Friday 21 November 2014

Shane Ross: Two dinosaurs together in the death throes

Shane Ross

Published 29/06/2014 | 02:30

Yesterday’s Men: From left, Jack O’Connor of Siptu and Danny McCoy of Ibec. Photos: Frank McGrath/Gary O’Neill
Yesterday’s Men: From left, Jack O’Connor of Siptu and Danny McCoy of Ibec. Photos: Frank McGrath/Gary O’Neill
Calling Time on SIPTU: Jack O'Connor. Photo: Frank McGrath
Falling Membership: Danny McCoy of IBEC

FANCY a bit of coffin dancing? Two of the most conservative forces in Ireland are tottering at the edge.

I shed few tears for the decline of Ireland's biggest trade union, Siptu – but the covert pleasure at its impotence compares nothing with the joy that thunders through my veins when I sense the mortal, self-inflicted wounds being endured by its rival, employers' group Ibec.

Both Siptu and Ibec released annual accounts at the beginning of June. They make wonderful reading. Both former social partners are busted flushes.

Siptu and Ibec have plenty in common. Both outfits' accounts are hard to dig up. They both file under the radar in the obscure Registry of Friendly Societies' offices in Parnell Street, Dublin 1.

Why there? Why not in the Oireachtas Library? Or in Government Buildings? Did these guys not run the country into the ground during the Celtic Tiger years? Were they not the unelected, economic big shots in the first decade of this millennium?

Both Siptu and Ibec are 'Friendly Societies'. Yes, astonishingly, Ibec – like Siptu – is a trade union. Not of the bearded type, but it is a union with six branches where Siptu has 19. It is a confederation (a grand name for a union of toffs) with trustees. Neither has shareholders. They move in a twilight zone, largely unobserved by outside forces.

Far more conveniently, their accounts rarely come to the notice of their flagging membership.

The Siptu versus Ibec shadow-boxing show has been the dullest, most predictable game in town for over 20 years.

It has been marked by phoney trade union walkouts from talks, employer capitulation, sabre rattling and bogus brinkmanship. At the end of all the grandstanding a settlement has always been reached.

The whole charade was dubbed 'social partnership'. In reality it was bad for the economy, but the powerful oligarchs at the top of Ibec and Siptu always prospered. The taxpayers and the innocent membership of both organisations have invariably ponied up for their bosses' self-interested antics.

Happily the oligarchs are being rumbled; the scales are being lifted from their innocent members' eyes. The membership is voting with its feet.

The members of Siptu and Ibec may not yet be stampeding out the doors of the two trade unions' offices at Liberty Hall and Baggot Street respectively, but they are leaving in big numbers. Last year 8,600 members exited Siptu, bringing the comrades' losses to 19,000 – down from 225,000 to 206,000 since January 2012.

Similarly, Ibec saw an ominous slump, with its much smaller membership dropping by 168 – from 4,098 to 3,938.

Fewer members means less loot. In 2013 Siptu member contributions dropped by €865,000 – from €33.7m to €32.8m. In the same period Ibec's revenues from its lukewarm subscribers fell by €264,000 – from €7.771m to €7.507m.

At the same time staff members at Siptu fell by eight from 332 to 324. Ibec has operated a redundancy programme in recent years.

Presumably reduced revenues and smaller staff numbers cut the wage bills at both the brethren's workforces? As both brotherhoods have long lectured us about the perils of austerity, we could expect austerity to begin at home. Not likely. A surprise feature shared by the old social partners is that even though revenues have declined, even though the number of employees has fallen, the pay bill has risen. Not a bad trick.

In 2013 Siptu managed to fork out an extra €260,000 in staff costs despite having a smaller staff and reduced revenues. Similarly Ibec saw a marginal rise in its wage bill to its employees. Of course the accounts tell us nothing about who were the lucky guys who pocketed the increases, but no prizes for guessing whether it was the top brass or the ordinary workforce.

We will never know, because the accounts of the brethren will never win a PhD in transparency. They would make the most unreadable public company's reports look like paragons of openness. Nowhere do they tell us how much the elite are paid. Ibec mentions the name of its chief executive, Danny McCoy, on page 3 but never gives a hint of his pay and perks. It fails to identify any other executives, hiding instead behind the identity of a few unknown trustees.

Siptu is similarly coy about the pay of its bosses, merely listing Jack O'Connor, Patricia King and Joe O'Flynn as office holders.

Neither report boasts such niceties as a remuneration committee, nomination committee, even the existence or composition of an audit committee. No mention is made of an annual general meeting. There is no obvious method of members contacting the union. Presumably this is done at the lowest levels – or in Siptu's case – at its tightly controlled, extravagant, biennial conferences.

Siptu claims to have 206,000 members, more than Bank of Ireland and AIB's combined shareholder total. Yet its financial statements make little effort to provide accessible information to so many interested parties. No one can blame them. They have plenty to hide. What appears in the accounts show that €1.2m has been spent with stunning abandon on such vital services as affiliation to the Irish Congress of Trades Unions (Ictu) over the last two years! The members will be equally delighted to learn that Siptu insiders enjoyed the €350,000 their union spent on ICTU and Siptu conferences last year. Not to mention other "affiliation fees" of €25,000.

IBEC keeps well away from telling the world the identity of its membership. Even more cunningly, it fails to reveal its darkest secret, the huge fees paid by its main bankrollers, the financial institutions and the semi-states. It is propped up by state monopolies like An Post, the DAA, CIE, FAS, the ESB and other State-run utilities. No doubt Irish Water will be one of its paymasters this year.

Its biggest benefactors have always been the two big banks, both giving annual subs of six-figure sums. As a result, Ibec has been hidebound, a prisoner of bankers and semi-state chiefs, compelled to throw free market shapes from time to time but a pushover for bankers and government whenever the chips are down.

It was never in the forefront of bank reform, mostly silent at the misdemeanours of its chief funders. The strings in Ibec are pulled by the Government through the moribund semi-states and by the bankers, the institutions that ruined Ireland.

During the period of social partnership they could always be relied upon to dance to the government's tune and capitulate to union demands after a period of melodramatic brinkmanship for the consumption of the cameras.

Similarly Siptu's Jack O'Connor and Des Geraghty could always be indulged to blow a fuse on the steps of Government Buildings for the gullible eyes and ears of Siptu's members.

The days of such antics are over. Ibec has become an utterly pointless organisation with no role in negotiations. It costs the State a fortune in subscriptions from semi-states.

Siptu is becoming a navel-gazing bystander, spending members' melting subs on travel, conferences, salaries, honorary secretaries commission and other items that seem to have little relevance to the plight of its dwindling membership.

It should either merge with its brethren in fellow trade union Ibec or hand back its vast reserves to Siptu members. Otherwise they will continue to vote with their feet and keep their subs in their pockets.

Time for a decent burial.

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