Nolans Transport:

a major victory ...but no hard feelings


SIPTU's "major victory" in the Supreme Court on 15th May still remains a major defeat in New Ross and in national industrial terms. All SIPTU members shared the glee upon the faces of the SIPTU team leaving the Court after the judgement. The mildest misgivings, however, must at least engender this question: Why is there an Act on the statute books, the 1990 Industrial Relations Act, which allowed an official dispute to be closed down in December 1994, after 22 months, and to be declared a bone fide dispute after all in May 1998, three years and five months later?

Is SIPTU the only appellant in Western jurisprudence to have to wait three years and five months for an erroneous injunction to be discharged? (Recent trade union appeals to the Supreme Court took mere weeks.)

The strike was legit. SIPTU won't have to shell out £1.3m (more on that below) and the injunction was wrong. What else was entailed in the judgement? It was wrong to injunct the dispute for being a strike for a closed shop, because the evidence did not support it. But the reports (and perhaps the judgements themselves) do not make clear whether unions can pursue purely recognition claims for a section of workers with industrial action, or whether makey-up claims must be substituted.

The judges, again according to reports ('Irish Times' and 'SIPTU Report') do not say if the supporting findings were true. For instance that SIPTU had defamed Nolans by issuing normal strike propaganda. Does the original injunction still inhibit SIPTU on this score?

One factor the Supreme Court did uphold is that the ballot was unsatisfactory and Justice O'Flaherty suggested that, ideally (ideally?) an independent person should supervise ballots. (They do that on company boards, you know!) Ballot papers must specify the issue. However "the court found that even if a union conducts an irregular strike ballot it can still claim immunity, under the 1990 Industrial Relations Act, from claims for damages by employers." (Irish Times, 16.5.98).

This was probably the most important thing about the judgement and means that, on the ballot question, unions cannot be sued for £1.3m or whatever. However the only proviso is that the union is pursuing a legitimate goal and has embarked on the dispute in good faith" (Irish Times). We're not back to 1906-1900 yet.

Not by a long shot. The Irish Times continues: "The judgement does not affect the right of employers to seek injunctions against unions which fail to conduct proper ballots." This stands in spite of the assurance of the Minister proposing the original Bill (Bertie Ahern no less) that the Act would allow only workers to question ballots.

But this saga had another GUBU event left. On 23 June the parties gathered in the Supreme court to deal with the matter of costs. The original judgement had been overturned, "a significant victory" (Report No. 7) had been won. So SIPTU would be arguing that Nolans had brought it on themselves and should pay all the costs, and furthermore, compensate the drivers for three and half years stress.

Wrong. Ercus Stewart for SIPTU declared to the Court that SIPTU was not seeking the costs of the High Court nor the Supreme Court actions! After winning the case SIPTU will now generously hand over the members' contributions, badly-needed for service in the Branches as we all know, to the already-bloated purses of the lawyers. (We can't afford shop stewards commission, you know.) Who makes these decisions?!

Ercus Stewart explained that "his clients had had regard to the judgement of the Supreme Court and attempted to approach the situation in such a way as to reduce the element of confrontation in what had been a bitter trade dispute. It was hoped that approach would be met in the spirit in which it was offered". (Irish Times, 24.6.98, our emphasis).

Who makes these decisions? Is there backbone at all in the leadership of SIPTU or do they pass around a single vertebra between them?

Naturally enough, the judge found that each side should pay their own costs. He said the parties had wisely decided to leave this unhappy episode behind them and that harmony was now established. The same Justice O'Flaherty said on 15th May that the papers of the case made him think he was back at the turn of the century; the days of the class struggle should be regarded as long gone.

Meanwhile, back in reality, is harmony established? Is SIPTU recognised at Nolans Transport? Is the strike back on, now that it's declared bone fide? Where are the Nolans members? Are they still SIPTU members? In the country?

Three years and five months later it seems the aims of the company, the law and the whole set-up are practically achieved, despite an unjust injunction. There's no union in Nolans and the company goes about its business as usual, unhindered in any port-of-call its trucks may turn into. Must the members in SIPTU recognition battles, from Pat the Baker to Ryanair, go quietly into oblivion?


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