Jack O Connor & SIPTU leadership must go

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Huge numbers of public sector workers have voted to reject the Croke Park 2 proposals. The decisive blow was dealt by the grassroots members of SIPTU who defied their union leaders. Brendan Howlin plaintively acknowledged this when he stated that ‘if 3 % more of the SIPTU vote swung Yes, it would have “got over the line”.

This claim gets to the heart of the covert relationship that links the SIPTU leaders with the government. The plans behind Croke Park 2 were carefully crafted to allow the union leaders of SIPTU and IMPACT to get a slim majority and then impose an agreement on other workers. Special concessions were even devised for prison officers to help to create an artificial majority inside the ICTU Public Services Committee to secure a Yes vote. The plan was that even if a majority of public sector workers voted against the deal, the block votes of SIPTU and IMPACT plus a few tiny unions like the Prison Officers Association was to ram it through.

The scale of the grassroots revolt is extraordinary. SIPTU is a union that is tightly controlled by a clique of Labour Party members who use its bureaucratic structures to silence dissent. Despite requests to the SIPTU Communications office, the NO side were not allowed to publish their arguments in the union newspaper. Their only outlet was a tiny SIPTU Grassroots against the Croke Park 2. This was initiated by the UCD Section Committee and consisted of leaflets and a very active Facebook campaign.

Against them was deployed an army of SIPTU fulltime officials who were sent out by their head office to promote a NO vote. They used two main tactics to try to gain a YES vote.

One was the normal message of defeatism, which has been perfected by the union President, Jack O Connor. ‘There was nothing that could be done’; ‘the government would impose a pay cut anyway’; ‘all out strike had to be avoided’ was the constant refrain. Their strategy is to turn the demoralisation that the union leaders themselves have created into a permanent mood of defeatism. The union, it was implied is not an agency of struggle, but a collection of industrial relations experts who process claims and grievances for members. They, in turn, had only to follow their leaders.

The second tactic was to play an insidious game of divide and rule within the union. Union officials tried to persuade lower paid workers that ‘they were being looked after’ and it was the ‘turn of the higher paid to sacrifice’. They played down the fact that many of these workers would have to give their employers an hour’s free overtime and that the agreement contained a clause would eventually lead to cuts in travel and subsistence allowances under a pretext of standardisation. No union has ever urged members to vote to increase the hours and cut the pay of other members. But the SIPTU leaders tried it.

The full time officials who pushed this message were backed up by lay committee hacks who do not represent the views of the membership. The modern SIPTU is organised around very large national sectors whose committees are selected by a tiny number of delegates. Union officials have been given considerable latitude to promote the candidacies of those loyal to the union machine. Decision making union conferences occur only once every two years and are composed largely of those who are either loyal to the union machine or frightened to speak out.

When a major scandal broke out in SIPTU over HSE funding of junkets for union activists, only three conference delegates spoke against it. Fewer than ten people voted to challenge the leadership’s report on the issue. Significantly, the main figure who received HSE money brazenly sat in the conference – marshalling his health services delegates to vote down any criticism.

This background helps to explain the scale of the revolt in SIPTU. It was a big, quiet NO but it revealed the sheer disgust and anger that many members feel about their Labour Party leadership. The vote also shows why the leadership has to be removed if the union is to become a fighting organisation that can defend its members.

The SIPTU leadership is organised around three key figures, Jack O Connor, who is the most visible public face; Patricia King, who was the key figure who negotiated the Croke Park 2 proposals; and Joe Flynn, who organises the full time staff. Some years ago, a change of rules removed the right of the general membership to elect any of these three figures. Candidates for these positions are supposed to present a CV rather than engage in any debate about union strategy. When once candidate, John Kidd, attempted to fight an election campaign over policies he was censored and then forced out of the race. Surrounded by their army of full timers and a layer of union hacks who control the sector committees, this leadership have become totally disconnected from their membership.

When O Connor was pressed by an RTE interviewer to do the honourable thing and resign he coyly replied that the union’s National Executive Council and Sector Committees would decide the issue. He neglected to mention the NEC – with a few exceptions - promoted a Yes vote and that not one single sector committee called for a No vote. In other words, O Connor claimed that his continued hold over office would be decided by committees who were as equally out of touch with their membership as he was.

This is not simply good enough. The will of the majority of SIPTU members is not represent by O Connor, King and Flynn. Incredibly, there is not one representative of the big No side of the union in this leadership. The membership have little confidence in their ability to lead a fight to defend their interests. They sense that if they entered fight this leadership would sell them out, as they did when they called off industrial action to resist a pay cut. Their attempt to sell a €1 billion robbery of public sector reflected their loyalty to the Labour party – not to the interests of the wider membership,.

The NO vote shows that a root and branch change in SIPTU is required. This can only occur if there is a revolt starts in the workplaces and sufficient networks are built to focus anger on a bureaucratic shell that needs to be cracked open.

To this end a national petition is being launched by a number of SIPTU shop stewards to call for the resignation of the SIPTU leadership and an opening up of elections of a new leadership to the general membership.

At local level, it is now time to remove the hacks and Yes people and replace them with representatives who will reflect the real feelings of the members.

Croke Park 2 was a watershed. The battle to change SIPTU has begun in earnest.

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April 17, 2013 - 13:34
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