October 2016

The Union is conducting a consultation with the membership with a view to:

  1. Drawing up a Development Plan for the Union for the medium term and;
  2. The future of the Political Fund

Submissions were invited from committees and individual members.

My own written submission is posted below.

Membership Consultation Initiative

Submission, 30th September 2016

Des Derwin, Community Sector member, Vice-Chair Dublin District Council

Development Plan for the Union: some – incomplete – observations and suggestions.

  1. The restructuring appears to have weakened participation by members and even activists. Many general members seem to have no union meeting at all to go to, not even an AGM. This seems to apply to some activists also as AGMs are for delegates and not all members. Some Sectors seems to have few all-member general meetings even on particular issues.
  1. The restructuring displaced some unemployed activists in particular. It was good that the prevalence of senior representatives with no workplace base was curtailed (though some survived). However in the process the organisation lost some of its most active Committee members and activists in its internal life.
  1. This has been partly recognised though the re-establishment of District Committees and, at another level, the Workers Rights Centres. These should be nurtured. However the District Committees have been slow to develop to anything like their hoped-for potential. In any case, the loose, non-industrial and extra-structural nature of District Committees, positive and all as they are, does not substitute for avenues of participation in the decision-making structures and life of the union.
  1. The demise of the Branch seems to have affected the local, as well as the members’, connection to the Union. Reports of closed premises point to resources which might have continued, or been developed, as foci for trade union and community activities in the locality and raised the SIPTU profile.
  1. From several points of view – community connections, political influence and image, member participation or alienation – the distance of the Union from the water charges movement, the single biggest working class protest movement of recent times, was unfortunate and damaging. And it was (is still) a movement which eventually had six other unions in an umbrella role in the very forefront. The ties to the Labour Party in government were no small factor here and can be addressed further in the section on ‘The future use of the Political Fund’. SIPTU is the last major union to remain unaffiliated to the Trade Union Campaign for Repeal of the 8th Amendment.
  1. The Union can do community and campaign alliances: the Community Sector led a vibrant community organisations campaign against the cuts, until the campaign was mysteriously stood down. SIPTU has played a valuable supportive role in a developing housing movement but seems to have slackened its interest of late. There is still time to put SIPTU among the front ranks on this major social issue. One of the gains of the restructuring phase was the advancement of the national campaigns office of the Union and the good fortune to have gained two active and able Campaigns Officers in succession.

The profile and support of the Union in the 1913 and 1916 commemorations can only be beneficial, both for recognition and for outreach to communities, historians and the politically interested. The cultural contribution of SIPTU is in general under appreciated.

  1. The primary element in the renewal and development of the Union will be the revival of the industrial struggle. The Union has shown its capacity to defend members and make gains throughout the hard times but in small cases. Now LUAS and Dublin Bus are green shoots of a wider wave and one with victories. The partly-veiled message of the General President on RTE radio’s ‘Late Debate’ (29th September), that the Lansdowne-Haddington Road Agreement must be revisited, is a welcome lead on what needs to be done now to get back what workers lost in the crash. The Union has recently been gaining pay rises in the private sector in the order of 2%.
  1. Whatever small daily gains and protections were made at all times – the benefits of being in a trade union – the big picture is a sorry one of retreat and concession to the offensive to lay the cost of the economic crisis on workers. Even though the social partnership agreements were torn up by the government and employers in this onslaught, what replaced them were social partnership agreements for the public sector, borne upon the same desire to cooperate. The hostility of many to trade unions is at least in part, whether it is admitted in the unions or not, a deep bitterness at the failure of the movement to fight back against austerity.
  1. If new strength is now possible it starts from a position of great weakness. The private sector statistics are well known. Though even here the new 60% membership rise in the North augurs well. It is cases like the inability of a union (this Union actually) to immediately defend a new hotel member sacked for the very act of organising the Union and distributing application forms, that ring the loudest alarm bells. Officials compelled to resort instead to pleading for (and winning!), 14 months later, a few bob in an unfair dismissals case against a hotel that remains anonymous. It is letters from nurses posted on Facebook penned in desperation at their exhaustion at work and their frightening poverty at home. The Clerys closure led to massive public support for the workers and a marvellous, sustained publicity, lobbying and legal campaign by the Union. But what are the actual gains after so long? If ever corporate contemptuous intransigence merited an occupation the Clerys closure did and surely would have brought things to some resolution sooner. Vita Cortex, at the time, pointed to a different response to the disposal of a workforce.
  1. The new emphasis on organisation is the right track, though it always needs an essential twin track, the ability and willingness to fight and win for the members we do gain. Prior to restructuring the option identified was a servicing or an organising model. There is another option which is at least as important, a partnership or a struggle model.
  1. The climb back up will not be an easy slope. The Union will have to consider transgressing prevailing restrictive legislation and the new norms of respectable trade union activity, while campaigning for repeal or amendment of the 1990 Act.

