The Dublin branch of the Independent Workers Union has been inundated with requests for information about the expulsion from the union of its own postal driver members and the possibility of the union being absorbed into an ICTU affiliate in a complete inversion of the principles on which the IWU was formed. The following exchange between a member of the Dublin branch and one of the affected postal drivers teases out the issues and addresses what is at stake. As much of what follows is a critique of the National Executive Council of the IWU, a full right of reply is open to any member of the NEC or the body itself, if they feel anything in the exchange constitutes a misrepresentation of their position or is factually incorrect.
Anthony McIntyre of the Dublin Branch in Conversation with Derek Keenan of the Dublin Postal Drivers.
Betrayal is never easy to handle and there is no right way to accept it. ― Christine Feehan.
AM: Expelled from a supposedly independent union and left without union cover, you have effectively been deunionised by a union that ostensibly seeks to build up union membership. I suppose the most frequently asked question is one of how it all started. There is a sense of disbelief out there that the IWU would go down this route – almost like the Catholic Church abolishing Holy Communion or sainthood, even embracing Protestantism. You are a bunch of workers who believed what the Independent Workers Union said on the tin – that it was independent from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Now to your consternation, you find yourself expelled from the IWU at the behest of a congress union bureaucrat. As a member of the Dublin branch, I know that it is appalled at the turn of events within the IWU. It finds it preposterous that the NEC of a union set up to protect workers from the harmful effects of the Congress Cartel, could actually throw its own members under the bus to facilitate people affiliated to Congress. As the NEC is telling us less, it falls on you to tell us more.
DK: It is exactly as you have said. We were drawn to the IWU on the basis that they stood outside Congress and in opposition to partnership and crucially supported the rights of workers to join a union of their choice. Well, at least that’s what it said on the tin.
AM: As I see it the Dublin Postal Driver members were guilty of nothing, were not found guilty of anything, and had their membership terminated through the mechanism of collective penalisation, defined as “a penalty imposed on every member of a group without regard to his or her involvement in the group's actions and conduct.” This without a hearing or right to any appeal other than the hollow offer of next year’s AGM, by which time the union will most likely have been scuttled: not even as much as a Stalinist show trial. A total denial of natural justice and due process. I know you have expressed a reluctance to wash dirty linen in public, but the public will be forced to sleep in that dirty linen if the pretence of it being cleaned in private is not exposed as a farce. Surely it is a matter of public interest when the only independent trade union licence for general workers in the country risks being sold off in a flagrant breach of what the union was set up for in the first place? Brendan Ogle, who pressed to have you put out of the IWU actually slagged you about the licence going up in smoke when you met with him. This has to be something that must be placed in the public domain despite your reticence about dirty linen. As a member of the NUJ for two decades, I pay no heed to any argument for imposing secrecy on these things. The business of the public should be done in public.
DK: Well to be fair to the NEC they did allow me to address them at the meeting where they ultimately decided to shaft us, which was very good of them. I never held out much hope that I could change their minds on it, but I wanted to make it as uncomfortable as possible for them to screw us over. The core arguments I made for keeping us as members were framed precisely around the founding principles of the Union, but it didn’t matter: those principles obviously no longer matter to the majority of the NEC; they no longer believe in the merits of an independent trade union and are willing to cosy up with a Congress affiliate and eventually surrender the negotiating licence. Absolutely, this is a matter of public interest and should be a cause for alarm for those interested in maintaining the existence of a radical trade union of the left with a negotiating licence.
AM: I certainly reject in its entirety the concept that unions affiliated to the Congress Cartel should be allowed the latitude for conscription to their own unions, afforded by the NEC’s expulsion of the postal drivers. Workers should be free to join unions of their choice, not forced into them. We inhabit a union environment, not a gulag. A union might decline to accept workers as members but when it does accept them, it is obligated to respect their rights to due process. Unions cannot set the bar for termination of membership lower than employers set it for dismissal. It is an abomination for the NEC to hand its members over to the other side on foot of a threat that there will be no further talks if the demand is not met.
DK: Correct, the principles of natural justice certainly didn’t apply here. Committed workers and trade unionists have been treated like pawns. We were accepted into membership of this union by the same NEC who subsequently shafted us at the behest of a Congress affiliate.
AM: Whatever the NEC has become independent of it is demonstrably not the Congress Cartel. The semantic efforts to claim the postal workers were not expelled but had their membership rescinded is nothing more than an exercise in pissing down the membership’s back and claiming it is raining. Straight out of Animal Farm is it not?
