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A Different Message to what now passes for Trade Unionism
national | elections / politics | feature Monday February 16, 2004 02:58 by 1 of IMC IRL / Des Derwin
IMC IRL interview with Des Derwin - Candidate for VP of SIPTU
With 250,000 members or 1 in 6 workers in ireland SIPTU is by far the largest irish trade union. SIPTU is currently electing it's vice president through a ballot of all members. It can be easily argued that as the official who sanctions strike action by the largest union in the state the new vice president will be one of the most powerful men in the country.
There are two candidates in the election, Brendan Hayes, a paid senior official of the union, and Des Derwin who is a factory worker and union activist. Hayes would support union policy on partnership while Derwin states: 'The unions should not be in partnership with the rich and powerful.' in an interview with 1 of IMC IRL conducted by email.
Thanks to Des for his Time. I'll be offereng a similar opportunity to his opponent to air his views. Watch this space.
IMC: 1. You are campaigning to become VP of SIPTU. What do you think you can achieve in the post? What powers does the VP of SIPTU have?
Des: It is unlikely that I will get near the post. If I got elected I would be constrained by being in a small minority on many issues. All major decisions between National Executive Council meetings are considered jointly by the three General Officers before action is taken. Then the NEC has thirty two voting members, not including the General Officers. But the point about having a minority in a prominent position is that the voice of an alternative viewpoint is known, is known to even exist. Offering an alternative in itself breaks through the assumption that ‘there is no alternative’.
The requirement for this however is that I would have freedom to speak out and that I would speak out anyway. While majority views must govern action in a democracy, a democracy must allow the minority to speak out. A VP of SIPTU who says, for example, that the break up of Aer Rianta is the break up of union strength in Aer Rianta and must be resisted, will get a far wider hearing than a shop steward that says it. If a SIPTU VP said publicly that a proposed national agreement was a rotten deal, that would help balance the usual heaps of ‘Yes’ literature and media backing for rotten deals. What about if SIPTU had closed the gates of Oxygen with mass pickets two weeks into the strike? What if the VP was one of the picketers? What if a General Officer went to our Branches in the local hospitals, to link them up and assure them of the support of the Union for retaining the A & E departments?
This IS about leadership. There’s a strong ethos on the Indymedia site against formal leadership. But leadership is the reality of working for change. On the other hand an isolated left VP would have to, but would greatly help to, build an open rank and file grouping in the Union campaigning for internal democracy, forceful policies and action. A lone individual would either be ineffective, get sucked into the bureaucracy or get the chop.
As for the formal powers of the VP of SIPTU, to those who imply that it is pointless going for the position because it will change nothing, I say that the VP, and the top tier of the trade union movement, has TOO MUCH POWER, formal and informal, within the movement. The right to sanction strike action, to deny it or to revoke it is perhaps the most powerful function in any trade union. Though it is not exclusively in his or her hands (the Regional Committees, for example, are supposed to have a function here) the power to make a strike official is in SIPTU generally exercised by a General Officer, usually the VP. The formal situation, in the event of a disputed dispute, if you follow me, is clear in the Rule: a decision by a National Officer as to the existence of a strike "shall be conclusive", unless it is modified by the National Executive Council, "the decision of which shall be final". A majority decision by members should, within the safeguards of the wider majority in the Union, secure official sanction for a strike.
This said, of course, the election of a VP with this democratic view would not install that view: that would take a change in the Union Rules, a fight against the 1990 Act, organisation, persuasion and a lot else besides. But the general point remains – a vote for an officer with a certain standpoint is in a broad sense a vote for that standpoint and for change.
In general terms I am for change through campaigning, open discussion and organisation, the formation of rank and file networks, shop steward committees, cross-workplace committees, cross-union organisation and so on, and against the 'broad left' tactic of seeking to capture top positions in trade unions. The problem is not the person who occupies these positions, but the structure of the union, which ensures that such people are unaccountable to and alienated from the grass roots. Capturing positions can be a dangerous distraction. It is not through the election of one unaccountable union official that change will come about but through the members taking action into their own hands. Union elections should take a subservient role to building a rank and file organisation.
IMC: 2. Is there much that could be described as left-activism going on in the Unions in general and SIPTU in particular? How would you characterise the state of the hard-left in SIPTU?
