Women's role, greater local autonomy at heart of new SIPTU vision


"Seed" will be the buzz word at the SIPTU biennial conference this week. The acronym stands for "Solidarity, Equity, Equality and Democracy".

It was planted very much at the centre of the agenda by Mr Des Geraghty, in his successful vice-presidential campaign which just ended and it is likely to feature strongly in the vocabulary of potential candidates for the position of general secretary which falls vacant next April.

These will be assessing their electoral prospects over the next four days and they will ignore the SEED values at their peril.

The country's largest union is engaged in a major process of renewal. The conference, which starts tomorrow, will be the first at which a majority of SIPTU's general officers will have been elected directly by the membership.

For its first six years, SIPTU was governed by a generation of "founding fathers" who drew their mandate from the two unions which came together to form Ireland's biggest union; the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and the Federated Workers Union of Ireland.

The last member of that generation, Mr Billy Attley, is still general secretary. One of the main architects of social partnership and of the new structures in SIPTU, Mr Attley's presence will no doubt be strongly felt this week in Ennis. But it will be the union's president, Mr Jimmy Somers, and Mr Geraghty who will be setting the agenda for the future.

The trade union movement in Ireland is a bit like the Catholic Church. It has at last woken up to the importance of the laity, the ordinary members. If they drift away, the elaborate structures and edifying objectives become irrelevant.

SIPTU has been to the fore in trying to re-engage them. New structures are being put in place to delegate more power to local negotiators and shop stewards, to give greater autonomy to branches over how they use funds and to involve women members more actively in the union.

Like most unions, SIPTU needs to address urgently the problem of under-representation by women in its structures. They represent 40 per cent of the total membership and are being recruited more rapidly than men in expanding areas of employment, like services.

The blame for their low participation levels lies in large part with the union's former leadership. But it is the people at the top table this week who will bear the flak for past inaction.

A major problem is that the failure to develop a cadre of experienced women members in the past middle leadership positions means there is a dearth of adequately qualified candidates to easily fill positions at the top. However, many of the problems SIPTU faces are far from new. Low pay, inadequate social services, tax reform and union recognition will dominate the conference agenda just as they did two years ago in Killarney.

Mr Somers and Mr Geraghty are likely to maintain that Partnership 2000 and its predecessors have been more effective than "free-for-alls" in delivering real improvements in living standards for workers. They will almost certainly use the opportunity to tell the Government that better social services and more tax cuts must be delivered in the next budget.

They will argue that the economy is doing so well that these normally conflicting objectives can be achieved simultaneously.

The national minimum wage will feature prominently. SIPTU represents more low paid workers than all the other unions in the country put together.

It will be calling for that minimum to be set at £5 a hour. The fact that Britain is now considering the introduction of a minimum wage will be used to urge its rapid introduction here.

The British government's decision to look at problems of union recognition will also be used at the SIPTU conference to argue for changes here. Again, SIPTU is more affected by problems of non-recognition than any other union. It says that without recognition in the workplace, Partnership 2000 will fail and with it everyone's prosperity will be jeopardised.