Building Workers defy the Industrial Relations Act
...a lesson for SIPTU members?


The bricklayers' dispute with Cramptons Builders (reported in the last issue of Fightback) was resolved with a clear victory for the workers. After weeks of BATU pickets on sites at Dublin City University, Smurfit Business Park in Clonskeagh and Thomas Street, during which the sites were virtually shut down, Cramptons were forced to enter talks.

Cramptons agreed to drop the legal proceedings against BATU, by which they had been suing the union for £500,000 in alleged damages arising from the bizarre judgement that BATU had not conducted their strike ballot properly.

Cramptons further agreed to pay the legal costs of the union, they reinstated the sacked workers and guaranteed that there would be no recriminations against the individuals who were most prominent in organising the pickets, the Building Workers Against the Black Economy. The central issue of the dispute, that of direct employment, was clearly resolved and Cramptons undertook that there would be no indirect employment on their sites in future.

The Building Workers Against the Black Economy played a key role in the BATU victory. Where union officials felt they could not be seen on unofficial pickets, the BWABE activists organised rotas of bricklayers, giving incredible commitment of their own time and resources to making the strike a success. The rank and file paper of the building workers, the Ventilator, was revived as the official union paper and to keep picketers and others informed of progress in the dispute.

The BWABE activists were fully prepared to go to gaol, if necessary, to highlight the injustice against their sacked fellow workers. The company tried to intimidate the picketers by posting names of known activists at the entrance to sites. They obviously recognised the danger of a huge public outcry if they had picketers arrested and did not pursue this route, although the pickets were faced with a significant police presence at each of the sites.

The key point of the bricklayers' strike is that the activists defied the Industrial Relations Act and they won. Rather than support fellow workers, SIPTU officials attempted to turn their own members on the sites against the bricklayers, although they did not succeed. The ICTU's role was confined to criticism of BATU for getting involved in unofficial pickets. In the Legalrep section of the March 98 Report, the BATU victory is completely ignored and the emphasis of the article is on SIPTU's need to conform to the legal judgement in the case in the conduct of future ballots, further inhibiting our already restricted use of the strike weapon.

There is no reference to the BATU victory in the latest issue of Newsline. Admittedly, Newsline is the SIPTU organ and devoted to issues effecting our members, but surely such a crucial event as successful defiance of the Industrial Relations Act is worth a mention? Paul O'Sullivan has an emotive article on the Ryanair dispute, rightly applauding the spontaneous action that closed Dublin Airport and enlisted the support of so many workers, but his satisfaction with the result of the stoppage is because Ryanair agreed to co-operate with the inquiry team.

In the meantime, three of the strikers have been sacked and Des Geraghty is reported to be full of "seething anger". So seething apparently that he "immediately referred the issue to the inquiry team". What a contrast to the bricklayers, who defied injunctions to picket in support of their sacked workmates.

New General Secretary, John McDonnell, called for repeal of the Industrial Relations Act in his election manifesto. He doesn't seem to have mentioned the issue in his victory speech, in which he promised an imaginative and crusading union but crusaders never went into battle with both hands tied behind their backs.

SIPTU and the ICTU are determined to conduct non-adversarial industrial relations but experience has shown that too many employers do not see this as a basis for mutual respect, but as an excuse for walking all over their employees. The SIPTU leadership has been making militant noises for the past year about the failure of P2000 to deliver but their actions speak louder.

Maurice Sheehan, of the International Centre for Trade Union Rights, pointed out recently that the balloting provisions of the Industrial Relations Act are contrary to the International Labour Organisation's convention on Autonomy, which states that public authorities shall refrain from any interference which would restrict the right of workers and employers' organisations to draw up their constitutions and rules.

It seems that the Irish trade union movement, as represented by the ICTU, prefers the British Tory method of dealing with strike ballots (Section 14 of the Industrial Relations Act is taken almost word for word from Norman Tebbit's anti-union law) to the ILO's provisions for trade union independence. There have been many instances in trade union history when the only means of securing justice for workers was defiance of unfair laws and the BATU members have shown us that a determined campaign can still defeat employers who are abusing their power.

Mary Muldowney


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