Jack O’Connor interview

Jack O'Connor speaks out, picture by Michael Gallagher

Kevin Brannigan meets the country’s leading trade unionist, SIPTU General President Jack O’Connor, who relates how a life dedicated to socialist politics has led him from youthful Trotskyism to a belief that a untied Labour movement is the only force that will bring progressive social change to Ireland and how, along the way, he has become the right wing media’s number one hate figure.

From Jack O’Connor’s office window on the 15th floor of Liberty Hall you can see straight into the heart of the IFSC. A couple of hundred feet away from the headquarters of Ireland’s biggest trade union stands the physical embodiment of Celtic Tiger Ireland – a place the New York Times once labelled the ‘Wild west of European banking’.

Looking out from the SIPTU leader’s office across the rooftop of the Custom House, you can clearly make out office workers going about their day.  It could be the front line of a cold war, two monumental forces of opposing ideologies engaged in one long stare-off. Except this isn’t a cold war, it’s a hot one for the future of Irish society.

Jack is late for our interview, he’s been attending meetings all day in SIPTU’s training college on the South Circular Road and it being the first fine day of spring, he has decided to walk back across town. This leaves me alone to admire the view of our city and reminders on the office walls of unions’ past glories. Among them is a poster featuring Jack London’s definition of a strike breaker:  “After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad, and the vampire, he had some awful substance left with which he made a scab.”

It’s a quote that stands firm to this day, strikebreaking leaving a sour taste in the mouth during some recent disputes.  When we meet, it’s nearing the end of day 13 of the ‘Green Isle’ hunger strike by TEEU members in O’Connor’s adopted home town of Naas. A desperate situation which O’Connor and his union are doing all they can to rectify, not least by helping to clear the good names of the workers involved of the slurs being thrown at them from sections of the media.

The power of the Irish media is all too evident when one thinks of O’Connor and the trade union movement.  A quick internet search reveals dozens of examples of commentary on O’Connor’s beard alongside clichéd remarks about the ‘dull, dour, red’ union leader who, if you were to believe commentators in the Sunday broadsheets, is as culpable for the collapse of the free market system and the current recession as a Lehman Brothers stock trader.

The aim of headlines such as ‘Wacko Jacko’ has been to undermine the trade union fightback.vO’Connor yearns for objective debate. On meeting him, you quickly realise that the media description O’Connor, who only Mary McAleese has more votes than on this island, as dull and drab is far from correct.

In terms of stature, he may not be an imposing figure – but he has a distinct presence. Banging the table when he makes a point and never finishing a sentence without making one, the table gets a lot of abuse. Despite having left school at the age of 15, O’Connor is highly articulate, in much the same way you imagine early school leavers such as Connolly and Larkin were.  It’s what some like to dub ‘working class intellectualism’.

But he believes his early retirement from the education system puts him at a disadvantage when debating university professors and qualified economists.  He admitted: “If I had gone on to third level, I think I would be able to do a better job,  I also think the fact that I haven’t studied orthodox economics  puts me at a disadvantage.”

Holding such high office and not possessing a third-level degree may seem astonishing to a modern generation that has seen progression to third level rise from 15 per cent in 1994 to over 70 per cent today. But O’Connor’s university was the ‘University of Life’, to use one cliché about the man that is quite appropriate.

Having left school after his inter-cert, Jack gained employment in horticulture in his native North County Dublin. He was, by this age, already politically aware having been inspired, like thousands of others, by the worker and student uprisings of the late 1960s.

He recalled: “I was about 11 when the Parisian students and workers rose up in ’68. This was also around the time of the Anti- War movement in America and the anti-apartheid struggle, the Prague Spring and the Civil Rights marches in the North. I can remember being excited by these events, I connected with them and from there, I began to read about radical politics and radical ideas.”

“I can distinctly remember the 1969 election here when Labour stood on a radical socialist policy with the infamous tag line ‘The ’70’s will be Socialist’. That election also coincided with another event in my life when my father, who was an agricultural labourer, became ill and couldn’t work again, so we lived on welfare. I don’t know what I was reading at the time, but it certainly corresponded with a view of the world that I was forming.”

With a socialist view developing and having already left school to take up full-time employment as a labourer at the age of 15, O’Connor decided to get politically involved for the first time.