Since 1990 the official movement has been forbidden from exercising basic trade unionism and simple solidarity. Without sympathetic action, the ability to boycott, to support individual members and the right to strike for issues wider than a dispute with your immediate employer, the unions are crippled and half their raison d’être is missing. We must end a situation where our members are viciously attacked at Greyhound, strike-breakers are brought in, and the Union relies on community and political activists – and members and officials of other unions! – to blockade the workplace and the blacklegs. Then, after indicating to outside activists the value to the advancement of the dispute of protests at bin lorries in the estates, some are arrested and – to take one notable case – the Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin is consequently tried in court (reminds you of 1913!) under the Public Order Act. But the Union offers not a public word of solidarity, never mind more material support. We need to shake off this thoughtlessness.

  1. Our trajectory at workplace level can be ‘pragmatic’, to put it no stronger. For example, sometimes it seems we are quietly and at local level concluding agreements at odds with our stand on privatisation. A deal in Bord Gáis was reported in the press as paving the way for privatisation. The privatisation of Dublin City Council bin collection as a smooth industrial relations operation led inexorably from a redoubt of trade union organisation and tradition to the Greyhound war and the final descent of waste management into a Wild West. The resolution to the 2015 bus strike on the 10% privatisation of routes, and the recent REA out of it, were hailed as victories. They were, in securing the terms and conditions of the CIE busworkers in the event of privatisation. It has gone unremarked, however, that the same resolutions commit the unions and the workers to accepting without industrial action the potential transfer of 10% of their work to other privately owned companies. Private operators can of course still drive down terms and conditions by employing non-CIE workers on the privatised routes (CIE workers do not have to transfer), as has happened already on the private intercity bus routes.
  1. Every major industrial dispute today is met immediately with a concerted attack from across the mainstream media and, usually, minority public support. Or, even where there is substantial public support, with legal constraint or prohibition. These should be recognised as a given and the fight conducted in any case according to our organisational and industrial strength. But it does mean that, in general, the media is now a central, relentless and unavoidable battleground between capital and labour and that, also, every thought and effort should be put into developing our own media. There have been advances. ‘Liberty’ is greatly improved in recent years. SIPTU Video, social media and website presences are out there and of a high standard. The organisation has mustered a first class media crew.

We could pack a better punch on radio by being less ‘reasonable’ all the time, by unapologetically defending our pursuit of a better life for our members and by dishing the retaliatory dirt on ‘resources’: bank bail outs, tax evasion, corporate subsidy, wealth inequality, fiscal constraints, the enormous salaries at the top, etc. The use and value of community radio and television could be given serious attention. Social media is already open though exchange is not a big feature and the usual abuse a repressing factor. ‘Liberty’ for all its better impact has not opened up to the members, to discussion and ideas beyond the leadership orthodoxy. Such a democratic forum would increase interest, if only that. Whole pages given over to government ministers do not popularise a trade union publication.

  1. I know less officials as times goes by and new blood is brought in. May I remark that I think, good officials of the past notwithstanding, in general the newer generations of officials are efficient, accessible and (relatively) open. Yes, many come from a generation in which the walk out is a tale from the past and the day in court a default procedure. It may have been noticed that Union street events often rely more on officials and less on members to make up the numbers. This is both a function of the enthusiastic calibre of many officials and of the drop in participation of the rank and file. I hope the recent loss of an ace official in Dublin to another union is not a sign of a trend and that middle and junior officials are reasonably happy in SIPTU.
  1. One simple short term measure to improve participation and democracy in the organisation would be to restore general membership elections for the General Officers. Though only a start, the General Officers are very central in SIPTU, or any union today I suppose, and the election would create a debate and an opening for alternative views on the direction of SIPTU and the movement in general and engender a point of interest for members in the life of the Union. This Membership Consultation Initiative is a welcome exercise in democracy and member participation.

The future of the political fund.

  1. Following the record of the Labour Party during the last five years of the previous government and its consequent reduction to a rump of seven TDs, there is no justification for continued affiliation to this party as the political expression of the interests of our Union and its members.
  1. The political fund of the Union, and the Union’s general engagement with political life, to stay.
  2. The establishment of an elected political committee to address for the time being support for election candidates in each election. Applications for support to be considered from parties and candidates committed to SIPTU policies.
  3. The question of replacement affiliation to be suspended pending the emergence of a new workers party commanding substantial support.
  4. The Union, in conjunction with other trade unions or even Congress, to consider participation in the development of a new broadbased left party. A recent resolution along these lines, from the Dublin Council of Trade Unions, was passed by an ICTU conference.
  5. Sinn Féin should be regarded as part of the fluid mix towards a new workers’ party but not at this time a candidate for replacement of the Labour Party by trade union affiliation.
  6. All trade unions should allow political discussion and decision as vital to the interest of workers.

The Union (presumably the NEC and Officers) is conducting a consultation with the membership with a view to:

  1. Drawing up a Development Plan for the Union for the medium term and;
  2. The future of the Political Fund

A questionnaire was circulated to all members. Committee and individual members could make submissions up to 12th October. The Union is still accepting late entries of both.

Meetings with delegates to the Divisional Conferences are underway.

A consultative meeting will be held, at which all members may participate, on

Tuesday, 1st November 2016, at 7.oo pm in Liberty Hall, Dublin.

My own written submission is posted in the post following this.