Des: The state of the hard-left in SIPTU? There’s the SWP and there’s me. Me hard? But seriously, while there are of course socialists effectively active in their own particular areas, and while there have been the well-known centres of ‘organic’ opposition in recent years (in the ATGWU, BATU, and the ASTI), the planned intervention of the far left has been small or spasmodic. The still extant instances of systematic or organised work initiated from the ‘hard left’ within national union structures can be counted on the fingers of a victory sign: newsletters and groupings in the CPSU and Dublin Bus. In the recent past there has been a grouping across the teachers’ unions and newsletters in SIPTU. Two or three years ago there were the Conferences and the encouraging effort to establish a national co-ordinating committee of oppositional trade unionists, the Trade Union Rank and File Solidarity Network. It was dropped by the left. The left needs to prioritise trade union work and to learn to work together.
IMC: 3. You are Anti-Partnership. Will partnership break down in the near future over privatisation issues? I'm thinking here of Public Transport, Education and Health.
Des: You wouldn’t elect as your shop steward someone who said he was your boss’ partner. Why would you elect a Vice President who says he is all the bosses partner? There are no sharp industrial conflicts on privatisation in Education and Health at the moment, but, in Transport, CIE and Aer Rianta are at the forefront of the balance of power between unions and employers (specifically the state) in Ireland. Union leaders and officials in CIE and Aer Rianta seem to be pushing the steering wheel in these disputes (actually the one dispute) away from the issues of privatisation and break-up, into ‘guarantees’, and, away from industrial action on whatever. So the urge away from confrontation, partly infused by and to protect partnership, will tend to defuse any challenge to partnership in Transport. If the rank and file should press ahead and insist on action, this in itself will not break social partnership. It could if the conflict is fierce enough, but a major industrial dispute, even one which touches directly on partnership, would not necessarily challenge partnership in principle or discredit sufficiently the notion of partnership.
The nurses strike was followed shortly afterwards by an overwhelming acceptance of a new partnership deal by the nurses. During the Celtic Tiger strong sections drove a coach and four through Partnership 2000 and the PPF, but partnership as such simply opened the gates, paid rises above the deal, and let them though. Social partnership is entrenched, after 17 years. From the union side, it will probably take, to end it as a pervasive set of ideas and institutions, an educational and ideas movement in the unions, for a subjective change, as well as a traumatic conflict that objectively puts partnership under strain. There should be ongoing campaigns, keeping up the debate. It’s not enough to wait three years for each new deal to come around.
The long drawn out war in Aer Rianta and CIE may be just the cooker to redo the ideas of union members there. In those sections at least. And, ironically, Aer Rianta was held up in SIPTU as the epitome of enterprise level social partnership. I remember the feature on it in the Union magazine.
IMC: 4. A group called DAPSE have been trying hard to raise awareness of the Privatisation/Liberalisation agenda driving aspects of the EU Draft Constitution? The Unions seem silent or at least unwilling to make their voices heard on this. Am I right that they are ignoring this issue? If they are ignoring it - what is the reason?
Des: There is very little awareness all round of the import of the provisions of the EU Draft Constitution. DAPSE (Democracy and Public Services in Europe) have been uniquely doing the research, education and propaganda on the actual content of the document, which will eventually come to a referendum. On the EU in general, Nice and Maastricht before it, the Irish unions have been behind the treaties and the ‘process’, whatever you like to call it. With obvious exceptions, union leaders here seem to still see the EU agenda as a social or social democratic one, when it is actually, as you say, the driver of the neoliberal agenda. Bin taxes and Aer Rianta are connected with this ‘globalisation’. Ironically, while priding themselves upon their European commitment, the Irish unions are in many ways out of step with European unions. The European Trade Union Confederation has called for days of action, for a ‘social Europe’ and against privatisation and attacks on welfare, on 2nd and 3rd April, including "protest action and mass demonstrations in the capitals and in the major cities of Europe". This has not been taken up by the ICTU here.
IMC: 5. Are you a member of any political group or party? Have you received support from any?