He said: “I had intended to join the Connolly Youth Movement, I was about 16 and I came into town on a Saturday to make contact with them, the Connolly Youth used to sell a paper at the GPO every Saturday, but they weren’t there that day. Instead there were people there selling a paper from one of the Trotskyite groups so I joined them instead. From here I found my way into the Trotskyitemovement and then later on into Militant tendency.”

While O’Connor’s entry into the Trotskyite movement may have been an accident, his first steps into the world of trade unionism were more evolutionary. He said: “I used to be criticised for not being active in a trade union. Even though I had been reading Larkin and Connolly and had written essays on the 1913 lockout, I didn’t actually connect with the trade union movement as being an instrument for social change.”

But O’Connor’s eyes were soon opened to the importance of trade unionism and he became involved with the Federation of Rural Workers – a union which was founded by ‘Young’ Jim Larkin in 1946 and by the time of Jack joining, had a 10,000-strong membership. By the time he was 18, O’Connor was organising.

He said: “The leadership of the FRW were in the conservative wing of the Labour Party. But they were deeply appreciative of anyone who was willing to work. I became heavily involved in trade union work. When I was 18, I got work on a pipe line project in North Dublin and I was instrumental, along with others, in organising it into a union.”

As O’Connor became more immersed in the world of trade unionism, his involvement with Trotskyism began to wane. He said: “I found myself drifting increasingly away from a Trotskyite analysis of the world and into the more mainstream Labour Party which I combined with my trade union work.

“I had by then started work as a bin man. This meant I was finished work early in the day leaving me with a lot of free time, others took on a second job but I used the time to get more involved in trade union and political work.”

When I was 18, I got work on a pipe line project in North Dublin and I was instrumental, along with others, in organising it into a union.” As O’Connor became more immersed in the world of trade unionism, his involvement with Trotskyism began to wane.

He said: “I found myself drifting increasingly away from a Trotskyite analysis of the world and into the more mainstream Labour Party which I combined with my trade union work.

“I had by then started work as a bin man. This meant I was finished work early in the day leaving me with a lot of free time, others took on a second job but I used the time to get more involved in trade union and political work.”

O’Connor became an officer of the Labour Party in the Dublin North constituency. These were O’Connor’s formative years, the decisions he took were to shape the rest of his life and lead him up the lift shaft to floor 15 of Liberty Hall. But having spent over 36 years involved in the Labour movement, how does he feel the two strands of party and union, which have dominated his adult life, interact and influence each other today?

He remarked: “I think the trade union movement has treated the Labour Party very badly. Most of the trade unions are not affiliated to the Labour Party while the ones that are offer support that takes the form of a very small amount of money, the equivalent to half a cent per week per member to a political fund all of which is not used for Labour.

“We do nothing to organise in the constituencies or highlight to our members what the Labour Party is intending to. We do nothing to counter and indeed sometimes propagate the notion that ‘they’re (political parties) all the same’.”

O’Connor reckons that if a Labour Party candidate was in need of 300 votes to save his or her seat for the party, that the last place he or she would look for votes or help would be the trade union movement.

He said: “What we’re (the trade unions) best at doing is arriving at the door of the Labour Party office the day after they enter government, with a shopping list and then criticising them when our wishes are not implemented. If we’re serious about the values of the union we have an obligation to highlight to the members the implications on the way they vote, we’ve always shied away from that.”

Venezuelan Ambassador Samuel Moncada and Jack O’Connor, pic by Michael Gallagher

For a man who sits on the Labour Party national executive council, O’Connor’s analysis of inter-party union relations paints the picture of an uneasy and at times unwanted marriage. It also adds little credibility to the Progressive Democrats’ final election shout of ‘Do you want to be ruled from Liberty Hall?’.

Jack’s tenure as General President of SIPTU is now entering its seventh year, during which time he has tried to turn the organisation into an ‘organising union’ which would be more pro-active in pursuing workers’ rights and social change. He admits that he thought this task would have been easier, but has met resistance from within the union as well as from outside it.

He has also presided over the downfall of social partnership – a partnership that had lasted 21 years but is now a year in the ground. It was a period that O’Connor believes saw benefits to Irish workers, but damaged trade unions, due to a failure to prevent the social partnership process weakening the connection with workers.

He said: “It damaged the trade union movement. It damaged the way we were perceived and damaged engagement at the level of the work place. We went through a period of a generation of progress without participation. It wasn’t social partnership itself that inflicted that damage, but our failure as a movement to ensure people’s participation within the framework of social partnership.”

