This interview with Mick O’Reilly, Irish Secretary of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers’ Union (now Unite) appeared in Issue 21 in March 2005, shortly after he was reinstated following an attempt to remove him from his post.
After a three and a half year saga since your suspension in June 2001, you have been reinstated as Regional Secretary of the ATGWU. You have been described as a thorn in the side of the ICTU and of the former TGWU leadership. You are the best-known opponent of social partnership, you opposed the Nice Treaty, and at the time of your removal, you had taken ILDA into the ATGWU. You were accused of several relatively minor internal offences, and several other reasons have been claimed as the real reason for your removal. What do you think was the reason?
I’ve obviously thought about this question a lot. There were a number of factors. First of all I was probably the only Regional Secretary who Bill Morris [then General Secretary of the TGWU] didn’t want in his period of office, and he was there for a long time. I had a very substantial vote on the executive council. Secondly, I think that there were people in the wider trade union movement who attempted to contact Bill Morris. I don’t know, and I’ll probably never know, what took place in those contacts. I know, for example, that the then President of SIPTU spoke to John Freeman, a former ATGWU Regional Secretary, and asked him how he could go about getting to Bill Morris about me. I know, for example, that Peter Cassells tried to create an impression at the biennial conference that there was no involvement of anybody in the ICTU in relation to any of this, but I know that he had a meeting about ILDA and me with Ray Collins in the Gresham Hotel, because Ray Collins said this. He may have defended me for all I know. I don’t know what happened at the meeting. But I was always very disappointed that he denied, or appeared to try and cover up that situation.
So, I think the reasons were partly political. I think they were also personal. I think, frankly, that when you look at the actual charges they were trivial and not serious. I think that the people who made representations here probably didn’t want me dismissed. That’s the benign view. But I think they were wrong. I think they should have come and had the argument with me. Many of them who were involved in this I know for many years in the trade union movement. And there was nothing that we were doing that couldn’t have been discussed, unless you want to make a big issue of the ILDA thing. But quite frankly I have no apologies to make for the ILDA thing. The reality of the situation was that the Supreme Court and the High Court said that they [the train drivers] were not members of SIPTU. Mary O’Rourke, who was the minister at the time, actually made a plea for them to join the official trade union movement and come back. They certainly would have not gone back to either of the existing unions.
I don’t think Congress rules were correctly applied. The case was heard in my absence. I did request that it be done when I was here, but that fell on deaf ears, so I was quite annoyed about that. When I came back from holidays I was suspended. I was told I couldn’t have any contact with any third party who the union had anything to do with. I was barred from entering any union office. It was almost like a form of house arrest, actually. The reality is that most of the officers in the union stayed loyal to me. They knew that this was rotten fish. They got behind me.
Probably for the first time in the history of any union anywhere, officers, who I don’t know, officers right throughout England and Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland, all over the place, voted to take industrial action, which I think is unprecedented, in support of me and Eugene McGlone [ATGWU Northern Organiser, also removed at the same time]. I think that shook our union to its foundations. Not just that they were going to pull the plug and walk out, because I don’t think they were going to do it that way. I remember talking to Mick O’Riordan at the time, and he said it’s the equivalent of the cardinals voting against the pope, and if the cardinals vote against the pope, of course, the pope has to go.
I suppose we were lucky in the sense that Morris was coming up to retirement age. But I think it had a profound effect on the outcome of his replacement. Tony Woodley [successor to Bill Morris] has always been very clear that, no matter what happened, he was determined to see that justice was done. He had a lot of genuine excuses that he could have used to move away from the firm commitments and promises that he gave, and he chose not to use them but to do what he promised to do, and he has delivered it, and in such a way that nobody else has suffered as a result of it. Because it was never our aim to get justice for ourselves and then to implement some injustice to others. That was never part of our aim. I never made a personal attack on anybody in this campaign, and I never called for anybody’s dismissal. I’m not in favour of that. There’s better ways of doing things. So that’s the background to it.
What was the position of Ray Collins at the time?
He was Deputy General Secretary of the TGWU with responsibility for administration. If my memory is right, he was requested by Bill Morris to come over and investigate the matter because there had been a rail strike at the time, and an intervention by the National Implementation Body which said that the question of what union they [the train drivers] were in should be dealt with by the ICTU, and the grievances of the members should be dealt with by the Labour Court. That’s what happened.
Another politician’s name was mentioned. Is that just speculation?
