independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Ogle: 'When the ESB deal was done and dusted, I went off alone and cried'

Recent Public Enemy Number One, union boss Brendan Ogle, shows his sensitive side

Brendan Ogle. Picture by David Conachy
Brendan Ogle. Picture by David Conachy

'DO you think that I don't know what I'm doing?" asks Brendan Ogle, ESB union chief, the man who was, until recently, Public Enemy Number One, the Grinch who almost stole Christmas.

He sits forward and looks me square in the eye. "Seriously?" he asks again.

On the bookshelves behind me are rows upon rows of books on conflict. The New Cold War, The Cold War; Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War; Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life; Stalin, Cuban Revolution Reader; George Galloway's Fidel Castro Handbook; Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder and the Cold War in the Caribbean; and The Last Days of Hitler.

The trade union boss has a keen interest in conflict between super powers, and it appears, the MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) strategy in particular.

"I lived my teenage life during the Cold War. When two huge nations pointed rockets at each other. And if anybody pressed the button none of us would be here today," he says when I ask if his threats to plunge the country into darkness over the Christmas period put our economic revival at risk.

"The reality is, because there were buttons nobody pressed them.

"Our job was to protect our members' pensions without putting our finger on the button. And we did it. But we only did it because we had a button."

Ogle played on mankind's oldest and strongest emotion. The one more powerful than nuclear weapons or all-out physical warfare. He played on our fear.

You see, Ogle revealed, there was never going to be any blackout. He insists the company was always going to cave in to his demands because they would never allow the festive blackouts to become a reality.

"I was entirely confident it was never going to happen."

When I ask why, he simply responds: "Because we were right."

Ogle's high-stakes bluff kept the country on a knife- edge for weeks, but he blames the media -- not himself -- for whipping up the frenzy that accompanied the ESB pension dispute.

"There are lots of old people sitting in their homes ... in frail situations who [were] being whipped into a frenzy," he says.

"The old people were being scared out of their living daylights by the media, that the big bad monster was going to come and do them harm. But people are 'cleverer' than that."

An hour earlier, I had arrived at the rented home of the trade union leader, who, for many, epitomises what private-sector workers resent about their public- sector colleagues. The feeling that, while everybody is feeling the pain, some are suffering more than others.

I rang the door bell several times, without response. It was 12.20pm. His car was in the drive, but there was no answer. I had began to wonder if he had a change of mind.

Suddenly the front door swung open to reveal the familiar, albeit dishevelled, face that has become a regular on our TV screens.

The hard-working, tough talking union leader had slept it in.

"That is the first time that's happened to me in 10 years, I swear to God," he says rubbing sleep from his eyes and ushering me inside.

"It must be Murphy's law," I reply.

It's been many years since Ogle has agreed to a sit-down interview. The last time was with journalist Justine McCarthy who, he said, helped him iron his shirt while he was preparing for a Prime Time debate. I assure him he won't be getting the same treatment from the Sunday Independent.

Inside his Castleknock home, a cacophony of beige walls and curtains, bright blue carpets and stained furniture throws greeted me in the sitting room. Christmas decorations still sat in their boxes; fairy lights in bundles on the ground. Perhaps he wasn't sure if he would need them this year.

He turns on the espresso maker and quickly packs away the DVD box-set of The Godfather trilogy that is on the floor in front of his widescreen TV.

There is a whiff of the Don Corleone about him. In his attitude to protecting his workers, he insists: "I don't want to be loved or hated." When I ask about his Machiavellian tendencies, he simply responds, just like a Don, "I just want respect."

And then, of course, there's his penchant for cigars.

His favourite is a Partagas. He likes to have them while relaxing. But at an average price of €15 each (I'm told afterwards by an emporium in Dublin), he would never buy them in Ireland.

Ogle, believed to be on a salary of around €80,000, insists: "I couldn't afford them. They are far too expensive, they are not expensive in Cuba."

I ask how much a trip to the communist country, which he has visited six times, would cost but he brushes this aside.

I ask about the most expensive cigar he has enjoyed. Again, he cites the Partagas.

He mentions nothing of the 25 Siglo VI sitting in his cabinet, at around €700 a box. Maybe they slipped his mind.

He takes me back to where it all began.

Ogle witnessed the full force of strike action working for the railway system under Thatcher's Britain. He emigrated there in 1987, at a time when, "Britain was booming and Ireland was on its knees".

He immediately landed a well-paid job as a labourer on a building site, where he earned "big money".

But he admits: "I found the work hard. I didn't have the muscles to be a builder. I wanted the type of job where your hands weren't getting cut."

So he took a drop in salary to work for London Underground.

Here, for the first time, he became a public sector worker and a member of a trade union.

Ogle returned to Ireland in the Nineties following a stint with British Rail and got a job as a train driver with Irish Rail.

