PIRATES, POACHERS, bad trade . unionists, insincere demagogues peddling pseudo democracy. Just some of the epithets thrown in public at the Marine, Port and General Workers' Union in recent months. What the MPGWU is called in private by certain officials of Another Union is so bad mannered as to be unprintable for fear of shocking the tender sensibilities of our readers. Jimmy Dunne must be turning in his grave at a rate of knots.
When Dunne died in 1972 the MPGWU lost a General Secretary who was the epitome of trade union respectability. President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in 1969, later elected to the Senate, he commanded affection from the dockers he represented while remaining a thorough moderate.
Throughout the epic maintenance dispute of 1969 Dunne joined in the chorus of invective from the employers and government, castigating the mainntenance men in the same vigorous terms used today against his own union.
Since Dunne's death, things have changed. The Marine Port has grown used to taking verbal knocks, especially from officials of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union.
Just over a year after Dunne died the MPGWU withdrew from Congress following a dispute which bore marked similarities to recent events at Ferenka. The National Engineering and Electtrical Trade Union complained that the MPGWU had poached its members from the firm of L.M. Ericssons. At a meeting with an independent chairman, a university professor, 290 out of the 300 workers voted to go with the MPGWU. The ICTU Disputes Commmittee ruled in favour of the National Engineering and Electrical Trade Union, so the Marine Port withdrew from Congress.
In this dispute the MPGWU had cited, in its reply to the NEETU complaint, 'its dissatisfaction with Congress's handling of its own complaint against the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs the previous year. That quarrel, at Battery Makers of Ireland, arose when ASTMS recruited
rune members of the junior management staff. Though the Disputes Committee ruled against ASTMS, Congress, claimed the Marine Port, took no actiort when ASTMS refused to hand back the nine members.
All of these arguments about poaching members and handing members back, which to an outsider seem to be more at home in an episode of "Roots" than in the annals of trade unionism, derive from paragraph 47( d) of the ICTU constitution. This prohibits the recruiting of workers in any "grade, group or category" already catered. for by another union, "save only with the consent of the union concerned." The MPGWU claims that they had many times attempted to change this rule but to no avail. And that the ITGWU were most vociferous against change. The rule seems eminently practical and the ICTU deals effectively with perhaps two dozen inter-union disputes each year without fuss or publicity. It breaks down, though, when a group of workers become so embittered with the officials of their union that they decide to leave en bloc. And especially when they turn to a union outside the Congress discipline. That is what has happened at Ferenka, and in other disputes in which the MPG WU has been involved.
THE MARINE Port and General Workers' Union was born in 1933, a breakaway from the British National Union of Seamen. Calling itself the Irish Seaman and Portworkers Union, it mainly comprised seamen, dockers and timber workers. Except for a brief period in 1958 (by which time the name had been changed to MPGWU) it was affiliated to the then Congress of Irish Unions. From the formation of present ICTU until the withdrawal in 1973 the MPGWU was a member of Congress.
It is not surprising that the relationship between the Union and Congress came to breaking point and snapped. The union was small, with about 5,00C members, and hungry for recruits, Acceptance of "rationalisation" and the coming of containerisation slashed away fifty per cent of its approximately 1100 members in the Dublin docks, The MPGWU put maximum stress on the "general workers" part of its name, and set about recruiting new members.
In a survey of union. officials pubblished in 1975 (covering both the MPGWU and the ITGWU among others), 59% believed that their unions were "in competition" with other unions. Soaring unemployment has increased that competition and some unions treat as a matter of pride the fact that members are being drained away from the bottom while others are being pulled in to keep the figures topped up. For instance, an amazing number of ITGWU Branch Annual Reports innclude the phrase, "although we suffered heavily from redundancies, overall membership has been maintained. "
So, despite increasing complaints from the ITGWU, the Marine Port has entered fully-bloodedly into that commpetition. It now claims a membership of 8,000 including travelling salesmen, Bord na nGon workers, CIE road freight workers - and, of course, Ferenka. Many of them have crossed over from the ITGWU.
A small union hustling for members is bound to run up against the ITGWU sooner rather than later. With 155,000 members (five times larger than its nearest rival) Liberty Hall casts a long shadow in the labour movement. The ITGWU's own recruitment policies not alone deprive the union of sympathy among most other unions in the face of its problem in Ferenka, but these policies themselves make the union vulnerable to rebellion by sections of the rank and file.
The cause of the cynicism about the ITGWU's problems is the union's "special relationship" with the Industrial Development Authority. This, it is alleged, allows the ITGWU to sign agreements with foreign firms under which the workforce of a newxfactory will be signed up to Liberty Hall, almost before the first sod is turned on the factory site. The obvious connsequence of what have become known as "sweetheart" deals is that manageement feel entitled to look for a tough agreement and sympathetic union officials, the officials themselves grow complacent and the workforce frusstrated. The pre~ence of a union, like the Marine Port eager for members and willing to buck the system, can appear to offer the rank and file an easy way out.
Officially, the ITGWU denies allegaations of "sweetheart" deals but one ITGWU fulltimer who has extensive experience of them (and who must remain nameless since we all have to make a living) admitted the dangers. If you don't do it, he explained, then the guy from the union down the road will. He gets the members and the feather in his cap. You get noticed for the . wrong reasons. It's a matter of "judging which kind of agreement will be most attractive to management without it being so lousy as to cause instant revolt when the members are recruited. Sometimes you make a mistake.
The MPGWU insists that it will not attempt to recruit a minority of a workkforce. Nor will they take on what are termed "dissident" members of another union. However, they are far from backward in coming forward when potential members come in sight.
The harvest is ripe at the moment.
Years of wage restraint, high unemployyment, tightening of belts and worsening of working conditions have increased frustration. A union which appears to look more favourably on militancy than does the ITG WU can win hearts, minds and weekly contributions. The Automobile, General Engineering and Mechanical Operatives Union has picked up an increasing number of fed up ITGWU members and has joined the MPGWU on the list of bogeymen as seen from Liberty Hall. It is not unusual for an ITGWU member who complains about the running of the union to be smeared with an accusation that "you want to bring the members into the Marine Port."
The MPGWU is at present living in the, cracks in the social contract, 'attempting to reap the harvest from dubious seeds sown by more commplacent unions. To say that this is "right" or "wrong" is pointless. The trade union movement is as unevenly developed as the economic system from which it sprang. Clashes of interest are inevitable. But part of the process of unifying the development of the unions, and advancing the interests of organised workers, will be the reallisation by the rank and file that six out of ten of their officials regard commpeting with each other as a significant part of their job.