Shop steward favourite for top job in new merged union

The beginning of May 2007 marked the establishment of a new trade union, following the merger of Amicus and the Transport and General Workers Union. Much still needs to be decided in the coming months with regard to this merger, including the question of who will lead it. A chief shop steward at Waterford Crystal has emerged as a possible ‘leader-in-waiting’ for the newly-established union.

Jimmy Kelly, chief shop steward at the internationally known glassware manufacturer Waterford Crystal, has emerged as one of the favourites to lead the Irish division of the newly merged Amicus and the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU). Mr Kelly has been a long-standing member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). In 2002, he ran in the general election as a candidate for the SWP in the Waterford constituency.

Amicus and TGWU are British trade unions with divisions in Ireland, where TGWU is known as the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union (ATGWU). Both trade unions are represented in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Since the founding of the Irish Free State in 1922, British unions have maintained branches in Ireland. These unions tend to operate as autonomous regional divisions, while maintaining strong ideological links to their UK parent unions.

It has come to light that the top job of regional secretary in ATGWU will have to be filled next year, because the current regional Secretary, Mick O’Reilly, is to retire in May 2008. However, this move does not mark the end of Mr O’Reilly’s involvement with the trade unions, as he is considering running for vice-president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) in elections this summer.

Creation of super-union

Members of the two UK-based unions, Amicus and TGWU, recently voted in favour of a merger which will, on 1 May 2007, create a new private sector ‘super-union’. The two unions are currently led by Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley, both known for their strong left-wing views. Preparatory work on choosing a name for the new union is almost complete. Names such as ‘Unite – the union’ and ‘One Union’ have been mooted. The carefully considered alternatives will be put to a membership vote in the near future.

Both unions have significant membership levels. In the UK, Amicus currently has about 1.2 million members, while TGWU has about 800,000 members. The two unions have about 100,000 members in Ireland, north and south of the border; of these, 58,000 people are members of Amicus and approximately 42,000 people are members of ATGWU.

Leadership position

Jimmy Kelly is currently president of TWGU and the first Irish person to hold this position. He is also chair of the TGWU General Executive Council, and therefore already occupies a powerful position in the wider UK union. It has been speculated in the Dublin-based Industrial Relations News (IRN) that Mr O’Reilly ‘has anointed Kelly as his heir apparent’. However, the UK leadership will clearly have a say in this decision as well, and interviews for the position are set to take place this July.

If selected as ATGWU regional secretary, Jimmy Kelly could then find himself in a position to become regional leader of the merged ATGWU-Amicus union in Ireland. Initially, for a period of about one year to 18 months, ‘dual’ leadership arrangements will be maintained between ATGWU and Amicus. The current Amicus national secretary for the Irish region, Jerry Shanahan, will be working in tandem with the current secretary of ATWGU, Mr O’ Reilly, to ensure a smooth transition of the two unions into the one merged union. Once the interim period has elapsed, it is most likely that a choice will be made to appoint either Mr Shanahan or whoever is elected to replace Mick O’Reilly, be that Mr Kelly or another candidate. The other option, though seen as a less likely option, would be to allow the dual-leadership situation to continue.


If Mr Kelly does secure the position, he may challenge the trade union establishment in the Republic, which generally embraces the 21-year old centralised social partnership process. In this regard, little will change for ATGWU, as the union has always been hostile to centralised pay bargaining. Amicus, meanwhile, has been thinking positively about centralised pay deals and social partnership for some time now. Whether this will continue to be the case for Amicus once the merger is concluded is uncertain. All of this makes the prospect of Mr Kelly attaining the position of general secretary in the newly-established union a matter of considerable interest in industrial relations and political circles in Ireland.

Brian Sheehan, Industrial Relations News (IRN)

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