SIPTU's National Conference

Paradox at Ennis

There was a great anomaly at the centre of the SIPTU National Conference at Ennis in October The Conference took a militant stand on some key issues, notably a national minimum wage and trade union recognition. There was mutiny on the status of women in the Union. The Rule change increasing the nomination requirements for General Officer elections was defeated.

On the other hand the conference firmly backed the establishment on a series of internal issues and authoritarian measures, and welcomed workplace partnership with the minimum of hesitation. In the process the left (such as the supporters of Carolann Duggan and of this newsletter) were systematically and even humanely isolated.

Media reporting of the "sensational" bursting of the sexual harassment issue on the second last day has, of course, overshadowed all other proceedings of the Conference. Coverage of, and internal reaction to, Elaine Harvey's speech has overshadowed even other contributions on sexual harassment, and on gender issues in general, which were almost as dramatic. More of this later.

Backed by Motions from six Branches seeking a National Minimum Wage, Conference adopted a target of £5.00 per hour for that minimum. Furthermore, as a Newsline conference special reported (7th October) 'if the Commission (on a national minimum wage) does not deliver, Somers warned, and workers in some sectors are still condemned to menial wage levels, "I will be recommending to the National Executive Council that we set our own standard and that we support any group of organised low paid workers with whatever action is necessary in order to reach that target"'.

Seven Motions sought the right to trade union recognition. Again the Conference was told by Union President, Jimmy Somers, that "as a member of that Group I would like to assure the delegates that unless the report of the High Level Group provides for substantial and significant progress on the issue of trade union recognition then I will not be signing up to it" (Newsline special, 7th October).

Straight away on Tuesday (after the bishops) the Education branch made their well-flagged challenge to Standing Orders. Eleven Motions or amendments had been 'ruled out of order' by the Standing Orders Committee and the Branch had already circularised every other Branch with a letter opposing some of these exclusions (see our last issue). The challenge was so heavily defeated that the Chair, Jimmy Somers, was not being facetious when he said he could see no votes against Standing Orders!

Anyway this annihilation set the tone (if not quite the precedent) for the Conference in relation to the left. The fact that the Standing Orders Committee determinedly stood their ground - by a letter of its own to all Branches and a point by point 'rebuttal' of the objections to the 'ruling-out' (for which they had even got legal opinion that Conference cannot overrule rights given, to the NEC for example, in the Rules) - was also a harbinger.

There was this year an absence of any vibe of irreverent dissent from the floor, any indication that a section of the hall was alienated from the platform, such as has been visible (or audible) in recent years. Opponents of partnership and critics of the leadership got a hearing, but they also got short shrift - from the clapometer and votes. (Thursday afternoon was one of the exceptions).

Only one of the seven Motions in the private session on the first day got through. (This contrasted with the rest of the Agenda where, except in a couple of notable cases, Motions got plain sailing.) The Motions calling for a review of top salaries were easily defeated: this simply wasn't an issue with the delegates.

There were two surprises: one bad and one good. The Motion calling for a Special Conference (rather than the NEC alone) to make recommendations on future national agreements, though it came from a Regional Executive Committee and was half-heartedly accepted by the NEC, was defeated. The NEC put up a Regional Secretary (Brendan Hayes, a non-member of the NEC and an observer at the Conference) to speak on the Motion. He gave a complex speech so negative that it came across as a speech against the Motion.

The Chair at least said clearly that the NEC was not opposed to the Motion, but his distaste was apparent and he pointed out that the NEC would call a Special Conference only if they saw fit (as the Motion allowed). The Motion was defeated - narrowly by the standards of this Conference (tellers were never needed throughout).

It is rare indeed for a Motion approved by the NEC to go down. Did the Motion fall or was it pushed by damning it while formally accepting it, and organising on the ground to ensure an ample vote against it?

The good surprise was the defeat of the proposal to change Rule 102 to require five Branches, or Branches totaling 5,000 members, to nominate candidates for General Officer posts (instead of the current one Branch). This would have been tipped to go through also. But no, an unexpected development. Or, rather, a few in a row.

The first jolt in relation to the Rules Revision Report was a proposal from Standing Orders that the various changes be taken individually (sort of,) instead of en bloc as a complete Report, as is usually the procedure. This in itself was a major advance which could be interpreted as the establishment taking on board a major criticism of the SIPTU rules revision process (the 'take it or leave it' vote on the entire Report).

Or it could be interpreted as dissatisfaction by a section of the leadership with parts of the Report: specifically the change to Rule 102. Either way this departure was a leap forward and makes it difficult (though not impossible) to simply revert to the en bloc procedure in future.

