Factory worker takes on SIPTU top brass

A radical shopfloor worker has put himself forward in the election for general secretary of Ireland's biggest union, SIPTU. Des Derwin, an assembly operative at the Mouldpro plastics factory in Dublin, is a long-time union activist and independent socialist. His two opponents, Noel Dowling and Joe O'Flynn, are senior full-time employees of the union who stand for continuing union 'partnership' with the bosses and the government.

The rule book gives the ordinary members so little control that anyone elected is free to do pretty much as they please regardless of promises made before the election. Derwin wants to break the dependency on the full-time officials. He is calling for shop stewards to be given more resources and time off to represent their members, for SIPTU officers to be paid workers' wages rather than executive salaries, and for the restoration of the right of ordinary members to elect the National Executive Council.

He hopes that his election campaign will start a debate about what sort of union we want. Do we want a pro-employer service supplied by highly paid professionals or do we want an organisation controlled by shopfloor workers and willing to fight for the best possible wages and conditions? Are we to be little more than consumers of a service or should we be in the driving seat?

Derwin puts his cards on the table in his election address, "a union should tell the employer - not the workers - what they have to accept".

Workers Solidarity spoke to Des Derwin:

Why did you decide to stand?

To provide an alternative voice. A voice for change in SIPTU. Both of the other candidates have the same policies as each other. Both have the same policies as the Union leadership. A vote for either is a vote for more of the same. They support social partnership. Neither of them objected to the abolition of the members' vote for the NEC.

What sort of trade union would you like to see SIPTU become?

A fighting and democratic trade union, exactly like it says on the tin. The main point of standing is to broadcast to the members the idea that there is a different type of trade unionism. That unions are there to defend jobs, pay, conditions and living standards against the ruthlessness of the rich and the market. Not to be partners of the rich and powerful. That unions are the members, not a well-heeled apparatus passing on a consensus from tripartite committees . That it should not be natural, but shocking, to have the Taoiseach, fresh from closing hospitals, to reopen Liberty Hall.

How do you think this can be achieved?

Not by electing a different General Secretary. But that vote can be a focus for what will achieve it. For members, who want change, to organise to bring it about. To organise, even before that, to be able to act, or to assist those acting, even when the support of our leaders is missing. It won't be overnight. Not with disorganisation and disinterest on the shop floor and non-attendance at Branch meetings. Not with social partnership as the accepted norm.

Beginning with networks and bulletins and on to stronger link ups, a movement can take off. And take up, on the job, in the Branch and from the podium of Conference, an agenda for change: free collective bargaining, solidarity and sympathetic action, campaigning on the social wage, open debate on major issues, changes in the Rules and the structures of the Union, election and accountability of officials.

The root will be, as it always was, strong Sections and Section Committees in the workplace. That agenda is not fully agreed, or even fully envisaged, even among all those supporting my candidacy. It doesn't have to be. There is enough common ground to take first steps - another has led off before me - and hammer out the agenda along the way. Nothing can be forced on people - especially by a lone General Secretary - because it will take a great many members acting in agreement to effect even the first real changes.

Your vote for me will add weight to an alternative voice for a fighting and democratic SIPTU. I'm not after a big union job. I'm standing for renewal and change in our union. For a turn to independence, fighting-form and control from below by the general membership. Your vote is only a start. It will take many members, organised and organising for it, to bring change.

Balloting starts on September 19th and continues through to October 9th. To get leaflets to hand out in your workplace, call 087-6229686 or email dderwin@gofree.indigo.ie

Alan MacSimóin (SIPTU shop steward)

See also

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This edition is No72 published in September 2002