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The Great Siptu Carve-up

Posted on: April 28th, 2008

Martin Nolan handed me the letter. I glanced at the first line.”Dear Brother Nolan,” it began.

“An heirloom?” I enquired. “Written to your grandfather?”

“Not at all,” he replied. “It was written this month. To me.”

Martin had received a bombshell from Arthur Hall, the secretary of his union. Or at least the outfit that he thought was his union. Brother Hall’s letter told him that he was being kicked out of the TEEU.

Brother Martin Nolan had broken no union rules. His sin: joining it.

Last year, Martin lost faith in the dinosaurs at Siptu, the mostly bearded guys who rule the roost at Ireland’s compost of trades unions. Unhappy with the Siptu standard of service, he decided to switch to the TEEU.

Martin should have known better. Members are not allowed to lose faith in Siptu. It would be easier to leave the IRA.

Martin and seven of his colleagues working at Dublin Port were accepted for membership of the TEEU, paid their dues and spent several months happy in the company of more congenial comrades. Then the long arm of Siptu flexed its biceps.

An “investigation committee” — no less — was set up to probe these troublesome workers who asserted their right to join another union. Who carried out the investigation? No lesser figures than the general secretaries of both unions. And the two heavyweight investigators came to a happy conclusion: the eight dissidents were to leave TEEU and head back to Siptu. To hell with their personal preferences. Siptu wanted them back. The TEEU buckled under pressure.

Eamon Devoy, the incoming TEEU boss, sent off the surrender letter to Brother Hall revealing that “an investigation committee was established arising from which a decision has been made that the members … should resume their membership of Siptu.” Brother Hall then advised Brother Martin Nolan and the other seven brethren.

It is bad enough union bosses telling the lads that their membership of the TEEU was cancelled under pressure from Siptu; but it is far worse when the same dinosaurs decide that the workers should return to Siptu. Eamon Devoy should not make such demands. Pluckily, the lads did not comply.

An unusual device was used to enforce the wishes of the investigators. It emerges that Siptu and the TEEU have a little agreement. It is called the “TUF” (Trades Union Friendship) pact. A sort of non-compete deal. If the banks were at the same wheeze we would call it a cartel. It stops unions offering better conditions to each others’ members.

Siptu and the TEEU have opted not to compete over members down in Dublin Port. Indeed, if there is any hint of frisky members eyeing the benefits of the other union, the losing union will move like greased lightening to protect its patch and invoke the deal.

The agreement works wonders for the union bosses. It creates a prison for the trades union members. Somewhat sinisterly, the dinosaurs call the deal the “Spheres of Influence Agreement”. Siptu-speak for a territorial carve up.

‘Brother’ Nolan and his pals bolted. They escaped deep into enemy territory where they were originally welcomed as defectors. Then, under pressure, the TEEU bosses booted the boys back into the arms of their original Siptu captors.

Siptu maintains that they were evicted from the TEEU because they were not craftsmen, they were the wrong grades; that the TEEU is a craft union and that these guys do not belong there.

Which would be vaguely credible, except that the TEEU has just accepted identikit defectors from another union, the Seamen’s Union of Ireland (SUI). Same grades, same jobs. A trifle awkward, that. But there is bad blood between Siptu and the SUI. No self-respecting member of the SUI would touch Siptu with a barge pole.

Last Thursday it was time to tackle the brethren about Brother Nolan’s difficulty

So I rang the TEEU. Could I speak to Brother Arthur?

Brother Arthur was in South America. Not a bad place to be this weather. Was he on a fraternal visit to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela? Or did he call into Cuba en route? As Brother Arthur was not at work, maybe the general secretary (designate), Brother Eamon Devoy, could help, I asked?

Brother Eamon was at “meetings”. He would ring back in the afternoon. In the afternoon he was at meetings. “Lots of meetings,” I commented to the voice at the other end of the telephone. “That is what trades unions are all about,” she riposted testily. Touche. At Siptu’s Liberty Hall HQ, no one admitted to being in South America. They, too, were all at “meetings”. Probably cooking up more Trade Union Friendship deals and Spheres of Influence agreements.

Joe O’Flynn, the well-rewarded general secretary, who spent so much time investigating the breach of the Siptu/TEEU deal, was at ‘meetings’. So was everybody else whom I sought. No dice from the top brass. One official , who was unlucky enough to pick up the phone, offered the excuse that Martin and the lads were of the wrong grades.

Perhaps I should have asked for the biggest dinosaur of them all, the generously bearded Jack O’Connor, Siptu’s general president. Jack is not inclined to take my calls; but I already knew his position. Last month he wrote to Labour TD Joe Costello explaining Siptu’s extraordinary stance on union members with itchy feet and specifically Brother Martin Nolan’s case. According to Jack, the position is “very simple”.

“It is governed by the rules of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions which are designed to facilitate strong trade union organisation and limit the potential for a multiplicity of unions organising the same group of workers.

“As you will appreciate, this latter situation would greatly weaken trade union organisation.”

The union is what matters, not the individual’s right to choice. According to Jack the workers are there to be “organised”. Jack goes on. “In accordance with these rules and with the bilateral agreement between Siptu and the TEEU that union has accepted that it should not take Martin into membership.” It is signed “yours fraternally”, but thankfully Jack stops short of addressing the Labour TD as “Brother Joe”.

Just imagine all the whingeing we would have heard from Jack, if employers in any single industry cooked up a deal, agreeing never to employ each others’ staff. Jack would rightly raise merry hell.

But on Thursday, Jack would have been far too busy to take anybody’s calls. He was up in Government Buildings, fraternising with his real brothers, including Brother Turlough O’Sullivan the pushover from Ibec, cooking up another pay pact to sell to the sad suckers who are forced to stay in Siptu.

And, when the posturing is over, when the deal is sealed, when Turlough and his wimps have performed their ritual surrender, Jack can resume the real fight — to ensure the supremacy of Siptu.