Well, Bertie Ahern’s name was mentioned as being involved in that. The speculation was that the Taoiseach’s Department had spoken to Blair, or that the ICTU had spoken to the TUC and they had spoken to Blair. To be quite honest about it, I don’t know whether any of that’s true or not. I’m not making the allegation that anybody was involved, because I just don’t know. But journalists speculated on that, they have their sources, and I suppose people will have to make up their own minds.
The then General President of SIPTU, Des Geraghty, has vehemently denied allegations that he was involved in your suspension. He says he offered to mediate on your behalf and to provide material assistance. The General Officers of SIPTU supported in writing the Dublin Trades Council motion of May 2002 protesting at your sacking and supporting your appeal.
Well, the reality of the situation is that when it became such a cause, I suppose, in the trade union movement, I don’t think anybody wanted to be seen in public to be opposing me. To be quite honest, it was dealt with in a very authoritarian way by our leadership, in a very ham-fisted way. Actually what Dessie Geraghty said in public is in Magill magazine. He said: I did not make an official complaint to Bill Morris on record about Mick O’Reilly. I think that’s true. But why was he asking and enquiring as to how he would go about talking to Morris in respect of my situation? And I don’t say that he did that with a view to getting me dismissed. I’ve never said that, because I don’t know why he did that. I have to say, whatever position they took, I was never approached by the leadership of SIPTU in relation to their support for me. But there was widespread support throughout the ICTU in opposition to Morris, and I’m very thankful for it. But at that stage the die was cast and Morris was not going to step back for any outside body. I don’t know how serious they were, but a lot of people were genuinely sincere at that time, and wanted to try and be helpful towards myself and Eugene, and I would never deny that.
Was there a letter written by a senior officer of the ICTU to Bill Morris, a normal business letter that should normally have been addressed to you, shortly before your removal?
At that time I had had a very big argument, after the rail strike, on the executive council of Congress, and it was fairly traumatic, to say the least. My memory of it is that I gave as good as I got in the exchanges that took place. Afterwards when the Congress conference came up, one person, I think he was president at the time, or running to be president, actually wrote to Morris looking for support from our union. Now the protocol would be that that would be done through me. Whether that’s all part of the pattern of events, I’m not sure. I was a bit isolated on the executive council of Congress, because I don’t think they were happy about the role that I played in relation to inflation and forcing the renegotiation of the agreement [the PPF national partnership agreement]. A number of people on the executive council did support me, both about the train drivers and that issue, and at the end everybody was supporting the renegotiation of the agreement and that we had to do something about inflation.
But I can tell you that, whilst that might have been the position in the end, it wasn’t the position in the beginning, and it was very difficult to force the renegotiation of the agreement. I’m not certain of this, but I think it’s possibly the only time an agreement was renegotiated, and the employers were none too happy, nor were the government. I think it had to be done because we made a mistake in the negotiations, and I think it was a genuine error. All the indications from the government and the Central Bank and all the experts were that inflation would remain low, and the increase would be sufficient to stay ahead of inflation. My view was that that was more reason to have an indexation clause, not less, because if the government believed that, they should have put their money where their mouth was, rather than us having to make them. But we did make them. We got the support of people and we opened up the agreement. I happen to think that was a good thing for the trade union movement. It restored a bit of credibility. I think there would have been tensions, and people would possibly have had to break the agreement and take action. So I think it was as well that the leadership eventually got behind the argument that we were making in respect to inflation.
Was your removal found to be out of order? Was it against the rules and procedures of the union?
John Hendy, a very prominent barrister, was brought in to examine and report on the whole case. He’s a very eminent labour lawyer. He worked for nothing for the National Union of Mineworkers right through their strike. My view is he tore the procedures used against me, and indeed a lot of the charges, asunder. That report was accepted by the executive council. It’s a very formidable and very large report, and I think it will be used—already has been used—by our own union to change our structures in relation to situations like that. Indeed people used to believe that the Irish Regional Secretary in the Amalgamated Transport was untouchable. And of course that wasn’t so. But I think it will be so from here on in. I think anybody who gets the job after me will be relatively safe. I think it will be a long, long time before anyone dares to make that kind of intervention here, or I hope anywhere else.
I don’t believe that you can solve political differences by administrative methods and by dismissal. You have to solve them by democratic discussion, using the procedures of the union to argue different points of view out. I think this case demonstrates that, because the union lost credibility. It spent a lot of resources. At the end of the day I’d have to say I’m very proud that the union had the capacity to turn this around, to look at its mistakes and rectify them, to renew itself because of all of this. I think that’s a strength; I don’t think it’s a weakness.