Des: I’m not a member of any political party or group. Not that I think that’s a virtue. The party I support hasn’t been founded yet! If and when something like the Scottish Socialist Party is established here I’ll be in like a shot. I believe in a politics, a style and a method that are relevant to ordinary people. I believe in left cooperation and unity, unity in action around common positions and respect for, and open discussion of, differences. Sectarianism and organisational rivalry are crippling the socialist left here. It seems that the warmer winds of left unity across Europe blow themselves out before they reach these shores. Despite formal policy agreement with some, and a willingness to cooperate with all, my STRATEGY and APPROACH to work in the trade unions is not that of any of the political groups or parties with members in SIPTU. Except for a couple with, yes, a couple of members in the Union.
But, sorry to disappoint the prowling pot shooters, I am receiving support in one way or another from all the far left, which, taking Indymedia into account might include many on the new ‘autonomous’ left. I have support even from among what is styled as the broad left in SIPTU, chiefly because this is a straight two-horse race between right and left, and also from some Sinn Fein members, though no organisation outside the far left has publicly backed me. With this spread of support, for which I feel honoured, you’d wonder if victory was not guaranteed. Unfortunately support does not mean all-out mobilisation for me, or anything like it. The different parties and tendencies have their own priorities, quite reasonably, and quite enough on their plates already. But there is an argument, even if it might be said that I would say this wouldn’t I, for the left devoting just a little less energy to reclaiming the streets and opposing distant wars and investing a little more in winnable battles among the organised working class, for a little touch of Economism in the night. The support of the organised left is not terribly decisive to a SIPTU candidate, unless possibly if one of the parties decided to employ THEIR machine behind a candidate.
IMC: 6. Who is working on your campaign with you? What is involved? What size is the electorate?
Des: There is a broad network of SIPTU representatives and activists working for me in this election. Mostly they are working for me in their own areas and spheres of influence. Among them are, as a matter of interest, over a dozen Branch Presidents, Vice Presidents and former Presidents, who are supporting me with varying degrees of activity. Through the electoral statements reprinted en masse in the Union’s own publications and election material, and through 50,000 leaflets (27,000 mailed directly through the Union to its 9,000 shop stewards and representative activists), an alternative view of trade unionism is being broadcast. Though, as you see, things are by no means entirely undemocratic in SIPTU, there is an elaborate machine in the official apparatus that will get the votes for an establishment candidate, aided by the distance, in knowledge and interest, of the bulk of members from the life of the Union.
The media have shown ‘absolute zero’ interest in the election, despite abundant material submitted, even though there is an electorate of 200,000 Irish voters. This contrasts with the US Democratic Primaries: an election in a single party in a country two thousand miles away, and the acres of print and airtime it has received. The Democratic Primary in Ireland – with 30 voters - got prime time coverage on RTE’s ‘Morning Ireland’. The imminence of a change of ASTI General Secretary, from the media-approved incumbent, by a committee vote in a smaller union, got prominent coverage in the Irish Times. But enough whinging about the media. Just bring it up the next time they talk about freedom of expression.
My budget for the campaign is about _6,000, raised five to one by a Credit Union loan and donations/fundraising. The total valid poll was 110,000 in the SIPTU General Secretary election of 2002: actually a good poll (I won’t say turnout) compared to trade union elections in Britain.
IMC: 7. What say you to those who might say the election will make little difference to anything?
Des: I’d say tell that to those panicking if I won, who were panicking when they thought Carolann Duggan was maybe about to win. And read my answer to the first question.
IMC: 8. Have you got a chance or is it a symbolic campaign?
Des: Two chances. Or two hopes of actually being elected. Bob Hope and no hope. What is this ‘machine’ I am up against? Many full time officials would be for Brendan. Perhaps some of them have met and organised. I cannot say. Branches who nominate him take it as a licence to highlight his candidacy in several ways. The distance of the membership from the structures ensures that many know little about either candidate or the election. The people conducting the ballot can, through answering legitimate questions, or, more ambiguously, informing people of the Branch nomination, promote a particular candidate. The remedy for this is to reach members directly through personal contact (travelling and canvassing) and publicity (leaflets, the media and the Union’s official election literature). While there are faults in the distribution of the latter, the facility and resources afforded by the Union for broadcasting a message the establishment dislikes, has to be acknowledged. You also reach the members, and build credibility, through your record and activity throughout the years. This standing would be known more to stewards and committee members than to the ‘masses’, and much of the literature will get to these reps. These are the crucial people. You are likely to meet these, not the general members, when visiting a workplace, some may not bother to pass on the literature they receive from the Union, and the members are as likely to follow the preference of a half-decent steward as an official when it comes to casting the vote.
