Late on the afternoon of Tuesday 26th June, the Irish Regional secretary (Michael O'Reilly) and Regional organiser (Eugene McGlone) of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers' Union were suspended from office by Bill Morris, general secretary of the T&GWU in London.
Michael was handed a letter telling him
..he was suspended while an 'administrative audit' was being carried out - no charge of wrongdoing was levelled against him.
..he was to leave the office immediately and not to enter any T&GWU building.
..he was not to discuss the case with any T&GWU member, officer or any third party.
By using the word 'audit', T&GWU leaders in London probably hoped to give the impression that there was some kind of financial trickery going on. In these days of Tribunals what else are folk supposed to think when they hear that word? Of course there has never been any evidence that Michael had ever helped himself to as much as the price of pint.
He was suspended because he has been a thorn in the side of the Irish government and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) bosses, being the only member of the ICTU executive to consistently oppose the 'social partnership' deals.
He further annoyed the ICTU leaders when his union took into membership the 100 train drivers who resigned from SIPTU and the NBRU three years ago. Their old unions had collaborated with government and management to crush the Irish Locomotive Drivers Association. The T&GWU accepted them into membership. Their old unions then demanded they be "handed back", as if they were property.
It is widely believed that the leadership of SIPTU and Bertie Ahern contacted Tony Blair about this, and Blair got on to Bill Morris asking that O'Reilly be brought to heel.
Michael enjoys the support of the Irish Regional Executive of the union. Membership meetings throughout the country have demanded that the suspensions be lifted. Not one single meeting has backed Bill Morris.
The attack on him and Eugene is part of the offensive to silence dissident voices within the Irish unions - the ICTU leadership and government are doing everything they can to shore up the increasingly fragile 'social partnership' agreements.
Irish Regional Committee member, Peter Black, spoke for a lot of members when he said "Our opposition to the social contract remains total and implacable. We will not be intimidated or silenced by these, or any other, measures. The TGWU has always prided itself on being a campaigning union. We have the right and duty to represent our membership, and this is just what we intend to do."
Only an active membership can resist the attempts to completely tame our unions. Activists in each union should get together to campaign for decision making to be returned to where it belongs: the workplace and the union branch. The bureaucracy relies on our sense of powerlessness; increasing the memberships' involvement is the way to upset their plans to 'manage' our discontent, and assert that our unions belong to us.
The unions are dominated by a bureaucracy, a collection of (usually unelected) full-time officials with too much power and undue influence. They are not responsible to the membership, except in the most formal way. While they occasionally take the side of their members the point is that they do not have to.
While it may be possible to hold them to account (through motions of censure, etc.), they are quite clearly not accountable, they cannot be recalled or removed. Neither can they be forced to act on the instructions of the membership, taking their orders instead from the union executive. They often earn much more than those they represent, sit alongside bosses and the government on commissions, the boards of semi-state companies and other government-appointed committees. In short they enjoy a lifestyle quite different than that of the people they are supposed to be working for. Most of the newer officials have never even worked in an ordinary job.
These people are not nasty individuals. They behave as they do because they have too much power and are unacountable, in any real way, to their members. Power corrupts, no matter who you are. This behaviour is inevitable, no matter how radical or left-wing they are at the beginning, their role sucks them into the business of conciliation. Furthermore they have to be able to control their members - which usually means stopping them fighting the boss - if they are to have anything to bargain with at the negotiation table. This may sound odd but the point is that the union official has to sell the employer labour discipline and freedom from unofficial strikes as part of his/her side of the bargain.
It is self-evident that the more power, initiative and control that lies with the bureaucracy - the less it will lie with the rank & file membership on the shopfloor.
The response of the some on the left is that we have to elect and/or appoint 'better' officials. And it's true that a small number of left officials have been elected, although they are only tolerated by the bureaucracy within narrow limits. They see the problem primarily in terms of the individuals who hold the posts. This stems from their conception of 'socialism' as some sort of giant state enterprise bureaucracy where things are done 'for the workers'. Workers' self-activity occupys no leading role in their scheme of things, just as real workers' control is not part of their plan for a 'socialist' society. Their ideas are rooted in an authoritarian view of the world.
We fight to change the role of the full-time officials - not to change the individuals who occupy the positions. Their decision-making powers have to be removed and returned to the rank & file membership. They should be elected and paid no more than the average wage of the people they represent. They should only serve for a fixed period of no more than five years after which they they return to ordinary work. The unions will have to win the demand for jobs to be kept open in order for this to be realistic.
Workers Solidarity Movement