I’m not certain that I’m right in this, but my feeling is that this is the only time in the history of the trade union movement that anybody like myself and Eugene has got back when they have been attacked by the establishment to such an extent. It’s a real credit to Tony Woodley and to all those that supported him, to our executive council and, I have to say, to the Irish membership who in the darkest days stood up for me, because I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the rank and file, the officers and all the people who campaigned. I’m very, very grateful. And also, it has to be said, for the wider trade union movement, the trades councils, etc. I suppose it’s like throwing stones. Maybe at first you don’t think you are making much of an impact, but when a lot of people start doing it, it really does, and it burst the damn open on the case. So I’m very grateful. I’m quite humbled about the support that I have got. I have to work to restore things, because we lost a lot of members in the process, and we lost our reputation to some degree. I think we have begun to restore that and to turn it around, and I’m delighted to be back.
When you were summarily suspended, there was a story in the media suggesting financial irregularities. Then the stuff about the sexist mug appeared. Were these attempted smears? Where did they come from?
On the question of the financial irregularities, I have to say the person I’m eternally grateful for in relation to that whole area was Gene Kerrigan. I don’t know Gene Kerrigan, except that I read his column from time to time, when I can find somebody else who has bought the Sunday Independent. He certainly blew that out of the water. You see, all they said from the office in London was that they were doing an administrative audit and examining the finances of the union. It was a statement of fact. It was the context and the way that it was said that was meant to have a certain impact. Of course, in a society awash with tribunals you only have to say ‘finance’ and ‘audit’ for people to say—and this is the dreadful, dreadful statement, I hope I never make it—‘there’s no smoke without fire’. And it’s very easy to damn somebody in that way. Gene Kerrigan certainly blew that one out of the water. There was no substance, there was nothing in the finances. I may say that at one stage I was scratching my own head, though I always knew I didn’t take anybody else’s money. But I wasn’t sure that I hadn’t put something in a wrong column. I’m responsible as Regional Secretary for every penny that’s spent in Ireland. That’s a fairly big budget. So I worried about that. But there was absolutely no substance in that at all. In fact no question that I was asked in the very, very long procedures, the years I spent arguing all these issues, was asked in respect of finance.
In respect of the mug, well, I never saw the mug and I didn’t know anything about it until it was raised in the papers. The story is quite simple. One of our women delegates, over at some conference, bought the mug as a joke. Apparently it was in the canteen in Belfast. Eugene took the mug away, never used it and it was never seen. So I don’t know why it was raised. It was a contrived thing. My view is that it was contrived to give a certain image to us, that we weren’t active on behalf of women, and we were somehow chauvinistic. I found that very insulting. My record is there, and people know what it is. I’ve never been involved in anything like that, and I’ve taken a lot of cases for our women members down through the years. I’ve always fought for a progressive position, and that is true of Eugene McGlone as well. There was a lot of discussion in the press about it: it was a bit salacious. Actually no questions arose [in the hearings] about it at all.
Do you think that your instant removal showed a weakness of the left in the ATGWU? If so, is there now better organisation of the left and stronger roots among ATGWU activists?
Well, everybody was surprised, and there was nobody more surprised than me. And to say that we hadn’t got a plan to deal with this would be true, because we never thought that anything like this would ever happen. Yes, the left were taken off guard, and yes, you could argue that there should have been some instant action. Whatever you say about it now, everything we did was right. It had to be, because it brought about the right results. The fact is that there was a lot of argument amongst ourselves about how we should go about things, and what we should do. We hadn’t at any stage a master plan. In fact, we had only a simple plan: whatever you do, keep fighting. Keep throwing punches, keep coming up with ideas, keep in the ring. Stay on your feet, and never yield to them. Apart from that, there was no theory behind it, no plan. And obviously: keep the issue in the media, keep people focused on it, keep telling the truth, and it will get through. That was the plan. And I think it worked, in the end.
If the officers had all walked out immediately, yes, that probably would have worked. If the membership had all gone on strike. I don’t know whether they could have done that. A lot of them had agreements with their employers, so that wouldn’t have been a right thing to do. It was very, very difficult to know what to do. And remember, the officers and the shop stewards had to keep servicing the members. I never made a case that our members shouldn’t be looked after in all of this. Because that’s important, and of course that’s the great contradiction of trade unions. It’s not really like any other organisation. You spend your life building it up. You are not likely to walk out and leave it to chance, even if there is an injustice. And the union starts off with a huge amount of capital in respect of the way that it treats people. Because we believe in it: I believe in it.
I have to imagine what I would have done if I had heard of some officer going on like that. I would have been like any other officer. I would have said: ‘There must be something in this! Our leadership are not prejudiced. They’re not just nasty for the sake of it. There must be some substance in it.’ So it took a long time to get that argument across. But when it got across, when people examined it, when the case started to be heard, then I think the tide started to turn.