DK: Yeah that was something that really pissed our members off, the double speak and bullshit semantics you would expect from a Fianna Fail bagman now coming from the uppermost echelons of our union. Every dirty trick that’s been pulled to deny our members, ordinary workers, their rights, moves this whole sorry saga beyond the realms of satire. It’s an incredibly disgusting betrayal of our members and of the entire Union membership, whom I don’t think are aware of or would support what has happened.
AM: I would hope not. It would be turkeys voting for Christmas. It is absurd that Brendan Ogle who is not a member of the IWU - and who should have no input whatsoever to the internal affairs of the IWU - is so pivotal to your expulsion. His nauseating snobbery was evident in his pejorative characterisation of ESB workers as spoilt – a large body of their people too are our members. I don’t know the guy but a frequent criticism is that here we have a fat cat Congress bureaucrat on a much higher salary than the workers he held in contempt, and he ultimately has them expelled from a union he did not belong to in order to facilitate a union grab project. He was allowed an input at a stage-managed AGM, while fellow union members were not - on the convenient grounds of their not being in-benefit. What in-benefit criteria did Ogle satisfy that you did not?
DK: Firstly, let me just say that our foremost grievance is with the leadership of the IWU and not Brendan Ogle but I cannot ignore the central role he played in our expulsion from the IWU, albeit a role he was given by our General Secretary.
AM: While you seek to keep the focus on what the NEC has done you are at the same time aware of just how livid the Dublin branch is at the role of Brendan Ogle. It is spitting nails, and some believe the Unite offices should be picketed. You could not have been happy with the way the AGM was handled. The Dublin branch thought it was a rigged affair, designed to pave the way for the expulsion of the postal drivers.
DK: Yeah, the Conference was a shocking piece of choreography designed to make our members feel decidedly unwelcome. Around a dozen or so of our lads attended, probably the largest bloc within the room. We were denied voting rights because we had not been members for three months. I’m reliably informed that this had never been enforced before.
AM: That is my understanding also. I have spoken with people who have attended these things for a decade or more and they say this is the first time ever and view it as an attempt to disenfranchise the postal drivers. Even the very act of holding the AGM in the Unite building, despite the opposition of the Dublin branch, was a declaration of the NEC intent to roll over and comply with the outrageous request to shaft IWU members.
DK: Incredibly the first business of conference was a letter from Mr Ogle outlining his assessment of the progress of the merger talks. His view was that the talks had been derailed. Why? Because the IWU had accepted our group as members. We were the problem that needed solving or more specifically removing.
AM: Basically, there was an ultimatum from Brendan Ogle: hand over your members to the Congress Cartel or there will be no further talks. Yet we had been assured at the NEC meeting where your membership of the IWU had been approved, that this would never be allowed to happen. When a concern was raised the response was that it was “Ogle’s problem, not ours.”
DK: It is customary at an Annual Conference for new groups of members to be specifically welcomed and extended the collective solidarity of the Union but this is what our members had to endure, and that wasn’t the end of the collective slap in the face as the General Secretary’s report again pointed at our membership as being an issue, shocking stuff.
AM: I find laughable the NEC pretence that the report conducted by Ogle was independent. A report from a man who had a vested interest in shaping the outcome in his own favour and away from those workers his report was directed at should never have been allowed to darken the door of the IWU. This Animal Farm chicanery from the NEC is reprehensible. Can you elaborate on that report?
DK: Absolutely, the General Secretary without any consultation with me as the representative of the Postal Drivers made a unilateral decision to engage with the General Secretary of our previous Union, the CWU, with a view to opening up some form of dialogue to resolve the problem, the problem being us of course. It was agreed between both sides to commission a report into the circumstances in which we left the CWU and joined the IWU. The report was to be authored by John Douglas and Brendan Ogle.
I have an enormous amount of respect for John Douglas and could only characterise his involvement as being for the right reasons, with no agenda other than to act as an honest broker. But there is no way the same could be said of Brendan Ogle. He clearly had skin in the game and a vested interest in recommending our return to the CWU which the report ultimately concluded. But again, my issue is with our general secretary.
AM: A term you have previously used is forced repatriation – a useful way to describe it.
DK: Forced back to a bad place we had departed from and broken all ties with. Yes.
AM: Sounds like an arranged marriage where your wishes or consent are not considered relevant. I will be proposing to the Dublin branch that it write to the leadership of Unite in London, protesting the involvement of Brendan Ogle in your expulsion from the union.