Earlier on I spoke of the ‘machine’ and the resources that I can put up. And, as also mentioned already, the media has ensured the election maintains ‘non-event’ status. I’m presuming that the (ahem!) little irregularities that occurred the last time will not be a critical factor this time. But, while I am a minority voice I am hoping that it will be a little more than a symbolic campaign – a little more than, for instance, the dissenters to the Pope’s visit in 1979!!
The main idea is to put forward a different message to what now passes for trade unionism – phone calls from Bertie to get strikes called off to stop him being embarrassed, no-strike agreements on the LUAS, binding arbitration – rather than to get elected, and to build further on that. Of course, the higher the vote the better that alternative is strengthened. You can judge yourself (with some acquaintance with the circumstances of that election) how much the 7% I got in the last election was a symbolic voice crying in the wilderness, or a worthwhile reaching out to the membership with a few points about independence, democracy and combativity. Or a combination of that outreach with the indication of some base of support for those points. A base that hopefully the result of this election will show to be a bit broader.
IMC: 9. Why would you not vote for your opponent? Who is backing him? What is his agenda - stated or otherwise?
Des: A vote for my opponent would be a vote for the status quo in SIPTU. Brendan Hayes is the Dublin Regional Secretary of the Union. We have radically different policies on union matters, but our personal relations are civilised, even friendly. He does not seem to be popular in all circles but he has always dealt with me with respect and courtesy. Although there are particular changes he would like to introduce, I don’t think he would be offended by the claim that he supports the general line of march of SIPTU including the experience of social partnership and all of the recent Rule changes. He has been an influential figure in the Union, on union recognition for instance, which I would approach from a different angle. As Brendan says himself, he has been "intimately involved in negotiating the Public Service Pay aspects of the National Agreements over the last 13 years". He is considered a conservative, which of course he is, but I don’t know whether he is that much more so than those who came to office in the recent past with great left promise. Brendan has 79 Branch nominations as against my three, an indication of the support of the mainstream and the machine.
The only thing I would like to take him up on in the campaign is that, while he’s correct to claim more negotiating experience in the public sector, he is not uniquely experienced in plant by plant negotiations. I too was active in the years before and between the national agreements. I can’t wait for plant by plant bargaining again. Nice to see his campaign leaflet bringing Red back!
IMC: 10. What did you think of the actions (or lack of same) of the unions during the Bin Tax campaign and the Anti-war campaign? It seemed incredible to me that the Unions sat back and did nothing during the build-up to the war. I spoke to an official in SIPTU at the time (off the record) who told me that none of the following had asked the Union to consider some kind of action - SP/SWP/Greens/Sinn Fein/Labour. What is the significance of this?
Des: SIPTU actually did play a part in the general anti-war movement. The organisers were pleased to have Des Geraghty and Jack O’Connor speak at the rallies and to have the SIPTU banner on the marches. As regards action the main arena here was Shannon Airport. The leadership would no doubt say that there was no demand from Shannon Airport members for action against the war. And it is true that, at least initially, the feeling in Shannon would probably have been the other way even – against action. But encouragement from above would have complemented a measured campaign from the anti-war movement aimed directly at the Airport workers. Was there such a campaign? I know of one good effort late and from the periphery of the movement. This is not exactly the same question as direct action by protestors. I would imagine if industrial action had been on the agenda at Shannon that senior SIPTU officials would have invoked the new doctrine invoked for Aer Rianta and the bin tax campaign: that the Union could not take action against government policy and that the 1990 Act precluded action that was not an industrial matter against one’s direct employer. And that’s the fact of the 1990 Act, or compliance with it. No tax marches any more. The enormity of it hasn’t really dawned on people.
And with the Bin Tax campaign there was verbal opposition to double taxation service charges, and the presence of SIPTU on demonstrations. I don’t think it was good enough to have two SIPTU members jailed, a shop steward and a TD, without at least a rattling of the sabres for their release. But where a trade union connection really counted, where refuse collectors were in the front line of being required to leave some bins behind, SIPTU immediately said that collecting only paid bins was a legitimate instruction and implied that industrial action against it would break the 1990 Act. Many bin workers wanted to collect all bins and if the Union had clearly supported them there might have been no need for blockades and jailings at all. They didn’t arrest the bus workers, or sue the Union, when they took out the buses and gave free rides: much more than a withdrawal of labour and an act directed against privatisation, not about terms and conditions of employment as such.