Were you surprised by the level of abandonment of you among ATGWU officials?
Well, first of all, I wasn’t abandoned by them, because they voted by 70 per cent to go on strike. So if that’s a level of abandonment, then I’ll live with it. I was surprised by some of the people who I thought were close personal friends of mine who, in a period when I was silenced, actually attacked me. I think that was wrong, and I was disappointed by the behaviour of one or two people. But in all the circumstances the majority of the officers here supported me, and the majority of Regional Committees supported me, and the conferences supported me.
They [the full-time officials] were under very intense pressure. They were in a very awkward position. It wasn’t easy. I’ve thought about this and I’ve said to myself: ‘Now what would have happened if this had have happened to Matt Merrigan?’ I was a very close friend of Mattie. I think I would have continued to service the members. And I hope I would have done what a lot of the officers did, come up to the person and say: ‘What do you want me to do?’ and do my best to do it. I don’t think there’s any magic to it. That’s what you do in any dispute. You ask the people who are affected, and you try to do it for them. Most of the officers did that, and it should be said that, after I was sacked, the officers sustained me for months in terms of my wages. They didn’t give me the Regional Secretary’s rate, they only gave me an ordinary officers’ rate, but I’m taking that up with my shop stewards! But seriously, the majority of the officers sustained me right through this. A small minority of people didn’t, but these things happen.
Were you happy with the level of support at activist and shop steward level?
Oh, I was delighted with it. From the shop stewards, from right throughout the union, the amount of letters and phone calls was amazing. I was worn out. I was happy to go back to work for a rest, frankly, with the amount of people that contacted me! It was absolutely marvellous. Not only in my own union, but right throughout the trade union movement. People may not agree with a lot of my ideas, and argue about this, that and the other, but I have come across hardly anybody who agreed with the way this was done. I think it was badly handled. I think that it was seen as a very authoritarian, unjust, politically motivated attack on two individuals. I think most people reckon that it was rotten fish, and most people said that. And that’s the truth of it.
There was a tremendous groundswell of support for you throughout the unions and a big campaign within the ATGWU, the British TGWU and the wider Irish trade union movement. The campaign, in Ireland at least, appeared to have bouts rather than consistent activity. Did you choose, at the beginning and at other intervals, to hold off campaigning to allow the case to be fought through procedures and the law? Would you conduct the battle differently in hindsight?
No, I wouldn’t, because I won. That’s not to say that I got everything right, because I didn’t. It is true that during the periods that you were in an internal process in the union, you couldn’t spend that much time campaigning. I could not speak in public during a lot of this. A lot of people took the view that I should have defied Morris and spoke.
I was actually banned from speaking at the Desmond Greaves School. A lot of people thought I should speak there. I believe that if I had done that, he would have sacked me instantly, there and then. I had letters more or less saying that. I chose to duck and bob and weave. I wasn’t certain that that was the right thing. I was agonising over whether it was the right or wrong thing. I had different impulses at different times. But in the end, a lot of people took the view that I shouldn’t make it easy for them, I should make it difficult. That view prevailed, and that’s what I did. I didn’t defy it, I didn’t speak out. I think that that made it very difficult for him, because he was painting a picture of me as a sort of malcontent who wouldn’t accept the legitimate authority of the union, and all of that. And I think our reasonable behaviour during the thing made life more difficult for him, actually.
Now I have to say there were a lot of people who criticised me for not speaking out, and thought I should speak out. Genuine people who genuinely thought that, if I was dismissed on that issue, I could win in the courts. Anyway, I decided not to do that, and I didn’t speak until I could speak. But when I could speak, I did: I was on the radio over issues. It’s hard to know what would have happened if I had spoken out. We don’t know. You don’t get a chance to revisit history and find out. I did what I did. I wasn’t always certain that I was doing the right thing. In some cases I was agonising over it. To say I was furious about not speaking at the Desmond Greaves School is the understatement of the century. It tested my patience to the limit, because I thought it was a gross interference with my personal liberty as an Irish citizen. I thought it was disgraceful that Morris had done that. But anyway, I tactically decided to deal with it another way. Whether I was right or wrong, that’s what I did.
Your removal appeared to be followed up by a purge of, for want of another term, the left, or those close to you, in the ATGWU. Are you and your supporters now fully re-established?
