THERE was a very definite split in the political affiliations of the union movement in recent years.
Private sector unions have long-established links with Labour, and are its main affiliates.
Public sector unions, on the other hand, have became more closely associated with Fianna Fail -- to such an extent that one of the major unions is often jokingly referred to as a "Fianna Fail cumann".
The waters were muddied by the social partnership process, which led to all the chief union leaders -- both public and private sector -- being seen as government "sellouts" by more left-wing members. But the Fianna Fail/union love affair that began with Bertie Ahern courting the unions when social partnership began in the 80s ended quite abruptly recently when social partnership collapsed.
This was the result of Brian Cowen's decision to forge ahead with a pay cut in the wake of a pension levy, which together sliced 14pc out of public servants' wages.
The shock was all the greater because he had initially promised them he would not go this way and instead give them unpaid leave, but later gave in to Department of Finance pressure. The mainly private sector SIPTU has particularly strong links with Labour.
Many prominent members have run as election candidates and party leader Eamon Gilmore is a former union official. But SIPTU has allied itself more closely with the party since social partnership collapsed.
As soon as the election campaign began and the possibility of a Labour government loomed, SIPTU leader Jack O'Connor began speaking about national agreements again.
He said Labour was the only political party that recognised the need for a deal, and refusedto condemn its recent call for a pay freeze across the private sector.
The one full-time union official who is a Labour candidate in the election is SIPTU’s Colm Keaveney, in Galway East.
A part-time union official and psychiatric nurse, councillor Pat Cody is also running for Labour in Wexford, along with Marie Maloney, a SIPTU administrative assistant in Killarney. Among the union officials sitting on local authorities is Labour councillor and senior SIPTU official Paul Bell, mayor of Drogheda. He is campaigning for his Labour colleague Ged Nash in Louth.
The unions’ relationship with Fine Gael has been lukewarm at best, mainly because it has not held power for so long, but in recent years the relationship has grown colder. Statements by Leo Varadkar on social partnership “talking shops” and criticism of the public sector union’s recent attempt to get unpaid time off for members rather than a pay cut has not helped matters.
Fine Gael’s aim to cut the number of public servants by 30,000 could lead to further conflict if it is the key party in the next government.