Brendan McGinty – employers body IBEC
  • Gerard Barry – former HSE exectutive
  • John Hennesy – multinational CEO
  • Iarla Duffy – small business owner.

From the start the Commission is unbalanced: unions are only represented by  two (McLoone and Whelan) or three if you count Mulvey, while employers are represented by five: McGinty, Barry, Hennessy, Duffy and the Chair. On closer examination what we have is a mix of Fianna Fáilers, failed union officials and the most right-wing business interests the country can scrape up.

To make matters worse, the Chair is managing director of a company that has been shown on a number of recent occasions to exploit sweatshop and child labour around the world. Let’s have a look at each one of them in turn.

Kieran Mulvey

Hand-Wringer-in-Chief

In certain company, Mulvey likes to trumpet his trade union background, having been a former General Secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland and Irish Federation of University Teachers. This allows him to masquerade as the workers friend while he pursues the government’s agenda.

As one of the main brokers of the Croke Park deal, he skillfully ensured that the union side was fatally split into its usual warring factions, whittling down resistance to a few isolated pockets. Then he feels he can pop up in the media chastising public sector workers, fret about avoiding “strikes and demonstrations” at all costs, continually trying to “breathe life into the social partnership process“. And, of course, for public consumption, there’s the token hand-wringing about Anglo pay increases.

What he trumpets less is that in 1989 he sought a nomination for Fianna Fáil in the Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown constituency. Indeed, in his role in the LRC he has always been the recipient of high praise from FF headquarters.

To be fair to Mulvey, he could well share ICTU President David Begg’s view that the Irish do not accept social democracy, and that strikes and demonstrations will only bring the fascists out onto the streets in numbers.  Perhaps as a member of the left-wing of  the Irish right-wing, like his old buddy Begg, he comes into contact with fascists more frequently than most, and such fears are well-founded. Or perhaps it’s just self-serving nonsense to cover their compromised position and lack of vision.

Not that we should feel too  sorry for the likes of Begg and Mulvey. Over the years, both have managed to feather their political nests with membership on a number of boards, most recently for Mulvey as Chair of the Irish Sports Council. He has made recent pronouncements about reforming the industrial relations apparatus, perhaps a hint that he is jumping ship into retirement and more of these type of appointments.

Peter McLoone

Failed Union Leader

Peter McLoone is the former general secretary of the trade union IMPACT, who also chaired the Public Services Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. This latter body played a vital, if tawdry, role in the collapse of the trade unions in the public sector following the financial crisis of 2008.

In his role as chief union negotiator of the Croke Park Agreement, he essentially delivered the terms of surrender for the public sector unions and subsequently ensured that the terms were accepted by his own side. How is it possible for someone like McLoone to both sit on the Commission and take such an active role in an on-going dispute being mediated by the LRC?

Despite his venerable status in what one must admit is not the most militant of unions, McLoone still took some heat, including the tabling of a motion of no confidence at a Special Congress. The fact that he was chair of Fás at the time of the recent scandals hasn’t helped his public image either.

His successor at IMPACT, Shay Cody has recently had a road-to-Damascus conversion about McLoone’s era of social partnership, admitting “Over time, we became too deeply embedded in the system. We ended up endorsing Government policies that we had no influence on or . . . understanding of.” Needless to say, given the one-trick nature of trade union ponies, Cody’s solution is more social partnership.

In any event, McLoone’s retirement has taken him somewhat out of the limelight and he has now been put out to grass on bodies such as the LRC.

Fergus Whelan

Playing Robin to McLoone’s Batman on the LRC is the Industrial Officer – Private Sector for the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Fergus Whelan. Also a key figure in the partnership days of the trade unions he sat on the Council of the National Centre for Partnership and Performance. Thus he was at the ideological driving seat of the brave new world of partnership.

As has been discussed in an earlier post, this malaise led to modest cost-of-living increases for ordinary workers at a time of rampant inflation, while lining the pockets of union officials and massaging the inflated egos of union bosses. Of course, for mid-level union officials the bounty wasn’t usually quite so colossal as the €4 million of the SIPTU skills scandal, but partnership certainly paved the way for many of them onto state boards.

Whelan has been on a few boards down the years, and is now on the Pensions Board, which at  €8,400 a year is not exactly reeling it in. Presumably the looting of the Irish Pensions Reserve Fund was beyond the remit of such a poorly remunerated board.

Signing the cheques in the SIPTU Scandal

Gerard Barry

Another  being put out to pasture on the LRC is Gerard Barry, former head of the Health Services Executive Employers’ Agency. As the government side of partnership, Barry was heavily involved in the HSE National Partnership Forum. Included on the union side of that quango was Matt Merrigan and Jack Kelly.

These two SIPTU officials were the centre of the SIPTU scandal in which the HSE paid over €4 million into their bank account to be splurged on foreign trips to exotic locations for selected union and government officials (and their wives). The HSE was pilloried in the Public Accounts Committee for disgorging such a large amount of money without proper controls. And who exactly signed off on this money? Gerard Barry.

Barry’s retirement afforded the HSE the opportunity to abolish the Employers Agency and perhaps his replacement Sean Mcrath in vowing “to ignore the well-trodden but laborious path to the Labour Court and the Labour Relations Commission” is keen to avoid meeting his predecessor in his role as Commission member.