In the period I was outside the union, it was a very cold house, and it was extremely difficult for them. Some of them lost elections. But in the big public elections, in terms of the executive and all of that, the people that stood with me were elected repeatedly in any popular contest where people made it clear where they stood. And it’s very interesting that nobody in that period [who stood in these type of elections] didn’t support me. Because you couldn’t run in an election and say: ‘I was in favour of what Bill Morris did’. There were people who were in favour of it, but they wouldn’t say it. They could read a situation the same as I can. So there was no support in the body of the union for what happened. Yes, some of my supporters lost positions. The chairman of the Regional Committee, Jack McKay, lost his position. But he didn’t lose his position on the Regional Committee, and he fought for me right through this, and he’s still a good friend. These kind of things happen. The reality of the situation is that I know of nobody who would get elected anywhere in the T & G who would say that what Bill Morris did was right. And if people want to do that, as far as I’m concerned the T & G is a big democracy. If people want to say: ‘I think Bill Morris was right, I think Mick and Eugene should have been sacked’, they can put that in their manifesto and see how many votes they get.
Is ILDA now safely established as a branch of the ATGWU, and are you recognised by Iarnród Éireann?
No, we’re not recognised by Iarnród Éireann, but ILDA is a branch of the ATGWU. In fact ILDA is no more, it’s gone into the annals of history. But we’re still seeking to get proper representation for the train drivers and they still continue to suffer. However, there have been extraordinary developments in respect to the train drivers’ dispute. When ILDA had the first dispute, before they were in the ATGWU, there was, I think, a ten or twelve week dispute. And of course, the drivers took a claim to the appeals panel of the Department of Social Welfare, that they should be paid social welfare. Now this panel consists of an independent chairman, employers’ reps and ICTU reps. You have to be able to prove that an employer behaved unreasonably and locked you out before you get paid. They established that as a matter of fact. The panel met twice, because it was appealed by the company. So the train drivers received, whatever it was, over €300,000, as a result of this. My view is that that’s an extremely serious situation, because that means that those who worked in the dispute collaborated with the employer in a lockout. And I imagine that, retrospectively, they are probably a bit shameful about that. I’m sure, as they were doing it, that vista wasn’t in front of them, but it’s a fact, it happened.
Of course, then there’s the costs of the dispute. Depending on who you talk to, the figures vary: some journalists said the cost was about €30 million because it lasted ten weeks or so. And what that means is quite interesting, because I’ll go back to Thatcherism. Whilst the left in general and trade unionists are in favour of the public sector, it is a fact that sometimes the public sector can be used to enforce things on unions and workers that the private sector could never do. I don’t believe the Ford company in Britain would have ever done to our shop stewards what Thatcher was able to get Edwards to do to our shop stewards in British Leyland when it was nationalised, because they were able to pour in public money. And I think that this question of what happened in the dispute in Irish Rail should be investigated by a Dáil committee, and those responsible in management should be held to account. And I think if you go over the facts it would be very difficult to say why they shouldn’t be dismissed for what they did, because they behaved disgracefully.
The truth of that is out now. But the difficulty, of course, is that it’s four years later that’s it’s coming out. It’s a pity we didn’t have the hearing back then. I think retrospectively it justifies the train drivers, because you don’t easily convince ICTU representatives, employers and an independent chairman that it was the employer who behaved wrongly and who locked them out. I think that’s quite a significant development. People should go back and examine that, and I think indeed the workers who mistakenly worked during that period should examine that with a view to not repeating it in the future. Not with a view to scoring points over them, but with a view to not repeating it in the future, because I don’t believe they wilfully did that. But I do believe that retrospectively it can now be seen objectively that that’s what happened and they were wrong. And the trade union movement, when it does something like that and makes a mistake, should not be afraid to say we got that wrong, at that time, in those circumstances.
And Congress’s position on ILDA at the moment?
Well at the moment I’m in discussions with SIPTU, and Jack O’Connor made a statement in 2001 that we couldn’t resolve the problems of representation for the train drivers in the narrow context of just the Disputes Committee and the ICTU rules, and that what he wanted to do was explore the possibility of a co-operation agreement with the Amalgamated Transport. So I’m in discussions with SIPTU over that, and my view is that I certainly want a co-operation agreement with SIPTU. I think it would be a wholly good thing. I think we should look at possibly a number of joint ventures where we should attempt to organise workers who are not in unions, and put our energies into that.
I think if we learn to trust one another and work together for the good of the movement, then the problems, whatever they are, are easier addressed, and I want a good positive working relationship with SIPTU. Now that’s not going to be at the expense of policies. We are still going to argue over policies. I am profoundly convinced that the SIPTU attitude, and indeed the wider Irish trade union movement’s attitude, to partnership is a disaster. It has led to a decline. You can’t have the contradictory position of saying governments and employers are your partners and you are working with them on national level, and to be launching campaigns to fight back for unionisation on local level in the unorganised area.