DK: Again he will just argue that he was invited into this process by the IWU General Secretary and any grievances we have should be taken up internally, and notwithstanding the obvious stitch-up, you can’t really argue with that. It’s our General Secretary whom we blame for all of this, he nominated Mr Ogle in the full knowledge of their mutual interests, he screwed us along with the majority of the NEC even in the knowledge that our members had unanimously rejected the report in its entirety. We spoke but they ignored us. So much for the primacy of workers’ own decision making.
AM: And he is your General Secretary because despite the best efforts of the NEC to expel you all, the courts have slapped an injunction on it. That is a most welcome move. But it seems terrible that working people have to resort to the courts to prevent their union shafting them. I am in the Labour Court and WRC pretty regularly, so availing of the legislation is considered a legitimate course of action within the union. Only this time, it is the NEC rather than Ibec against which the fight for workers’ rights is being waged.
DK: It’s unfortunate that we had to seek such injunctive relief but we will do whatever it takes to vindicate our position and ultimately safeguard the Union into the future.
AM: Although you refer specifically to the general secretary, you have not made this about personalities. Your emphasis has always been on the strategic and an outcome that has the optimum benefit for the postal drivers, the union and the future of a trade unionism that is not co-opted.
DK: Of course. I would expect it to be the same for you and the Dublin branch.
AM: Very much. There is no one on the NEC I do not like on a personal basis or would fall out with over this. We have always been in the trenches at some point. But this transcends the personal.
DK: It is not personal or about personalities.
AM: You believe there is a Communist Party of Ireland hand at play here. Why is that? I know you don’t share my serious misgivings about communist parties the world over. I am probably more cynical about them than Orwell. But why do you think it might be up to its old tricks in this situation?
DK: Firstly, I’m not at all sectarian and I have no issue at all with any party of the left and recognise that within their ranks are good decent activists seeking radical progressive change. Nor am I saying it is up to any tricks. But fundamentally the Communist Party sees the IWU as a dangerous project which undermines workers’ collective strength by further fragmenting the trade union movement. Paradoxically, our General Secretary is a party member and I’m not sure how many more of the NEC are but I certainly would suggest that the more influential members are at least closely aligned.
AM: So Napoleon is not out to gut Snowball?
DK: It is not about Stalinists and Trots, even if you use terms like Stalinist. It is about trade union independence and the right of workers to join a union of their choice. It should not be dressed up as anything else.
AM: Although you are not arguing against their choice to belong to the CP or any party of their choice? All the NEC members, agree with their position or not, have a track record which you graciously acknowledge, of robustly defending the rights of workers
DK: Absolutely, there is no doubt that among the NEC members are good committed activists with strong track records of representing workers and trying to forge a different path away from the disastrous partnership era, but they are wrong here and deep down I think they know it.
AM: Your take is considerably more nuanced than my own. The Communist Party, to whatever extent it is involved, can find its own level, even if in my unforgiving view it will stand on its hind legs to do so. The Dublin branch, for its part, is determined that the union will keep its four feet firmly on the ground with the members. That said, is there not a case for forming a Left bloc within Congress? Some people think that Unite, Mandate and the Communications Workers Union have done a lot of sterling work.
DK: Absolutely. These unions have done good work and that’s to be welcomed. There is always a case for building a left bloc within whatever given framework, be it political, societal or institutional, but that should never be done at the expense of already committed and organised groups in a top-down fashion in order to bolster the self-declared primacy of another group’s project.
AM: I am not so ideologically correct as to be hostile to a planned merger. I am as suspicious of ideologues as I am of theologians. What I could not abide by was the expulsion of workers from a union or the destruction of the licence. If people want to go into Unite, fine. At one time I would have considered it myself. It is a reformist move but then I have long since given up on revolution and more specifically on revolutionaries. My point is that there is no reason for them to shaft everyone else on the way or to surrender the licence. I think those things are what is renewing interest in the IWU again, certainly within Dublin where former members are outraged at what is going on and who are now calling in with us to offer assistance and advice. The branch meetings are now jampacked with people and it is serious stuff. Without exception, those who turn up see an existential threat to the IWU and are determined to protect it.
DK: You have to laugh. I mean, if the current leadership of the IWU believe that bolstering a Congress based alliance is their sole remit then they implicitly reject the very basis upon which the IWU was founded; they need a time machine to get themselves back to 2001 and not bother embarking on this endeavour in the first place, stay within their old unions and fight the good fight and all that noble stuff. Or better yet, they could move aside and let those who still believe in the possibility of an unashamedly left-wing trade union flourishing outside of Congress, carry on with the job.
