14 January 1999 Edition

Resize: A A A Print

Fighting for the workers' share in the nation's wealth

Roisín de Rossa interviews Carolann Duggan, an almost unknown trade union activist who nearly won the election for President of the largest union in Ireland
       There is a lot of bitterness on the shop floor against the union leaderships for getting into these partnerships, and negotiating nothing for us.  
Carolann Duggan

Who is Carolann Duggan? Carolann is the SIPTU (Services, Industrial, Technical, Professional Union) member who won 42% of the 200,000 SIPTU vote in a two horse race for General President of the Union in 1996. In two subsequent elections for full time union positions she continued to score a very substantial vote. Her vote shook the world of labour in Ireland.

To meet her, you'd never think it. Entirely unassuming, no airs or graces, she has worked for 14 and a half years on an assembly line colouring contact lens. You want blue eyes - see Carolann.

Her father was a butcher, her mother a liberal, but the political bug caught up with her early in life, and has remained with her despite the years of eight hours shifts, two breaks, on an assembly line for a multinational company which is `by no means the worst', she says herself, which employs 1,500 in Waterford's Industrial Estate, in one of their two factories. The other company's factory makes sunglasses, in case the bright lights of the Celtic tiger glare too much.

But the assembly line is not where she started. There were other bright lights for life. As a young woman she went to Paris for a year for art. Amongst other things she set up the Rape Crisis Centre in Waterford. ``I don't be involved in that now,'' she says. But where she is now is on a weekly wage packet amounting to £14,000 a year. ``I wouldn't even get a mortgage on a house on that wage.'' If she had won the election for Jimmy Somers' job, she would have been earning £76,000. Carolann said if elected that she'd only take a worker's average wage. She doesn't want to be like them and she isn't. They are long past caring.

These people have forgotten - if they ever knew - what life on the assembly line is like. ``You'd want to see me on the job. I'm the shop steward. and I run from one machine to the next, to keep up with the member I'm talking to.'' She runs round her sitting room in high speed spurts, pushing her way around the virtual furniture. `They speed up the machines, they put the girls on five instead of three - you wouldn't believe the stress levels - and the boredom, the monotony. Human beings weren't made for this. The only thing which keeps you going is the craic, and... the potential, the power, what we could do in SIPTU. SIPTU could double its membership in a couple of months if it set about it. But it doesn't bother. `Recruit, recruit' That's what I am about. Cause in the last resort that is our strength.

``But management is delighted when they see SIPTU come through the door. Why wouldn't they be? They have the Industrial Relations Act there in front of them, thumbing through its pages... No you can't do that. No, have to stop you there. The Act says you can't, and so on. I don't have any regard for that law. It was designed to take away the power of members to win decent shop floor conditions, decent levels of pay and protection from bullying and intimidation - what goes on every day in work.''

Why did so many of the already 200,000 strong union (about a quarter of the unionised workers) vote for Carolann? ``Ah no. It wasn't me they were voting for. Sure they didn't know me. I put my name in two days before nominations closed. The only way I could get access to the members' list was in the city's Connolly Hall, working hours only, with a union official invigilating me. Imagine! And the lists were two foot high. Sure I would not have got through them in two months, with 20 people to help me. And I had to be in work!

No computer at home, no stamps, funds, paper, transport, only four days off work during the campaign. But by lunchtime at the count there were two piles of votes and it was anyone's guess which was highest. It was what she said on the leaflet that passed round hand to hand. She called for Trade Union recognition, for a minimum wage, for election of all union officials, to be paid the average industrial wage (about £300 per week).

Carolann declared she'd put the surplus of the £76,000 back into a strike fund. That got up their noses. But as a result they cut back the executives' wages from £76,000 to £60,000 now. But that difference is more than what most of us earn in a year.

It wasn't plain sailing during the campaign. Did Carolann get a large vote from women? ``Not at all. I don't believe it. During the campaign there was a National SIPTU Womens' Conference. `Women - the way forward together' and all those fine sentiments. The whole first day no one even mentioned my campaign. The second day a delegate from Dublin pointed out her amazement at this. Red faces? Maybe.''

Labour relations have changed since Haughey (of all people) knocked on Bill Attley's door and said let's have a partnership, and we've had the succession of three year sweetheart deals since between unions and IBEC, starting with the PNR (Programme for National Recovery). ``It's all `partnership' now,'' Carolann says. ``But how's that. How can you have partnership with management that can sack you? Sure when we can sack the manager, or personnel, then we can talk about partnership. Partnership is between equals.

``There is a lot of bitterness on the shop floor against the union leaderships for getting into these partnerships, and negotiating nothing for us. Look at the last one, which just squeezed by the vote in SIPTU. Sure they negotiated nothing. No minimum wage, no recognition of trade unions, and a derisory succession of annual wage increases between one and two and a half per cent, which amount to a cut in real wages for everyone, especially if you take the increase in house prices into account - but they don't add this into the inflation index, even though a third to a half of most workers' wages goes on accommodation.

``And right now they are negotiating Partnership 2000, stroke two. All the talk now is that the unions may agree to give them a `no strike clause'. Imagine all the grievance procedures, the stages, the arbitrations, labour courts and so on, and at the end of the day, you've no power at all.

``The battle is in SIPTU. If SIPTU votes against it, then it will be beaten. Maybe then it will be time to look for repeal of the Industrial Relations Act. Look at it. We've over 7000 SIPTU members here alone in Waterford, and that doesn't even include Waterford Glass. (The Glass, with a long history of militancy, is organised by ATGWU). Imagine what we could do to change things around in this country.

``We're not just talking about working conditions - and behind every worker lies a story of bitter, often unrequited, injustice, of when you can go to the toilet, when you can stop for a smoke, when you have to work, where you put your shoes when you come in, what you wear, how fast you have to go... We're talking of all the working people who never got to share in Ireland's increased wealth. Partnership kept us down to 7% money increase in our wage over three years. On the shop floor they call this partnership Human Resource Management, and IBEC's travelling circus of conciliation services. Just who are they servicing? I don't want to be conciliated. I want some control of my life.''

It's a cry of anger that is reflected in all the disputes that have gone on in recent years - Carolann mentions a few, Ryanair, Arcon Miners, Showerings, Hoffman La Roche, Dunnes Stores, Limerick Corporation, Wicklow ambulance people, Galway and Tullamore hospitals, the building workers. Will they beat Programme 2000, number two?

``Don't know. It depends on us''. Whatever about it, it's worth fighting. Carolann's vote bears testimony to that.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1