That said, SIPTU’s initial position on the issue was way ahead of many other unions and the ICTU. Some unions refused to allow their banner to be carried in the Trades Council march! ICTU General Secretary David Beggs’ attack on the jailed Joe Higgins and Clare Daly was a disgrace. Then SIPTU and the TEEU joined IMPACT to kick the issue into touch and the Trades Council forum on local government finance. Though it was not the direct cause of this retreat, the impulsive barracking of Jack O’Connor, by people who demanded the support of the union leaders and invited Jack O’Connor to speak at events before and after the march, did not help those who wanted to maintain the unions’ commitment on the bins, such as it was. Being so quick to lash the bin protesters, and getting the Irish Times front page to do it, David Beggs might have found it in his heart to publicly demand the release of the editor of the Irish Labour History Society journal, Fintan Lane, jailed for opposing the war.
IMC: 11. What kind of people run SIPTU at present? Are they Labour Party? Are they careerists? Who are they? Are they accountable?
Des: The individuals who run SIPTU at present – by which I refer to the leadership and leave aside any reference to the backroom apparatus – are not venally corrupt haters of the labouring masses. The top two or three layers contain, precisely at present, a number of sincere and hardworking people who are doing it out of dedication. But, unfortunately, doing it with a view of trade unionism, and of what is best for the movement, that is mistaken, wrong and dangerously MISLEADING. The most influential are probably not even, in their own minds, doctrinally wedded to social partnership. But whether it’s the Fat Controller or the attentive engineer that drives the train along the track of consensus, keeping strictly to the lines of the 1990 Act and saying we will never break through the lights set up by the Minister and strike against the privatisation of Thomas and the other trains, either way there is a need for another way of running the railway. And, yes, membership of the Labour Party does still seem to be a sine qua non for General Officership of SIPTU. Funny, when it’s at the left that some would throw the brick of ‘political motivation’ or ‘political interests’.
Accountable? Not in my book. Branches have, for example, no right to any input into who their full-time officials are. As all proposals for changes to the Rules of SIPTU must come from a Rules Revision Committee, or the NEC, and as any bid to change this situation must also come through the Rules Revision Committee (Catch 22), it is not constitutionally possible for members, or Branches, to even seek fundamental or any Rule changes at a National Conference of SIPTU (unless a submission is accepted by the Rules Revision Committee).
IMC: 13. You had a bit of a falling out with the SWP when you were seeking nominations to run for the election. How do you feel about that now?
Des: The SWP, who were prime movers in me running for SIPTU General Secretary in 2002, incredibly attempted to run a candidate against me this time. The episode was a measure of my difference with the SWP. That is, the balance of ‘party-building’ and real roots in the class (which is real, if long haul, Party building). In the unions, the equilibrium is achieved through working with those who accept some but not all the ideas socialists have to put forward, through caucuses or rank and file groups which have real influence and are truly independent of any one political organisation.
Since their candidate failed to secure a nomination, the SWP and individual SWP members, have supported me as much as, if not more than, other left groups and parties. I will still argue that where the SWP command real forces, as they do, relatively speaking, in SIPTU, they cannot simply be shunned. Though it may displease some of my friends to say it, the SWP have across some unions some of the best activists in the country, including the person who ran against me. Nor will I ever relegate the achievement of Carolann Duggan, or Carolann herself. The SWP have, however, obliged me by demonstrating once and for all that there is clear space between them and me.
IMC: Anything else you'd like to add?
Des: Well, yes. The unions should not be in partnership with the rich and powerful. It’s time for an end to wage restraint. Raise the Minimum Wage to _8 an hour. The members’ vote for the National Executive Council has to be restored. The 1990 Industrial Relations Act needs to be changed or stood up to. Greenfield, no-strike agreements are not the way. SIPTU Officers ought to be paid workers’ wages, not executives’ salaries.
The Union must forcefully oppose privatisations. The CIE and Aer Rianta campaigns should be linked with combined action. We need an active campaign by SIPTU and the ICTU against the "Savage Sixteen" welfare cuts, hospital downgrades and double-taxation service charges. All members resisting job losses need to be fully supported. Many of our refuse collecting members wish to collect ALL bins and the Union should clearly back them.