5 February 2004 Edition
Clare Lockout - Community management board shuts up shop
BY JOANNE CORCORAN
Imagine a scenario where you, the taxpayer, has ordered that some of your taxes be directed to a worthwhile local scheme finding work for the long-term unemployed. Imagine that that scheme is extraordinarily successful and is slowly helping an area of disadvantage get back on its feet. Now imagine that the management board of that invaluable service, the board whose wages you pay, has decided to shut the service down because, they claim, there are problems with the staff. No negotiations are held, no arbitration help is sought, just bang — we're closing, and 16 people, also paid by you, who staffed the service with dedication, are now locked out of their offices and forced to picket on the street to bring some attention to their plight.
Well, this is exactly what happened in County Clare last week.
Clare Local Employment Service (or 'Obair' as this particular section is called) is part of a network of schemes provided by the government in 1996 to help the long-termed unemployed re-enter the labour market.
Funded by FÁS, managed by people representing statutory and voluntary agencies and staffed by people, who for the most part, have just re-entered employment themselves, Clare LES, headquartered in Ennis, had, up until last week, 450 people on its books looking for work.
The story behind the sudden closure of this vital service is astounding, and in the words of union representative Greg Duff, is an example of a situation where all normal codes of industrial relations have been thrown out the window.
"The background to all this, from what we can see, started at the end of last year when there were allegations of bullying made against members of the management board," according to Duff. "Everybody in the place, including most of the management board, is in a union, so the issue was dealt with by SIPTU. It was a serious situation, and there were accusations that the board's written response to the bullying issue was actually drafted by the person at the centre of the allegations. We were in the middle of dealing with it, but then the board came back in December and said they had decided to close the service on 31 January. It was completely out of the blue.
"The reasons they gave were ludicrous. They said there had been a breach of confidentiality over board meetings. We reckon they were referring to a local newspaper getting their hands on the bullying story. They also said that there were problems with the relationship between staff and management. We thought, Jesus, if every business were to close for that reason, there'd be nowhere left open.
"All in all, they were acting as though, instead of us being a state-funded service which worked with the unemployed, we were actually some multinational firm, which was not making enough profit to keep the bosses happy."
Despite attempts by the staff and SIPTU to negotiate with the board, nothing was forthcoming and last Monday, when the 16 workers turned up at the service in hope of a resolution, they found themselves locked out by their former bosses.
Pat Talty, the staff mediator, says that the workers have been forced to picket.
"We have tried everything to get the management board to talk to us. A couple of weeks ago we even sent a delegation up to Dublin to meet with Minister for State Frank Fahey and ask him to intervene. He actually called on the board to reconsider their decision."
However, despite its state funding and connections, Clare LES is considered a separate legal entity, which the government cannot interfere in. The situation is not helped by the fact the service does not fall under the remit of a Partnership area (the LES network was predominantly set up in Partnership areas - Clare and Kildare are two counties which do not fall into this category). If the organisation had been in a Partnership area, management would have more than likely found it far more difficult to make the decision to close.
SIPTU Branch Secretary for Clare, Mary O'Donnell, last Monday confirmed that the board members are not responding to the mounting pressure on them to reverse their decision.
"They (the board) have refused to go to the Labour Relations Court, unless it is to discuss redundancy packages," she told An Phoblacht. "We see absolutely no reason why our members should have been sacked in the first place. So this is now an official dispute."
The Obair staff say they are even more horrified at the backing of the closure by particular individuals on the board (eight of the eleven managers voted for closure).
"The board's vice-chair, who voted in favour, is actually an ICTU (Irish Congress of Trade Unions) representative, and yet he has supported this move," says Pat Talty. "We were appalled by this, especially when we considered that when they served us with notice of closure, they all, including this person, refused to meet with SIPTU to discuss the situation."
An Phoblacht's attempts to contact and interview the board's vice-chair were unsuccessful this week.
"This whole thing throws up a ream of issue about state-funded organisations," says Duff. "How is it possible that this service, which the public pays for, can be closed down without any recriminations?
"There are even rumours flying about that when this blows over, the board will re-open Obair with different staff, which I find absolutely disgraceful.
"It bothers me too, that the board haven't even stopped to think about the people they are supposed to be helping — the unemployed."
Weak and ineffectual management
The official reason given for the closure of Obair relates to difficulties in management-staff relations. However local media have slammed the management as being weak and ineffectual in their dealing with any 'staff problems'.
The reference to leaked confidentiality from a body that is funded out of the public purse, and presumed by the people who pay the bills to meet criteria of transparency and accountability, has also been highlighted as peculiar, by staff and local people alike
But the main question that arises out of the current situation in Clare is how this management board has the power to make the decision it has made. There is no problem with funding for the service — FÁS have stated that they are willing to continue the funding indefinitely. And Clare's unemployment problem is not in decline, in fact it rose by 3% at the start of this year. Obair is needed, so why is the board being allowed get away with this seemingly arbitrary decision?
Until that question is answered, the public should be wary about just who exactly is holding the states purse strings in Clare, and who will be holding them in the future.
For now, however, the workers from Clare LES are pretty much on their own in their struggle for some answers to that very question.