Brendan McGinty

IBEC hatchet-man

Known to any regular news watcher, Brendan McGinty is the director of industrial relations of the employers’ body IBEC. Not surprisingly he has an aggressive stance towards low-paid workers, opposing the reversal of the minimum wage cut, counselling the government to ignore the Joint Labour Committee Review of wage-setting mechanisms, railing against mandatory union recognition and condemning anyone even threatening strike action.

Despite being  a member of the Commission, McGinty obviously has an a la carte view of the state’s industrial relations mechanisms – counselling engagement with the LRC on the one hand and chatising the JLC on the other. It is also highly problematic that he actively and publicly attacks specific workers, for example at Aer Lingus, at a time when the Commission on which he sits is actively involved in these disputes.

But the rightwing press should be careful about heaping praise on McGinty for his “toughness” – equated these days with the ability to unflinchingly inflict pain on others. After all, he also played his part in the Partnership fiasco through his membership of the National Centre for Partnership and Performance. Given that they’re both on the LRC and the NCPP, McGinty and ICTU’s Fergus Whelan must have had plenty of time to iron out any differences they might have.

John Hennessy

Wanna buy a phone?

Managing Director for Ericsson Ireland, Hennesy has been climbing the greasy pole of political appointments of late. Appointed to the LRC by Fianna Fáil Minister for Labour Affairs, Dara Calleary, Fianna Fáil also recently landed him the Chair of the Higher Education Authority. While he knows nothing of education, he immediately set off on an orgy of self-publicity by attacking the liberal arts for holding their nose at business and then proceeded to hold his nose at the very notion of tenure.

Such grand-standing may have earned him the fawning regard of Irish Times journalist Louise Holden, but wasn’t generally well-received. Perhaps Holden is trying to ingratiate her way into the consultancy game, thus following in the footsteps of John Walshe of the Irish Independent. Walshe is now a well-paid consultant to Minister of Education, Ruairi Quinn, and Hennessy was seen hanging off the Minister’s shoulder at a recent Dublin press conference. Giving Holden the benefit of the doubt, we can probably put it down to the generally poor quality of Irish journalism.

Iarla Duffy

Fianna Fail hack

Iarla Duffy was appointed to the LRC in 2009 by Fianna Fáil Minister for Labour Affairs, Dara Calleary. In Killinaskully-like manner,  Duffy, a businessman from Castlebar Co. Mayo, operated a car rental business at Knock Airport. He now seems to spend his time populating the boards of various Mayo-based interests. Needless to say this is exactly Dara Calleary’s constituency.

Why he was chosen or even wants to be on the LRC is a matter of conjecture. Given the distance between Castlebar and Dublin and the mileage being paid for travel, one would hope that his contribution to the LRC is rather substantial. Also with the controversy surrounding mileage (ask former Senator Ivor Callelly or WIT President Kieran Byrne) it is dangerous today to be an RPM (relentless pursuer of mileage).

Matters become somewhat clearer when it is noted that Duffy ran twice for Fianna Fáil in Mayo, once in 1998 and once in 2004, failing to get elected on both occasions. In fact, even the redoubtable Beverly Cooper Flynn, long broken away from the official Fianna Fail fold, warmly welcomed his appointment. Could Duffy actually heal the internal wounds of Fianna Fáil in Castlebar? Who cares.

Breege O’Donoghue

Frilly out front, sweatshop round the back

And then we come to the Chair, one of the secretive ‘gang of four’ who run the €2bn clothes retailer Primark – trading in Ireland as Penny’s. Far from the goings-on in sweatshops, Breege O’Donoghue is concerned with aggressively expanding into Spain by selling clothes that are, eh, cheaper than their competitors.

O’Donoghue, head of PR, likes to put a homely face on the company, blubbering that “Family values are very important.” Most of the neighbours at her swanky Dublin 4 mansion probably don’t shop in Penny’s – despite the Sligo-family-business routine. She has always been smiled upon by Fianna Fáil, for example, being appointed to the Task Force on Public Sector Reform.

In 2006 Primark was the subject of controversy over the use of sweat-shop labour in such far-away places as India and Bangladesh. Subcontractors were fired, ethical trading initiatives devised and still in 2008 undercover BBC reporters exposed child labour in three of India’s garment factories sub-contracted by Primark.

To make matters worse, in 2009 another UK supplier was forced to remove its branding from Primark stores following a journalists investigation into the use of illegal immigrants paid half the minimum wage.

While she may well be a fine person, that the Director of a company exposed  for sweatshop and child labour should Chair the primary body overseeing Irish labour issues is a travesty and it is only tolerated because it is not widely enough appreciated.

Conclusion

Protester with Breege O'Donoghue mask

The inescapable fact is that the Labour Relations Commission, a key part of “the most sophisticated industrial relations machinery in the world”, consists of Fianna Fáil hacks, failed union and government officials seeing out their golden years, employer hawks, old hands at the partnership game, capped by a Chair with links to child labour and sweatshops.

We can always hope that this noxious blend of the malign and the ineffectual veers more towards the latter than the former. The problems it exposes in the unions, the government and the employers are deep and difficult to address. In a later post we will take up the perennial question: what is to be done?

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