Threats to rail workers' terms of employment spurred him into action and he quickly emerged as a leader among his colleagues, directing widespread chaos in 2000 when he led workers into an all-out strike. He said the workers were "hammered". The beating still sits uneasy with him.

But now he is back. Bigger, better and fresher after emerging the victor from his battle with ESB management.

Ogle reveals he prepared for the showdown negotiations by meditating.

He listened to CDs in the car on the way to the meetings, and fell asleep at night to their trancelike tones. The Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, famous for promoting non-violent solutions to conflict, was his spiritual guide. The monk's philosophies on suffering and human pain have made him popular among Oprah fans.

For Ogle, it helped him to focus on what was "real". "A meeting that was about to happen," he says, or "the trees", to distract himself from what he calls the "nonsense on the front page of the paper".

He describes his job as a "vocation", and admits he cried when he signed the pension deal for his workers, on Sunday December 8.

"When it all came together in Killashee House Hotel in Naas and everything was signed, I went off on my own into a room for half an hour to compose myself. There would be something wrong if I didn't shed a tear that day. I was very proud and very relieved.

"It was a difficult moment because it doesn't just affect their lives -- it affects the lives of their children."

But despite his success in negotiating a successful deal on behalf of his members, Ogle says he does not think he will be representing ESB workers for much longer.

Far from being happy with a done deal, Ogle says he has "lost respect" for the company and now needs time to reflect.

"I have a feeling I won't be in the ESB for very much longer. I have lost respect for the company and how it does business. I came from another company, Iarnrod Eireann, and I had very little respect for how that company was managed too.

"I always felt that the ESB was managed and run at a much higher level of competence, and I think over the last couple of years on the issue of the pensions ... our evidence is that this company is no longer ... I have lost respect."

Ogle also believes ordinary ESB customers are getting a raw deal from the semi-state company.

"I absolutely believe electricity customers in this country are getting ripped off."

But he insists this has nothing to do with his workers' demands.

"Your ESB bill has gone up 100pc in 10 years, salaries have fallen by 20pc and pensions have fallen by 30pc -- your electricity bill has gone up."

And although staff at the electricity company are taking home far above the average Irish wage, he still believes many ESB workers are underpaid.

"My members are on €44,500. They are highly skilled technicians who get out there when I'm lying in my bed on St Stephen's Day when the storms come in from the Atlantic in those conditions and go up poles and put it back on -- I do not believe those people are overpaid. They are underpaid. This is an argument for a race to the bottom.

"Have you seen how much a house is? Have you seen how much a car is? Have you seen how much grocery shopping is? So If nobody can buy it, who is going to supply the business for it?"

Ogle also highlights the difficult work of the staff in the ESB call centres "who are on €27,000 and who get phone calls from people who can't pay their electricity bill".

He adds: "They are in tears on the phone because they got a letter that they are going to be cut off, and our members are sitting taking those calls on €27-€28,000. These are the ESB workers we represent."

The union leader is unwavering in his defence of the workers. And it has come at a personal cost.

In the relatively calm weeks that have followed the negotiations, he has used the time to reflect on the impact the drama has had on his personal life. He hit out at some in the media -- "keyboard hardmen" -- who attack him for doing his job.

"Describing people as monsters and the devil incarnate simply for doing their job -- I can't understand that. I am looking forward to not being talked about," he says.

He has also had his fair share of abuse from members of the public, including a death threat, which he reported to the gardai.

To relax, he goes for pints, plays pool and walks his beagle Camilo (named after a Cuban general in the revolution) three times a day.

"I suspect I will hear family things now in the next few weeks that I have been kept away from," he says, citing a wedding that his parents were uninvited to during previous negotiations.

So what now? Journalist- turned-politician (and back again) George Lee suggested to him that should get into politics.

But despite his success in ESB pension drama, Ogle, amazingly, now fears he is unemployable.

He told the Sunday Independent: "I fear that the public representation of me will make me unemployable outside of the trade union movement. And maybe some day inside the trade union movement.

"My job is anything but secure. I am not marketable. I am a 46-year-old man with no home. And I have never been in the position to buy a home since [his marriage ended].

"And what happens if you are unemployed and you don't own a home? You become homeless. That might sound incredible to you but it's as likely an outcome as any other. And I spend as much time worrying about how I am going to provide for my family in the future."

He says it remains to be seen what his future plans beyond the ESB will be, but remarks: "As of now there doesn't seem to be a lot."

In the meantime his €80,000 salary will have to suffice. He insists he hasn't looked at his pension in a while, but that's it's doing "OK" too.

Something tells me, despite his humility, Brendan will always fall on his feet.

In his own words, people mightn't like trade union bosses, but: "We are not stupid."

On my way out of the house after the interview, I spot another book on his shelf: Gerry Robinson: 'I'll Show Them Who's Boss.

You sure did, Brendan, you sure did.

Irish Independent

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