What would you say to the accusation that you poached the train drivers from SIPTU, and that the train drivers are an elitist section?
Well, let’s take first things first. I didn’t try to poach anybody. They were having this argument with SIPTU, as far as I understand, from 1994. Indeed this is on record: it is their view that the voting procedures left a lot to be desired in relation to some of the deals that they had. I don’t know the whole ins and out of that, but they went to court and it was established that they were not members of SIPTU. But they tried also to make a complaint to the ICTU. And they received a letter from Tom Wall [of the ICTU] and he said he couldn’t investigate the complaint because they weren’t members of SIPTU. So I don’t know how SIPTU made a complaint to the ICTU that I took their members. I didn’t. They were already three years out. There’d been a Supreme Court and High Court decision. They were outside of the whole trade union movement. The other thing that’s complex about the case is that a number of them were in the NBRU, and therefore not subject to the rules of Congress at all.
So I think there should have been a bit of lateral thinking in the trade union movement. And I think, if we had stood back from it, it would have been better. Because the key is not the number of unions that represent workers. The key is the voting mechanism. I said to the train drivers, on the first day that I met them, that I insisted on one thing: that all decisions made by the train drivers would be made on the basis of 51 per cent of those people who were drivers. If we had a hundred unions, it would make no difference once that principle was enshrined. And I’ve also gone on record, and I said this at the time: the answer to the problem of the train drivers is to take the bureaucrats away from them, lock them in a room, and they’ll find a common cause in themselves because they are all train drivers. The problem is the unions are really fighting over income. That’s the problem, and they should raise their eyes from that.
By the way, I think the leadership [of SIPTU and Congress] want to find a solution to the problem. It’s not going to be easy, but I think it can be found. There are a lot of ingredients that make it different from a normal situation. No, I never poached the train drivers. I didn’t create any of that. It had run for ages.
Are the train drivers elitist? Well, the reality of life is that the trade union movement from its inception has always had to deal with crafts and different skills, and people combine together to get as much as they can for their particular craft or skill. I don’t think the train drivers are any more elitist than engineers or sparks or crane drivers or anybody else. I think they try to get as much as they can from their boss. And I’ve never found them to be elitist in their attitude. They fight their corner, but there’s nothing necessarily elitist about that. Quite frankly, I think when people can’t win the debate on issues they turn to clichés like ‘elitist’. I don’t think they are elitist, and if they are, the trade union movement is full of people who are elitist and look after themselves. I think it’s overstated with the train drivers. I think they are no more elitist than anyone else.
Is it not, generally speaking, better to stay in your union and change it from within? Have you any views on the Independent Workers Union?
I think it’s wrong to make a principle of being outside Congress. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being outside Congress. You can find yourself outside Congress on issues, on rules and procedure and tactics and all the rest of it. Some unions do reasonably well outside Congress. The NBRU are outside Congress. I don’t work with unions on the basis of whether they are in or outside Congress. I think all of us should work with the Independent Workers Union. But I think they are mistaken to make a principle of not being in Congress.
You can be in, but not necessarily of. There’s a case for an opposition in Congress. It seems to me that’s the one mistake the Independent Workers Union have made. It’s still kind of an important organisation, and it still remains to be seen whether it will succeed or not. I think it has partially succeeded. It’s recruiting mainly, as I understand it, in areas of unorganised workers. It’s not setting out to be a poaching organisation. I don’t think that’s the motivation of it.
But I think it would be better if it could find a way to be in Congress. Time will tell. But I wouldn’t make a principle or a fetish of not being in Congress. Sometimes you have to be outside an organisation to change it, and then go back into it. The movement is littered with unions that were outside Congress for a period of time. After all, Larkin himself was outside Congress from the 1920s right through. In fact, he only ever went to Congress as a delegate from the Dublin Council of Trade Unions: the Workers Union of Ireland was outside. The Irish Transport split from Congress in 1945. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. So I’m not going to criticise the Independent Workers Union. As far as I’m concerned, they’re there. But I think tactically they’ve have made an error in erecting that into a principle. I don’t think it’s a principle myself.
What is the future for the ATGWU now? Is it, in straightforward trade union terms, doing well as regards membership and strength? Will it take a leading role in posing an alternative to social partnership and for a fighting and democratic trade unionism? What are your plans now? Do you see yourself in a stronger position to develop the role you had, or were seen to have had, before June 2001? Can the ATGWU reach out to oppositions in other trade unions to work for change?
