Union election result shocks leadership

The strong vote secured by a left-wing political activist in a recent ballot to elect a new president of Ireland's largest trade union has been causing some concern in establishment circles.

Ireland's largest trade union, the Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), has a new president after a closer than expected ballot of its 180,000 members. The tight result - announced in early April 1997 - surprised the union's leadership, given the fact that a left-wing activist polled almost 42% of the votes cast compared with the 56% who voted for former vice-president, Jimmy Somers.

His opponent in the two-way contest was factory worker, Carolann Duggan, an employee at the multinational contact lens manufacturer, Bausch and Lomb, located in the south-eastern city of Waterford. She pointed out that her vote was almost identical to the 43% of SIPTU members who voted against the recently concluded three-year national central agreement, Partnership 2000 (IE9702103F) She said that workers are getting virtually nothing from the agreement, while employers continue to make huge profits in Ireland's booming economy.

The next major electoral contest within SIPTU is to take place this autumn, to find a replacement to slot into Mr Somers' former post of vice-president. Ms Duggan is likely to run in this contest also. However, she is likely to be opposed by a number of key figures within the SIPTU hierarchy, and maintaining her share of the vote will not be easy.

Ms Duggan, a member of the Socialist Workers' Party, believes that workers should be able to exercise more direct control over their unions. She had promised to take only the average industrial wage from the president's annual salary of IEP 74,000, if elected, with the balance being donated to the union's strike fund.

In an effort to reassure members in the private sector in particular, the newly elected president, Jimmy Somers, again emphasised his union's view that the overall 9.25% pay increase available under Partnership 2000 can be achieved without any concessions.

Mr Somers, who is also a member of the Irish Labour Party, said he regretted that some employers "and also some sections of the trade union movement were attempting to depict the agreement as being only a 7.25% deal for their own sectional interests." This is seen as an indirect attack on Ms Duggan for her contention that workers could not be guaranteed that a 2% local bargaining element in the agreement would be paid by employers.

Mr Somers has pointed to a "minute of understanding" between the employers body, the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) which acknowledges that the local bargaining increase will be widely applied. The new president also highlighted specific sections of Partnership 2000 which, he said, provide an opening for trade unions to press claims for profit-sharing in profitable companies. A special task force within SIPTU has been established to look at companies where such claims may be pursued.

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