ITGWU Establishment Rules
Mary Raftery examines the fluctuating leadership of the ITGWU
With the election of Eddie Browne as Vice President of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union last month, the Labour Party establishment in the union has firmly secured its position of control.
In the weeks preceding the election, Des Geraghty, a member of the Workers' Party and Browne's only opponent for the vice presidency, estimated that on the basis of the support he was promised he could win or at least do better than on his two previous attempts at general officership of the union.
At one stage during the long night before the Tralee election on May 31, Eddie Browne's supporters calculated that Geraghty was six votes ahead. Most of the delegates were scattered around the bars of the Mount Brandon Hotel, where the conference was due to start the following morning. With the news of Geraghty's lead, the canvass became more intense. Several experienced delegates said that they had never seen anything like it. By 2.30am there was general agreement that there were no more than ten votes between the two candidates, and that Browne might just squeeze in.
The result thus came as an equal shock to both sides. Browne won by 222 votes to 134. Geraghty's vote was actually slightly lower than in his contest last March against Christy Kirwan for the position of General Secretary. It was apparent that several delegates had broken their branch mandates, and that others had reneged on verbal commitments of support for Geraghty. They had succumbed to the considerable pressure which was exerted by the union's leadership.
Branch secretaries, virtually all of whom attend conference as delegates, are particularly susceptible to that kind of pressure because as employees' of the union, they take their orders from head office. They are a crucial link in the union's chain of command; their influence within branches and branch committees is considerable; in many cases their control is absolute. It is not possible to win a general officership election in the union without substantial branch secretary support. With the large influx in recent years of younger, more radical union officials, some of that support has shifted away from the leadership. But the Tralee election indicated that the breakthrough that Geraghty and the Workers' Party had hoped for is a long way off.
Of the one third of delegates who voted for Des Genlghty, probably only a small majority actively support the Workers' Party. The rest were votes against the leadershfp, against the Labour Party or simply against Browne.
The split within the union is clearly perceived as a left-right one, or more broadly as pro- or anti-establishment. The Workers' Party have assumed the leadership of the left-wing, anti-establishment faction largely because of the absence of an active left-wing Labour participation. They are the largest and most organised opposition grouping and have attracted the support of a number of members and officials who would, however, strongly disagree with the party on several issues. They would not, for instance, support the affiliation of the union to the Workers' Party.
Aware of the disparate nature of their support, the Workers' Party does not advocate disaffiliation from the Labour Party. And while there has been a flood of letters from members demanding exemption from their payments to the political fund (which provides financial assistance to Labour Party candidates), there is no serious support within the union for disaffiliation.
The division within the ITGWU does not manifest itself in dissension on issues of policy. Of all the motions discussed during the four-day conference in Tralee, a vote was counted on only one; the size of the majority either for or against the other motions was such that counting was unnecessary. The generally irrelevant nature of the proceedings was plainly indicated by the almost complete lack of debate on motions. As soon as the elections were over, the sense of energy and drive disappeared from the conference. The contest between the two factions is more about who controls the union than how they are likely to use that control.
Now that the Labour Party is secure within the union, a backlash against the Workers' Party is inevitable. There is speculation that as part of the current restructuring of the union the Development Services Division and the research sections, where the Workers' Patty have considerable influence, are to be cut back. Consideration is also being given to restricting the powers of the six National Group Secretaries. It is by judicious use of those powers and by what are recognised within the union as their efficiency and competence that the two Workers' Party Group Secretaries, Des Geraghty and Pat Rabbitte, have reached positions of such prominence.
The general officers of the Transport Union are effectively elected for life. They are obliged to retire at 65, which, with John Carroll at 58 the oldest of the three officers, would mean that there would not be an election for almost seven years. There is, however, intense speculation within the union that he will retire in a little over eighteen months' time, when he reaches sixty. The person most likely to succeed him as President of the ITGWU is Michael Bell, the Labour TD for Louth.
Michael Bell's decision last March to resign the Labour whip and vote against the Social Welfare Bill was highly praised and applauded at the Tralee conference. Christy Kirwan mentioned his name frequently, particularly in the context of his support for the union's tax campaign. In the eyes of a considerable section of the delegates he was the only Labour TD who had had the courage to stick by his trade union principles.
From relative obscurity in the mid-1970s as a Fianna Fail member of Louth County Council and General Secretary of the Shoe workers' Union, Michael Bell became a National Group Secretary of the ITGWU on the merger of the two unions, joined the Labour Party, and in 1982 almost trebled his vote in the November elections to take a Dail seat.
As National Group Secretary he gained the respect of the union's members and officials regardless of their political persuasions. He was said to be hard-working, firm and decisive. He is currently on leave of absence from the union, and when Michael Gannon retires in August, Bell will be the second most senior-ranking Group Secretary. Politically, he is regarded by the Workers' Party as belonging to the right and by the Labour Party as left-wing. It is an ideal position from which to seek support from a membership as broadlybased as that of the ITGWU.
It is interesting that his strongest support comes from the passive side of the Labour Party within the union, which includes the three general officers, none of whom have ever been active in the party. Among Labour Party activists in the union there is considerable resentment at what they perceive as his betrayal of the party. They claim that there was no great pressure on him from the union to vote against the Social Welfare Bill.
The Workers' Party view his vote on that occasion as part of a wellplanned campaign to gain him support within the union, support which would not be given to a TD who toed the party line.
There were two reasons why Michael Bell did not run for the position of Vice President of the ITGWU in May. Firstly, the support of the leadership had been promised as far back as Christmas to Eddie Browne in return for his support for Christy Kirwan in last February's election for General Secretary. And secondly, Bell was far more interested in spending the coming year as Mayor of Drogheda.
If anything is likely to dissuade him from seeking the Presidency of the ITGWU it is his deep link to his constituency. Almost his entire working life has been spent as a full-time union official in Drogheda. His rule of the Transport Union in Louth was absolute. He is the first ever native Louth Labour Party TD, and the first Drogheda-born representative of the Louth constituency for thirty years.
But at 46, with perhaps the Labour Party's greatest victory last year, and a secure seat behind him, his political career seems doomed, at least for the foreseeable future; he has nothing better to look forward to than a long, long stretch languishing on the back benches. Michael Bell is not a man to wait patiently, biding his time until his sins are forgiven or forgotten.
The job as President of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union is his for the taking.
Although the Labour Party activists within the union may resent him, they have no one of his prominence or seniority who could hope to defeat him. And as was clear from the recent vice-presidency election, the Workers' Party are a long way from making the breakthrough into the select triumverate that leads the Transport Union.