To return to the defeat of the proposal to change Rule 102: The Rules Revision Committee advocated the proposal as steadfastly as anything in the Report, and according to our sources, was the proposal's genesis ... (well, what comes before Genesis?). However, quite unexpectedly, Paul O'Sullivan, Aviation Branch Secretary, took the rostrum and gave an excellent speech opposing the change.

He produced the previous day's Irish Times and quoted from Padraig Yeates's (draw your own conclusions) report on the upcoming Rule changes. This report was itself a little eyebrow-raising in its characterisation of the change as a simple device to counteract Carolann Duggan. People will see us as just like the political parties trying to exclude Dana, said Paul O'Sullivan. Other speakers against the Motion followed. There was a roll. The change was narrowly (again relative to this Conference) but comfortably defeated.

However it was back to par for the final vote on the Rules Revision Report itself, which was taken after various changed had been voted on in two blocs. The Electronics and Engineering Branch opposed the adoption of the Report because it omitted the Branch's proposal to change 'the rule to change the rule' (i.e. to abolish 'Catch 22' whereby all changes must come through the Rules Revision Committee, even a motion to change this restriction!). The Branch's attempt was dead in the water, stimulating no response except John Kane's 'refutation', and the Report was overwhelmingly accepted.

When Elaine Harvey made her graphic and courageous speech she was actually delivering the killer blow after two speeches overshadowed by her impact but deadly in their own way. On the same issue - sexual harassment - the original proposer of the Motion was as dramatic in the content, but not the delivery, of her speech.

She referred pointedly to a problem at the top of the Union in saying that election to the NEC did not confer other privileges. Before the sexual harassment Motion came up, a Motion on 'gender equity in the Union' produced quite a dramatic intervention, because of the authority behind it as much as what was said.

The Motion was proposed by Kay Garvey, who is President of the No. 1 Region and an NEC member, and her criticisms were hard-hitting: it was time to stop talking about gender balance and to start asking why the twenty-one top full-time positions in the Union were entirely male!

Perhaps the most dramatic thing to happen at the Conference has been completely buried. Motion 51, from the Insurance and Finance Branch, called for an investigation into the role of the ICTU and the Employer Labour Conference in the recent Irish Life dispute. Before it came up a special report from the Standing Orders Committee withdrew the Motion from the Agenda.

The Union had just received a legal letter from MSF threatening legal action if the Conference proceeded with the Motion, as the matter was a private one between MSF and the Employer-Labour Conference. All this happened without protest or remark or mention in the media. (The Branch reluctantly accept the withdrawal.) Think about what had happened: one union had threatened the national conference of another union (Ireland's biggest) with legal action if they deal with a Motion on their Agenda - and the second union said 'O.K. guv!'

A dominant mood at the Conference was one of smugness, self- satisfaction and consensus. The Celtic Tiger sat with the newly elected Officers. But, while the left was marginalised the Conference at the same time shifted to the left because the leadership continued its 'leftward' shift of 1997.

The Conference's delegates did not shift to the left: the pressure from the workplaces (where it is coming from) was not, generally speaking, expressed through them. The leadership led the Conference to the left (and elsewhere when it chose) in line with the general 'militant' drift it has been proclaiming since the '43%', the '42%' and the various other pressures from below this year.

A classic example of this process in action - dismiss the left and move to the left - was the exclusion of an amendment from the Education Branch, on political corruption, from the Agenda, leaving no Motion dealing with this topic, and the tabling of an Emergency Motion from the executive on political corruption - complete with a call for the jailing of corrupt politicians which was the meat of the excluded Education Branch amendment.

Other deliberations of Conference worth noting: Motion 52 for a campaign to amend the 1990 Industrial Relations Act (maybe more will come of it than the many similar ones from 1995), and Motion 91 welcoming the end of the water charges; militant stands on local authority craft workers' pay and public sector pensions; the section on construction safety and the Broadcasting Branch President's humdinger of a speech about RTE (pity they don't produce verbatim conference reports anymore); the 'hassleless' passing of the dues rises.

By popular acclaim the Ennis Conference was an organisational and social triumph (thanks to the administrative and hotel staff). Can we have the 'Starry Plough' back on the stage please?

Finally, in the long-term maybe historians will judge the most significant decision of the Ennis Conference to be the change of wording in the Objects of the Union, from "full economic freedom for its members ... and political democracy in Ireland" to "the workers of Ireland to attain their full share of benefits of national wealth"

This change, slipped into place without a glove laid upon it and remarked upon only by the left, is so explicit an adoption of political reformism that its drafter must have known what he or she was doing. The Larkin pageant, staged during the Conference, was after all just a pageant.

Des Derwin

Correspondence to SIPTU Fightback, 22 Melrose Avenue, Dublin 3

To the SIPTU Fightback page