AM: That type of union trying to flourish outside Congress is a wholesome concept and is worthy of support. I see Congress pretty much as I see the Labour Party – a useful condom to protect the political class as it goes about screwing the most disadvantaged.
DK: But that is not the attitude within the NEC some of whom I believe described us as ‘scumbags’ at the meeting where we protested. That workers, ordinary working men and women who want to belong to an independent trade union could be described in this way is shocking. Is it true what I heard?
AM: Unfortunately, yes. The NEC meeting that weekend was a bad-tempered affair. Would there be a different atmosphere at a hate fest for Blueshirts? I doubt it. Obviously, coming from the Left they are not Blueshirts, but the animosity towards working people who were merely seeking to unionise was as intense as you would be likely to find at any right-wing rally. It was not something I felt I wanted to be part of. It made me distinctly uncomfortable. I found it disconcerting and disquieting. It left a very bad taste in my mouth. While I have time for the individuals on the NEC, I no longer identify with it as an institution. I am only on it because I was elected to it by the membership. I have a mandate to represent the view of the members not the view of the NEC, even less the view of Brendan Ogle.
DK: And what about Ray O’Reilly, a founding member of our Union, is he to be considered a scumbag for supporting us?
AM: Well, this is the point. The Dublin branch members on the NEC were so incensed by this that when we attended a large meeting of our Postal Driver colleagues in Dublin the following day, we very pointedly made a statement of protest in addressing them as “Fellow scumbags and bastards.” They had already picked up on the scuttlebug, so we needed to make it very clear where we stood on the issue. For that reason, we asked to become honorary members of your branch. I know these things are symbolic but even as symbolism they are significant markers. Although I was treated in a most genial manner going into the NEC meeting – I did ask for permission to cross the picket line - we have since learned that there may have been some things shouted at NEC members as they walked into the meeting. I did observe the postal drivers bearing placards with “Traitors to Lenin and Connolly” stencilled onto them. That helped inflame the NEC so we in the Dublin branch would not wish to see them crucified over a rush of blood to the head in the heat of the moment where passions were inflamed and anger running high on both sides of the picket line. On reflection, do you feel the placards were the right thing or did the postal drivers over egg the pudding in their own anger about being expelled from their union?
DK: To be honest the protest was very much a last-minute decision but I'm glad we did it. The placards were organised by one of the lads off his own initiative and you know what, given what our lads have had done to them, I certainly wasn’t going to censor anyone. We could’ve had 50 attend the protest but just kept the numbers to a minimum as we were due to have our meeting the following day and couldn’t expect our members to mobilise on both days. You attended the NEC meeting yourself - what did you make of it?
AM: I know I can laugh now, but I very grimly stated at the NEC meeting that I supported both the picket and the legal action and was openly endorsed in that assertion by my colleague from the Dublin branch who was also in attendance. They took it on the chin. What else could they do? And then the chair did a remarkable job of driving the meeting on, thus preventing it from collapsing under the weight of rancour. But here is an insight into how heated it was. It was suggested at one point after the summons arrived that the NEC refuse to recognise the court and go to jail. When you think about it, when the dust settles nobody is willing to go to jail to defend something as disreputable as deunionising workers at the behest of Brendan Ogle. I think this sort of outburst be regarded as unsworn testimony. Maddening at the time, but not something people should be held to forever and a day and nailed to the cross over. There are still things I firmly believe are worth going to jail for, but they would be rooted in the tradition of defending the right of workers to be in a trade union, not expelling them from one. What we in the Dublin branch refuse to recognise is the right of the NEC to expel its own members to suit another union within the Congress Cartel. For that reason we attended the meeting the following day of the postal drivers. We continue to regard you as fellow IWU members. The amount of work your people have put into the Dublin branch, coming straight from your working day to spend hours working on cases for IWU members, going well beyond the call of duty, drawing on your experience to guide other members, doing face to face consultations with people in trouble in their workplace – this is what the IWU has been crying out for. The Dublin branch was effectively kept afloat by the efforts of one guy for years, its chair, using every spare minute of his free time. He was in the office more than he was at home, under constant pressure, getting his wife to help out. Then we get this serious input from the postal drivers and are told to drop you because it does not suit the agenda of a Congress Cartel union. Is it any wonder we are spitting nails?