Well, first of all the union lost a large number of members as a result of what happened to myself and Eugene, and that has to be faced. We have a lot of restructuring to do in the organisation. But the truth is that I think the wider trade union movement need the Amalgamated Transport, and the debate that we have represented, because we don’t just speak for our own members. I think we speak for a lot of people who have reservations about the relationship we have with government and with the employers, about the impact of these agreements and the way they erode the independence of the trade union movement. As far as the ATG and its position is concerned, it hasn’t changed. As far as I’m concerned, we will be arguing for a different strategy.
One of the things we are looking at is that we have restructured the organisation. We have taken away a lot of the administrative tasks. There has been some voluntary redundancy in the union as a result of all this. What we’re saving is going into organising, because you can’t organise unless you put resources into it. It is our intention to employ 110 organisers [throughout the whole TGWU] on short-term contracts for a period of three years. We intend, for the first time in the history of the union, to go outside of our own membership for some of the organisers. Obviously, our own members will be core to it as well, but we will go outside too. We are going to launch a big education programme on organisation. We are talking to the American unions about this, and they are helping us to do this. I think this is extremely important. I would venture to say it’s probably the biggest thing we have done in the Transport Union since our foundation. We’re putting very, very big resources into it, between £7 million and £10 million. I hope to have ten or more organisers in Ireland.
I hope that the debate at the ICTU conference this year centres around the question of organisation. I hope to play a part in that debate with others. And that’s part of the co-operation agreement I want with SIPTU. Because I want to turn the movement outwards, and I think if we start organising it will have a huge impact on social partnership. Even if people don’t think it will, it will, because of the way we have to bring people in. You don’t build organisation unless you’re prepared to fight back. People won’t join you unless you stand up for them, or show them how to stand up for themselves. If you do that they’ll join you, if you don’t they won’t. It’s not complicated, it’s dead simple, but we’ve forgotten it. We’ve made the world too complex for ourselves. We worry too much about government, and we’re declining. If we start worrying about the members we’ll grow. The members are not foolish, they can smell this a mile off. They know whether you are serious or whether you are not serious. They know when you’re in bed with the boss, and they know when you are trying to do your best.
I’m not talking about miracles, and I’m not talking about getting the members everything they want. I’m simply talking about doing the best you bloody can in the circumstances you find yourself. Doing the fifteen rounds for them, and getting them trained in how to do the fifteen rounds for themselves. Because that’s the big task, to get the members into servicing themselves and stop relying on the officials, to turn the officials into organisers, to bring new blood into the trade union movement. We have to trust the members to do that, and if we trust the members they will trust us and give us the resources that we need to do that. And if we don’t do that—and this is critical—if we don’t do that and do that quick, we won’t be here in five years. It’s as stark as that. It’s organise or die. And as far as I’m concerned, I’ve no intention of dying, and I want to organise.
Do you think that some of the unions are backing down from an inevitable showdown on privatisation and outsourcing?
Well, as far as privatisation is concerned, I think that the ethos of the Fianna Fáil government can be exploited much more by the trade union movement. It has to be understood that the public sector in this country was created by Fianna Fáil. It was created by what I would call developmental nationalism. And of course, that’s in decline as an ideology because of globalisation and all the rest of it.
But the trade union movement would need to make up its mind about how serious it is about fighting on this. I have to say that some of the performance of the trade union movement, in respect to some of the employee share option dealsthat have been done, leaves a lot to be desired. It’s quite clear now that the overall economy is suffering because of the lack of investment in broadband [following the privatisation of Eircom]. It’s quite clear now that we shouldn’t have gone up that road of privatisation, though there was very little resistance put up from the trade union movement. And I think, quite frankly, we have got away very lightly, given our performance in that whole area. I think we should learn lessons from that, and I don’t think there should be any attempt to repeat it.
I have to say that, in the ESB, we’re absolutely opposed to the selling of any power stations for more shares, which some of the unions seem to think is a good idea. We are not just opposed to it in the leadership. We have taken the trouble to go around all our membership, and they’re behind us in this, and I believe the rest of the trade unions in the ESB will follow us. I do not believe there is any support for the privatisation of the ESB, and I intend to take an interest in that area, and to do all I can to encourage our members not to be afraid of that. And not to think that privatisation is inevitable: it isn’t inevitable, it’s a political decision. And if we don’t want to accept privatisation, we won’t: whatever the difficulties are can be overcome.
