No fewer than seven Motions seeking the right to trade union recognition had been submitted to the Conference against a background of widespread dissatisfaction that the right had not been secured in P2000 (rather than 'parked' in the High Level Group) and the lingering belief that SIPTU had been mandated to secure recognition as far back as the PCW talks.
A Motion to the Killarney National Conference in October 1995, just prior to the P2000 talks, called on the NEC to place on the agenda of any talks to replace the PCW, the establishment of a statutory right to join and be represented by a trade union. That motion was, ominously, submitted by the Civil Aviation Branch.
The Pat the Baker and Nolans Transport defeats were open wounds in the Union and it was dawning on everyone that the new 'commanding heights' of the economy were being built before their eyes in an entirely non-union sector of industry. The High Level Group was the last chance saloon for generals who would fight neither in the field nor at the parley-table, not even when the issue was none other than a mortal threat to their own power as generals heading a dwindling army.
On 8 January the Irish Times carried an account of the High Level Group's report which had been forward to the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste, leaked to the newspaper, but which (at time of going to press) has not yet officially been made public! However, there was no disclaimer from any quarter, nor a minority dissenting report.
The contents of the report were shocking, not so much for what was recommended but because the recommendations seemed to be unanimous. The report proposed a voluntary code of practice, to be drafted by the Labour Relations Commission (more parking) and "stops short of recommending fines or other sanctions on non-union companies". (Irish Times, 8 and 22 January 1998). Could Jimmy Somers possibly have, after all, signed up to this report? Where was the "substantial and significant progress on the issue of trade union recognition"?
The ATGWU immediately rejected the report. The Regional Secretary, Michael O'Reilly, said it was "a wretched document that totally fails to provide the trade union movement with what it needs. I believe we should look for a special conference of Congress to review participation in Partnership 2000". (Irish Times, 9th January 1998). Even before the ATGWU, the Labour Party(!) said the report "completely failed to tackle the problem of employers who refuse to recognise unions."
On 21 January the ICTU itself stated: "The procedures outlined in the report on union recognition by the High Level Group need to be strengthened." (Irish Times, 22 January 1998). Padraig Yeates report continued: "The minimum that the ICTU is expected to consider acceptable is a Government commitment to introduce legislation should agreement on a voluntary code prove impracticable."
The concurrence of the vicious recognition dispute at Ryanair was a 'happy' coincidence in making recognition an immediate and concrete concern (not to mention the light thrown on 'partnership'). [The general lack of combative strategy in this dispute would throw doubt on the view that the timing was deliberate.]
Congress had discussed union recognition and the Ryanair dispute on the day the above statement was issued. No doubt Ryanair concentrated minds beautifully. A 'senior trade union source' was quoted as saying that the dispute "sharpens everyone's perceptions of the issue."
But was the Ryanair dispute also a happy coincidence in providing the pretext for a shift of position on a High Level Group report which would have been quite unacceptable had Ryanair never happened? The Ryanair strike only began the day after the report was leaked; the report's initial shock value did not depend on developments at Dublin Airport.
IBEC, that evening, (22 January) threatened to withdraw from the High Level Group if the unions demanded sanctions on companies that refused recognition. Now this was instructive, as if we needed any more instruction, on the employers real attitude to partnership.
Effectively they are saying, 'we are your partners, don't be "adversarial" to us; but thought we're your partners we don't think we should have to recognise you, the unions, our partners. We don't even think that members of our confederation, which has entered into a solemn partnership pact with you, should be required by us to recognise you - in fact, they should be quite free not to.' But the IBEC statement was also instructive as to what had happened at the High Level Group. IBEC were objecting not just to compulsory recognition but a shift in position by union leaders from a voluntary code!
Paraphrasing Turlough O'Sullivan of IBEC, the Irish Times reported he said "that his organisation might have to review its attitude to the issue of union recognition, as it appeared that union leaders were changing their stance on a voluntary code" (our emphasis). Directly quoting Turlough O'Sulllivan, the report continued, "We participated in the High Level Group and were prepared to support its recommendations. We have to see what clarifications the ICTU require. Already there are a number of IBEC members who are calling into question the good faith of unions like SIPTU, which took part in the High Level Group and is now coming out and casting doubts on the validity of the group's report" (our emphasis).
Normally, when employers question the good faith of unions our reaction is to puke. However, the wider picture emerging here is disturbing. What is going on? Hard on the heels of the headscratching inconsistency between the General President's Conference declaration and the actual report that emerged from the High Level Group, comes a claim from IBEC of a further inconsistency between the unions', and in particular SIPTU's, participation on the High Level Group and a change of position after the report.
We have to be straight: conference was not looking for a voluntary code of practice; Congress, and even the Labour Party (for God's sake), have rejected the report as it is. The report apparently argues against mandatory union recognition! He said he "would like to assure the delegates" but did Jimmy put his name to it? As can be seen from our last newsletter, we genuinely were "assured" a stand had been made at Ennis.
The High Level Group report, as outlined in the Irish Times, would actually worsen the position of unions seeking recognition. Not only does it leave unions in their present position of having to fight for recognition where a company is determined to refuse it (what's wrong with FIGHTING for recognition anyway?) but the code of practice, like all 'codes of practice', would make it more difficult for unions to conduct a fight for recognition. A dispute over recognition would be referred in the first instance to the LRC.
This is what SIPTU does at the moment and why it does so is beyond me. If this fails to resolve the problem, as say in the case of Ryanair, there would be a cooling-off period while the LRC's advisory service looks at the underlying problems. The LRC could invite the ICTU and IBEC to become involved. All this - and more - before SIPTU could strike at Ryanair!
A cooling-off period in a recognition dispute? Are these guys for real? A recognition dispute isn't a wildcat situation! If the issues remain unresolved after the cooling-off period, the LRC will make a written report to the Labour Court, which will make a recommendation. Does this mean that a union would ACCEPT a recommendation from the Labour Court that the union should not be recognised?
This code of codswallop effects the employer not one single bit and wraps the union side up in a warren of red tape to delay action for union recognition. We are told that the code would help the unions and provide indirect sanctions against offending employers in that it would make it "much harder for companies to use legal sanctions like injunctions against employees or trade unions during recognition disputes." (Irish Times, 8 January 1998). We heard this before the 1990 Act. The code would only be of help in evidence if the employer had already taken legal proceedings against the union. Then again if the workers break the code it would be yet another cause for injunction.
Both the Ryanair dispute and IBEC's refusal to countenance any obligation to grant union recognition, show up 'partnership' as the pantomime it really is. Yet the ICTU's statement after the meeting in which it discussed both Ryanair and union recognition paints these two matters as an exception to a partnership Utopia rather than as yet two more particularly large holes in the tattered rag.
The ICTU said that it was "striving to move away from adversarial industrial relations" [you can't get it any plainer than that, and its certainly true at Ryanair!] "in order to build a new system based on mutual respect and operating in partnership" [pity the employers won't comply]. "The denial of the right of Ryanair workers to be represented by a union of their choice has no place in modern industrial relations." [Your social partners, IBEC, has just said it has!] "Such an approach puts in jeopardy the achievements of the past decade." [If that what a decade of partnership can achieve - the High Level Group report? Wretched!]
Following the special NEC meeting, the Union warned the Government and employers that their attitude towards the Ryanair dispute and willingness to resolve it will be taken as a "test of their commitment to social partnership." If Ryanair really will be taken as a test of social partnership by the NEC then we can rest our pens a little and take it that the NEC will have, after Ryanair, adopted the same view of social partnership as ourselves.