DK: How would that NEC meeting contrast with the postal drivers’ branch meeting the Dublin branch later attended in solidarity with their expelled colleagues?
AM: Night and day. The genuine radical resolve at your meeting was uplifting after the disheartening experience from the day before. As the postal drivers see it - and we are in total agreement with them on it - their sole transgression was to insist on what our branch members demand at WRC and Labour Court hearings for working men and women: the right to union membership, the right to due process.
DK: … Will the Network Technicians be next in the firing line if the NEC gets its way?.
AM: Well, you know the old Pastor Niemöller quote … first they came for the postal drivers. We in the Dublin branch have a fear that if they get away with booting your people out, the network technicians will be next. They need to, otherwise how do they sell the union off to Unite come a vote of the members? We are being advised that the action against postal drivers might be an act of Mala Fides, a means to rig any future vote. If the NEC can unilaterally and unaccountably throw out whoever they want why would they not target the ESB workers?
DK: Something which seems to continually raise its head - and I saw it again hinted at by one of the Connolly Youth cadre on Facebook - is the idea that our lads were deceitful and scheming in some way; I suspect it’s a reference to our planned but ultimately cancelled industrial action. Am I missing something here - how did this rubbish get oxygen?
AM: The Dublin branch is very critical of this because it sees in it a Stalinist type smear used to blacken the drivers and make it easier for the NEC to issue its fatwa, citing that the postal drivers are not fit to be members of this union. Apart from the obvious - that it is perfectly legitimate for an employee to want to take industrial action - the NEC claim is demonstrably false. Dublin branch records prove this. No industrial action was taken. The postal workers did only what they had approval to do from the Dublin branch. The Dublin branch was in error not the postal drivers. When confronted and challenged by the NEC on the wisdom of their action they halted it. This is a democratic union where members, certainly in the past, took decisions after debate and discussion as promoted in the Members’ Charter. It is not a Stalinist body where smearing is the time-honoured response to criticism and dissent.
DK: I am sure that is not the only smear.
AM: Probably not. There is the suggestion that the postal drivers are involved in a bid to make a hostile takeover of the IWU. I don’t know if that is a smear or a belief but the spectre of the self-fulfilling prophecy raises its head.
DK: Never a consideration for us. Our conflict with the NEC came only with their attempt to shaft us. We wanted to be in the union, not to take it over. It is another smear to portray us in a bad light to other members who are not being informed about what is going on.
AM: It is a poor one now. The only hostile takeover that I can see is being initiated by Brendan Ogle as part of his expansionist strategy for Unite. There is nothing more hostile than deunionising members of a union to suit your own agenda. The Dublin branch is not amused.
DK: Perhaps you can explain the overall position of the Dublin branch?
AM: The Dublin branch sets out its stall very clearly. The branch supports the legal action by the Postal drivers, seeing in it no material difference from what the branch routinely does in the Labour Court and Workplace Relations Commission. It is wholly in the spirit of seeking legislatively approved redress against injustice for workers. The branch supports the protest action taken by our postal driver colleagues. The matter of what is on the placards is determined by freedom of expression which the Dublin Branch supports, even if it does not share the sentiments expressed. The right of workers to protest against those who do them an injustice is a well-established principle within union culture.
As the postal drivers in conjunction with the Dublin branch have as an objective the retention and preservation of the only independent trade union licence for general workers outside the Congress Cartel, the branch will discuss with the drivers the possibility of organising a series of discussions open to the public and press. The NEC will be invited along to make their case. Independent trade unionism is such a valuable societal concept in its anti-monopoly and anti-corporatism character, that it would be remiss to exclude the public from deliberations on the matter. There will also be a number of fundraising efforts to cover legal and campaigning costs. We would like the matter to be debated in the media, on radio if we can get there, where the Dublin branch is quite prepared to go head to head with the NEC in order to enhance public understanding of what the issues are. This is a crucially important fight. Tánaiste Simon Coveney has called for the consolidation of the trade union movement. The NEC is seemingly in agreement with him. This union and its licence, seen by some branch members as squeezed by Blueshirts on one side and Stalinists on the other, is an endangered species and in need of protection from both sets of predators.
The bottom line for the Dublin branch is that in a city plagued by homelessness the NEC has left workers without a union home. In a city infamous for the Great Dublin Lock-Out, we have workers locked out of their union. You would think the NEC would have some cop on, some sense of the history of this city. If you want to impose a lock-out of union members don't do it in Dublin. The Savage Eye couldn’t have scripted its absurdity.