The people who built these industries were great people. They had a vision of this country, they were patriotic. They may not have been socialists, but they were progressive people. And if we were waiting for the private sector to do it, we’d still be waiting. We would never have had rural electrification, we would never have developed Bord na Móna, we would never have created the jobs, we would never have created industrialisation. We’d never have had an independent state worthy of the name. And the real question for us is: are we prepared to stand up for those publicly owned industries?
I think we can find lots of allies in different places. Not just among our membership, but even among sections of the management of these companies who still maintain some of the ethos of the public sector. I think we should be creative. The one thing we have to do is see that these companies are managed well. We have to see that we co-operate in sensible ways about growing these businesses, but not do anything to dismantle them just to make a few people who are rich already even more rich. I don’t think that’s in the national interest.
I think we should use this concept of ‘the national interest’. It seems to me it’s always exploited by employers or right wing politicians. As John Wesley said, why should the devil have all the best tunes? Why shouldn’t we strike a popular touch with people out there? Because I think people out there are very sceptical about privatisation, about big multinationals getting their hands on the ESB, or our trains or buses or whatever.
The Irish people are lucky, in particular in relation to public transport, because most of them are able to see the BBC, and if you want to find out why you should have nothing to do with privatisation, just look at the safety record of the newly privatised companies over there, and all the other things. They are pumping public money into what are now virtually private monopolies. Now we do not need that model, we don’t need to go up that road, and we should start fighting that and stop dodging it. We should put it plainly to government that all partnership and all relationship with them is over if they go up that road. And I don’t believe they have a popular mandate for it. The only people who have are actually the PDs. It’s a tragedy the way the Fianna Fáil party are now being led by Michael McDowell. I think we should be appealing to the Fianna Fáil grassroots on this, and I think we’ll find an echo if we do that.
Left unity is still, or again, in the air. Do you see yourself as having a prominent function here? Do you see the Labour Party being engaged with the left?
I’ll play whatever role I can in relation to bringing people together. I believe in left unity. I just think it’s what we have to do. No matter what divisions there are between us, I think it’s the only way we can grow the left. And of course, left unity doesn’t mean no competition. We can have unity and competition. We can even have unity and argument. We can find a few core things that we want to support. It seems to me that argument on the left is a good thing. I don’t think we should want a sort of a Soviet parliament model, where we don’t argue about anything and it will all collapse on us. I think we can have sensible arguments, and we can also put our arguments in our back pockets and still work together. I think actually that that’s what happens in practice a lot of the time.
It will be difficult to win these arguments about unity. I think the trade union movement have a big role to play if they have the courage to create a left-of-centre co-operation first. It couldn’t be immediately implemented, but they could negotiate a kind of a plan. That would have a big impact on the public out there. It could deal with the questions of privatisation, the environment, industrial relations reform, etc.
The whole of the movement needs to move away from a situation where we are seen to be propping up quite frankly, not in the words of anybody in the trade union movement, but what Fianna Fáil backbenchers regard as, the most right wing government since the war. I don’t know why we are in partnership with it. I don’t want to be in partnership with it. We have a responsibility to build a political alternative. I think that a political alternative is already there in embryo. If you look at the Labour representation in the Dáil, the independent socialists, Sinn Féin and the Greens, they’re bigger than Fine Gael. They should form a bloc. And I think they should negotiate with the trade union movement on a minimum of the kind of things they could deliver for the trade union movement. They should fight an election on that basis, and be demanding that their programme is taken on board by either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, whoever happens to be there, because I don’t believe they’ll be able to do that in one election.
I have to say I’m very disappointed with Pat Rabbitte, who seems to have as his hero now Michael O’Leary [former Labour leader who later joined Fine Gael], and seems to be intent on reviving the Fine Gael party rather than growing the Labour Party. I want to talk to SIPTU about this as well, because I believe that the trade union movement should fight for a Labour Party that’s independent. For the trade union movement to be able to do that, it has to become itself independent and move away from its own propping-up exercise, or coalition exercise, or partnership exercise that it has with the government.
I think what the trade union movement should do is actually go for a partnership with its members. If it goes for a partnership with its members, it will revitalise itself, and it will grow. But if it chooses the government over its members, it’s not going to work.
There’s a lot that we can do, and it’s really up to us to do it. If we don’t do it, nobody else is going to do it for us. Nobody else only the left can resolve its own problems. I’m still a member of the Labour Party, actually, and I’m looking forward to the conference, and I’m going to argue about some of these things. Sinn Féin is a growing force, and I think we should be working with Sinn Féin, with the Labour Party, with the independent socialists. We should find ways and means of working together. We do it in the trade union movement: there’s no reason why we can’t do it in all these broad forces in politics. And if I can play a role in that, I will play a role. I want to do that.