Glass Ceiling

[This article was written prior to the election in May 2000 for the vice-presidency of Ireland’s largest trade union, SIPTU.]

Two part-time union officials – both women – are competing for one of the top three posts at the top of the SIPTU trade union management pyramid.

Colman Cassidy assesses their difficulties

2-LWR-RIGHT-800x600-Liberty-Hall_kindlephoto-1924148Nuala Keher has out-Machiavellied the power brokers of Liberty Hall by acquiring the rights to, a tactically invaluable domain name and e-mail extension.  It’s an important step in the election campaign for the £60,000-a-year job of SIPTU vice-president, which ends on May 13th.

“I needed access to my electorate,” she says, matter-of-factly.   All she could get from the union was a print-out of shop stewards, but not the comprehensive list that would put her in touch with the 200,000-strong SIPTU membership: “I’ve told them I’ll donate the address to the union as soon as the election is over, but not before.”

She knows that her action has ruffled feathers on the union’s national executive committee, on which she herself has a seat, but democracy, she insists, is on her side as she takes a hammer to the union’s glass ceiling in her bid to make it to the 15th floor of Liberty Hall.   She and Carolann Duggan are the only two women ever to contend, as non-fulltime officials, for election to the top of the union’s management.

Nóirín Greene, who competed against the union’s current general president Des Geraghty in a previous election, was working full-time as SIPTU’s equality officer at the time.  Greene is now national organiser for MSF, the white collar union.  She says she ran for the vice-presidency because of her background in industrial relations, which she feels, is a prerequisite for this particular “general officer” post.

Nuala Keher, however, from Galway, has no illusions about her own ability to do the job or the fact that she has not had fulltime industrial relations experience.  She is a young grandmother of 45 with fire in her belly, convinced that the three general officers (president, vice-president and general secretary) can move their roles around at their own discretion.  Any shortfall on the industrial relations front can be “bought in”.

It is Keher’s first election and she has the aid of the Galway-based full-time union official, Eddie Higgins, with whom she co-authored a book on legal rights for workers, Your Right to Work.  But even with the website, which projects an up-and-at-’em image of a go-getter, there are real difficulties, such as gaining access to the workforce in SIPTU-organised factories.  The shop stewards have the power to deny such access – and often do, pleading that the “company won’t allow it”, despite her credentials as a member of the union’s national executive.

Their allegiances lie elsewhere very often.  Campaigning in this election – even for full-time officials such as Jack O’Connor and Jack Nash, the two male contenders – is a highly partisan experience.

Keher’s father was the station master at Oranmore before Todd Andrews decided to close the station down in the mid 1960s.  He died shortly afterwards at the age of 42, and her mother, with six children, took on the role of CIE level-crossing gatekeeper.  Nuala, who left school at 15, was also a gatekeeper and in turn factory worker, and afterwards a Western Health Board employee before she married and had four children.  She found time, somehow, to complete her formal education, take a BA by night and end up with a masters in industrial sociology.  Her MA thesis was appropriately entitled New Forms of Work: a Case Study in Galway.  She currently heads NUI Galway’s national open learning centre and is involved in training SIPTU representatives.

Keher was against SIPTU signing up to the current Partnership for Prosperity and Fairness, even though she seconded the motion which allowed the union to participate in talks on a new national wage agreement to replace Partnership 2000.   She was concerned, she says, that they should have an alternative strategy in the event that the talks failed.  It was not acceptable in her view that consensus should be inevitable. Politically she is an “independent” and does not belong to any party.

Carollann Duggan (39), on the other hand, would hate to be described as “politically independent”.  She rejoices in being an unreconstructed socialist – a member of the Socialist Workers Party: “I’ve never attempted to hide my politics from day one. It would not make sense – it’s what I am, everything I stand for and am committed to.”

This is her fourth election campaign in three years for a SIPTU general officer post.   Her first showing, against Jimmy Somers, for the vice presidency, in 1997, was her finest hour.  She took 43.3 per cent of the valid poll. She did less well against Des Geraghty, polling 20.5 per cent, but improved on that against John McDonnell in the election for general secretary.

A SIPTU shop steward in the multinational company Bausch & Lomb’s contact lens division in Waterford, she has had to take time off work at her own expense and obtain a loan from the credit union just to stay in the race.  It means that she won’t have a holiday this year.

The current campaign she finds particularly frustrating.  There are the logistical problems involved in just getting around Dublin, she found the other day: “There are the huge traffic jams. I can’t get around because I don’t know half the places in which SIPTU is organised.”

She, too, wrote to Liberty Hall looking for a list of members.  She was informed that a list of shop stewards would be made available to her at Connolly Hall, Waterford. But there is no time to go through all those.  She would like nothing more than a level playing field.  She’s not part of any inner union cabal, she says – and it hurts.

She does have an email address – – however, and this is a real source of comfort as messages pour in from disaffected union members all around the country, who share her distaste for neo-corporatism and national wage agreements, which she insists have been detrimental to the union and its membership: “The union is weaker now because of 13 years of partnership with the bosses.”

Last year, Duggan caused silent apoplexy among the union’s leadership during the Ryanair dispute over trade union recognition, when she turned up at Dublin airport to mount a one-woman picket in what was patently an unofficial stoppage that could not be legally countenanced: “They freaked out because I didn’t fudge the issue.”

Her pet hate is the attitude of full-time union officials who more and more, she insists, tend to present themselves as independent brokers when it is clear that they cannot be: “If you ask them what’s their position on such and such, they will always give an evasive answer.  It’s never clearcut.”  IBEC officials would never present themselves as less than partisan on behalf of their members, the employers.  Neither would she expect them to.

While his politics are anathema to her, Duggan has real respect for Tom Parlon, the IFA leader, for his dogged insistence, regardless of the personal and organisational cost, not to sell out the interests of his members.  She cannot imagine any general officer of SIPTU telling members, in effect, “You’re right to break the law!” in the way that Arthur Scargill backed the struggle of British coal miners against Thatcher in the mid-1980s.

As a militant shop steward, Duggan is not one to duck local issues.  At her union’s south-east regional conference in November 1998 she proposed a motion calling for the “regionalising” of SIPTU’s industrial and training departments on pragmatic grounds.

Production targets were rising exponentially on the factory floor, with workers being forced at short notice to oversee production on not one but two or three machines at a time.  A small number of people were even running from three to six machines, she said.  Whereas companies would bring in their own industrial engineers overnight to set these output norms, it often took weeks for the union to respond.

“We need to be able to measure the cost of extra production on people’s lives and health – and this could effectively be done if the system was regionalised,” she told the conference.  The motion was debated in the face of a warning from Jack O’Connor, the regional secretary (also a contender in the current election), who saw it as an issue of “resources”.

“The point is that people are not getting what they deserve,” she pointed out.  “We need better services.  People are working from three to six machines on average within a three-shift cycle.”  She felt unable to withdraw the motion which was passed by the conference.


© The Irish Times

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