On April 26, 2001 two leading Irish trade unionists of the ATGWU, Brothers Michael O'Reilly and Eugene McGlone, were suspended after Bill Morris, the General Secretary of the British TGWU, intervened personally. This is an attack on union democracy, and thus on the interests of workers. The two were due to present a resolution at a meeting of the ITCU opposing the social contract, and it was likely to be passed. Socialist Appeal has been following their campaign for justice and reinstatement. We interviewed Michael O'Reilly to find out how the campaign is going.
Socialist Appeal: What has been the response to your campaign so far?
Michael O'Reilly: In the first days of the situation when Eugene McGlone and myself were put on precautionary suspension last June, it was very difficult to campaign because we were forbidden to speak to members of the union, forbidden to go to the union offices, to talk to officials and other members of staff, or any member of the union. We were also forbidden to speak to any third party that had any connection to the union. If you think about it, that covers pretty much everybody, so we were under a kind of house arrest, and therefore it was very difficult for us and our supporters to carry out a campaign. But notwithstanding that, the interest in the media in Ireland has been such that the case has been kept alive, and been kept before the membership. I was notified of my dismissal on May 4, 2001, the dismissal formally took place one week before that on April 26, but I was not given formal notification till May 4. The media were informed before I was, so I was able to learn of my dismissal on the radio. There is a lot of annoyance amongst the members about the way this was done, and that technically the union has been closed down for debate on this subject.
The campaign itself is only really starting amongst the members. The only capacity the members have had to make a judgement on this was in the elections in Ireland for the General Executive Council. Two of the candidates, Jimmy Kelly and Norman Kennet, are absolutely known to be supporters of mine, they were very explicit in the material they put out and they topped the poll; Dawn Stuart, who was elected from the public services sector, made a very big issue of this and she also won the election. It is quite clear that where the members get the opportunity to make a judgement they come out in our favour. We want all of the material published, and our view is that we should be judged by the membership, the executives, and the constitutional committees of the union.
SA: What was the reason for your sacking? Was there a political agenda on the behalf of the leadership?
M O'R: Well there are many views about this but there is not adequate proof at this stage. It is quite clear that our union traditionally campaigned in the republic for free collective bargaining against partnership, and the national pay deals we have had over the years. Obviously a lot of people in the ITCU and indeed the Irish government are not happy with that campaign, because it began to receive an echo right across the trade union movement. We succeeded in forcing a re-negotiation of the national agreement, something that has very rarely happened over the last 15 years; we were able to resolve in our favour disputes over inflation, extending the agreement to cover new groups of workers, and substantial increases above what was negotiated. That is very difficult to do when you are just one union campaigning in congress, but we succeeded in doing that.
There is some evidence, and a lot of speculation, that the Irish government was in contact with Downing Street regarding the decision that the ATGWU Irish Regional Committee took to take in the train drivers union, ILDA (Irish Locomotive Drivers Association), and the consequent dispute that took place over that. There is a lot of speculation in the media that the Irish Government, the British TUC, and the ITCU were involved in this, and did not like the role that the ATGWU took. I think that is part of the backdrop to the reason why myself and Eugene were suspended, but I do not think that is the full story. The union has now unveiled a new strategy in the Irish region, which will have the effect of reducing largely the number of full-time officers thereby reducing the service to the membership, closing almost half of the offices. I think that is another part of the reason why we were removed. So there are political, administrative, and industrial decisions which I think played into the decision.
SA: Socialist Appeal has described the Social Contract as a "Con Trick" for workers in Ireland. Is this an accurate characterisation?
M O'R: I would describe it as Robin Hood economics; it has succeeded in redistributing wealth from workers to the large corporations. There has been spectacular growth in the Irish economy over the last number of years; there has been a very successful job creation campaign; and there is almost 300,000 extra people working in Ireland. This has come about in the last 4 or 5 years. Over that period the actual share going to labour has decreased by about 16%, and that has largely gone to the corporations. We have a situation in Ireland now where we are paying the lowest corporation tax in the EU; we have a situation where banks, building societies, and service industries have had their tax cut under these agreements from 38% down to 10%, which is absolutely phenomenal. We have opposed that because the big issues in Ireland are the questions of childcare, transport, infrastructure, and health, and we need resources to be able to deal with these issues. These resources can be got by a different taxation policy in respect of redistribution of wealth; of course workers themselves can make a contribution to that if they are freed up and allowed to bargain locally. They can get some of the wealth that is being created, both into their pockets and contribute through the tax system via the government into better services.
The trade union movement has declined under these agreements; the percentage of trade union members in the private sector has gone from a figure of about 40% in the 1970s down to about 25% today. So we are not organising, we have people in a kind of referendum club where they vote on wages and conditions every three years, and that is as much as the trade union movement does for them. So it is a very inadequate form of bargaining for workers. It has produced an unfair redistribution of wealth, and I believe it has served the workers of Ireland very badly, and the sooner we lay it to rest the better.
SA: Is it true to say that this period of "Partnership" is reaching its limits, now that the bosses are turning on the workers more viciously?
M O'R: Well that may be so, I think when the unions are weakened enough they will be discarded. But I can't make a judgement whether that is the case or not. We have just seen one of the most right-wing Thatcherite parties returned, not with a substantial majority, but with the possibility of getting great influence in government at the moment. That is the Progressive Democratic Party, who went out with 4 seats in the last parliament and have come back with 8. They are a very right-wing party, with a hard right agenda, and it looks like they will be in government with the majority party, Fianna Fáil. The Labour Party has done very badly in the elections, but there has been a shift to the left in the vote of Sinn Féin and of the Greens who all have increased their votes.
In the whole debate there was no intervention from the organised trade union movement, except the intervention I tried to make encouraging people to vote for the left parties, but nobody else tried to influence that debate, and that is a measure of how depoliticised the Irish trade union movement is.
SA: Socialist Appeal is read by many trade unionists in Britain, some in the T&G, what can we do in Britain to help your campaign?
M O'R: The campaign must be raised in the branches, I think we have to reject the idea that the members of the T&G cannot discuss our case. In my view the T&G is a union not a business; it should be run by a lay democracy, not a managing director. I think it is a real challenge to democratise the T&G and to make sure that the members find out what the issues are, and that no measures are put in place until the members make the decision. That should start with the demand that the Executive Council are given full and free access to all the information relating to our case, and the freedom to make their own decision, rather than being subject to the will of Bill Morris.