Sunday 19 November 2017

O'Connor's Siptu honours Connolly by sabotaging the commemoration

As Jack O'Connor modestly compares himself to James Connolly, his Luas driver members hold the country to ransom, writes Shane Ross

SIPTU leader Jack O'Connor Photo: Brian McDaid
SIPTU leader Jack O'Connor Photo: Brian McDaid

Shane Ross

Jack O'Connor was sounding slightly reasonable. I wondered if I was going a little soft in the head. Had all the political cocktails floating around Government Buildings in the last week intoxicated me? I have never been a lover of trade union bosses, but there was Jack, the president of Siptu, insisting that two per cent, plus two per cent, plus three per cent, plus three per cent added up to a mere ten per cent. There was no argument with that. Maybe the Luas drivers' huge claim had been misunderstood? And indeed, maybe it has.

And then he blew it. Jack was cantering through an interview with RTE's Sean O'Rourke when, out of the blue, he decided to ask himself a question. Jack wondered aloud about the right course for a trade union leader, like himself, to take in the current bitter Luas strike. Admitting that the looming strike on Easter Sunday and Easter Monday could damage the commemoration of 1916 and of socialist hero James Connolly for many citizens, he demanded to know from himself: "What would Connolly do?" in the present impasse.

Seizing the reins from O'Rourke, Jack conducted both sides of the interview for a moment and laid on the rhetoric. "Would Connolly have betrayed or abandoned workers in the heat of battle?" he thundered. Jack had a ready -made answer. Just like Jack, "He (Connolly) would have endured all the unpopularity that went with standing by his members."

Jack warmed to the comparison of himself with the 1916 socialist martyr. Puffing out his chest and stroking his beard he insisted: "I have endured unpopularity for taking unpopular stands in the interests of the country over recent years." Jack volunteered that no interest would be served if he were "to abandon" workers in the middle of the dispute.

O'Connor had played the Connolly card. Behold Jack O'Connor, the James Connolly of 2016. The man's sense of humility was breathtaking.

Of course, the imagery of 'battle' is appropriate to Connolly, the hero of the Rising and the last victim of a vicious series of executions in front of the firing squad.

Jack is not facing a similar fate, merely the ire of the Government, commuters and tourists. He will bravely suffer unpopularity. A few harsh words from Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe is arguably not on the same scale as a week in Dublin's burning GPO in Easter 1916. The heat in the two "battles" (and its consequences) are hardly of the same intensity.

The Siptu leader's stance is riddled with contradictions. His members have voted to spoil the commemoration of his hero, James Connolly, and 1916 for many Irish citizens. They have picked Easter Sunday and Easter Monday precisely because they are key days for Ireland, for the Government, for tourists and for the ordinary person. Travellers from abroad will reel in disbelief when they land here, only to find that a day of celebration - flagged overseas as a highlight of the decade - is being torpedoed by a local transport dispute. Inheritors of the Connolly legacy are hardly honouring his memory. They are exploiting the Easter Sunday ceremonies for personal advantage.

The raw figures of the industrial spat are not really in dispute. Both sides are, as usual, absolutely correct. Strictly speaking, Jack is right that the Luas drivers are only getting 10pc over three years and three months. But Jack does not count increments or bonuses.

Employers Transdev are insisting that drivers on €42,000 will reach over €53,000 (including a 6.5pc bonus) by 2019. It just depends what you include.

Jack (himself speaking on RTE radio) went on to attack people "running around radio stations" and talking about the strike! He was presumably pointing a finger at Donohoe. On RTE's Morning Ireland, Paschal had earlier warned of the danger to future investment in public transport if there was a threat of indefinite strikes.

Trade union bosses today would do well to refrain from invoking the names of Connolly and James Larkin to bolster their own reputations. It is far more appropriate to ask what Connolly would have thought of the generous salaries being drawn by the brethren and the general direction of today's trade union movement.

Jack has certainly suffered a degree of unpopularity in recent times, not because of his commitment to Connolly-type militant socialism, but for the lack of it. The trade union movement has been accused of having sold out.

Jack is a supporter of the Labour Party, the current villains of the political piece, champions of austerity and hardship. He is a staunch disciple and long-time member of the national executive of a party seen as having betrayed the principles of socialism so rigidly embraced by James Connolly.

Jack was in favour of social partnership, the currently discredited system which fixed workers' wages and simultaneously allowed trade union bosses to plunge their snouts into the State's trough.

Jack should ask (and then answer!) another question about his 1916 hero. Would Connolly have stood shoulder to shoulder with the Labour Party on water charges? Would he have approved of social partnership? Would he have been a cheerleader for Charlie Haughey, Bertie Ahern and others behind this conspiracy of IBEC and ICTU?

Would Connolly have travelled with comrades on junkets to Florida with FAS? Would Connolly have accepted posts on Fianna Fail-created quangos? Jack never did, but many of his colleagues in establishment unions enjoyed nixers galore in retirement. They wallowed in the swamp of bourgeois government patronage.

Jack's decision to emerge as a champion of the Luas strikers' cause probably has more to do with the loss of credibility and the haemorrhaging of members from conservative trade unions like Siptu than with any ideological hang-ups. Siptu and traditional trade unions have been yielding ground to others, like Brendan Ogle's Unite trade union, in the battle for the hearts and minds of workers and the unemployed.

The underprivileged and underpaid have become far more fertile ground for Ogle, Right2Water or even Sinn Fein than for O'Connor and the Labour Party.

The recent electoral destruction of Labour is already being felt by its allies elsewhere. O'Connor's obvious discomfort in the Luas debacle is an early manifestation of the shifting political sands.

The Luas strikers have a credible complaint, not about pay, but about an attempt to bring new employees into the workforce at a lower base level than current staff. They have less to complain about if their wage packet is due to improve by 18pc by 2019.

Their overwhelming rejection (99pc) of a deal recommended by the Workplace Relations Commission is indicative of how little influence the union leadership holds with its members.

Sean O'Rourke made a perfectly sensible suggestion: that the strike should be suspended to another day. The memory of Connolly could go ahead without impediment. It was brushed aside.

Any attempt to use the cover of Connolly to protect conservative trade union chiefs from the desertion of its members is unlikely to succeed. To some, James Connolly may be a national hero; to others, he is an acquired taste. Whatever the truth, he should never be used as a flag of convenience by those resolved to destroy a happy Easter Sunday for citizens honouring his memory. As the hundredth anniversary of his death approaches, James Connolly has become a political football. On the very day that he deserves the maximum recognition and honour, those who protest their loyalty to him are diminishing it.

Sunday Independent

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