While the left here may look on with envy at the level of direct action taken by workers in Greece and elsewhere against the implosion of the capitalist system, O’Connor believes that in Ireland, which has never voted in a left of centre government, such action is some way off.

He said: “There is level of class consciousness in France and Greece that we just don’t have here. Irish trade unions are also not that confident of maintaining a sustained mobilisation over a long period. We embarked on a ballot on the 24th of February 2009 with a view to a campaign beginning at the start of March  and you could see support for that ebbing away as the right, through its media, launched its attacks. As a movement, we had nothing to counter their arguments – social partnership had neutralised us.”

Outside the window and I can see the lights are out in the IFSC, while down below the streets are full of workers, not in revolt, but rather stuck in traffic on their slow crawl home. Jack himself has missed two trains sitting talking to me.  It’s time to go, but what have we learned?

Jack O’Connor – Dull? Drab? Wacko? Red? Nah… Well, perhaps the last one.


  1. Interesting and encouraging to see Jack in the same picture as a poster calling for the boycott of Coca Cola, but does anyone remember what he did to a campaign of solidarity with Colombian Coca Cola workers whose lives were threatened, a short few years ago?

    When a small group of people in Ireland organised a campaign of solidarity with workers from the SINALTRAINAL trade union in Colombia a few years ago, SIPTU were approached for their solidarity. Some of the workers had been killed, many more threatened, by paramilitaries who explicitly told them to desist from their Coca Cola trade union activities. In one instance the Coca Cola manager had openly boasted of his close links with the paramilitaries, and that he would use them to ‘sort out’ union activists. Workers had visited Ireland to ask for trade union solidarity.

    While many SIPTU workers expressed solidarity, the leadership actively opposed the campaign. When UCD students voted to boycott Coke products on-campus, a symbolic boycott which could never have cost Coke a significant loss of market share or revenues, SIPTU actually organised a small number of Coca Cola workers to leaflet on-campus against the boycott. Worse, Jack O’Connor and Anne Speed carried out a personalised campaign of character assassination against the most active member of the campaign, and attempted to intimidate the organisation he worked with into distancing itself from him.

    Worst of all, in a meeting with SINALTRAINAL in Colombia, SIPTU threatened to organise an international campaign against SINALTRAINAL unless they agreed immediately to end their call for a boycott. Shocked SINALTRAINAL activists contacted Dublin activists to advise them of this bizarre behaviour. Details of this episode can still be seen here: http://www.indymedia.ie/article/67840

    Some years prior to that, when we were considering which campaign we would take up, I happened to meet a senior SIPTU member who, as he put it, ‘looked after’ the SIPTU workers at a Coca Cola plant. In the course of an otherwise pleasant conversation I asked him did he think Coca Cola workers would be interested in organising a one-day or a one-hour stoppage in solidarity with their Colombian comrades. His answer has remained with me. ‘You don’t understand, Marc. It’s not like that any more. It’s not workers against management. It’s workers and management here, against workers and management in other countries.”

    That really told me all I needed to know about modern mainstream trade unionism in Ireland.

    Some might think it’s unfair to single out Jack O’Connor from the morass of corrupt trade union leaders in Ireland today, but I read the intimidating, lying, pompous and self-righteous letters he signed back then and it sickens me to see him almost daily in the media, posing as the defender of the workers.

    Truth will out Jack and co, and it won’t go away!

    ‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’ – Milan Kundera

  2. Proposals concluded for an agreement in the Public Service 2010-2014
    Date Released: 30 Mar 2010

    Negotiations conducted under the auspices of agreed LRC mediators have resulted in proposals for an agreement in the Public Service. These will be the subject of consultation and a ballot vote of the membership employed in the Public Service.

    Here is the text of the proposals:

    1. This Agreement will ensure that the Irish Public Service continues its contribution to the return of economic growth and economic prosperity to Ireland, while delivering excellence in service to the Irish people. This will be done by working together to build an increasingly integrated Public Service which is leaner and more effective, and focussed more on the needs of the citizen. The Parties to this Agreement recognise that to achieve this, in the context of reduce resources and numbers, the Public Service will need to be re-organised and public bodies and individual public servants will have to increase their flexibility and mobility to work together across sectoral, organisational and professional boundaries.

    2. The Government acknowledges that public servants have made a very significant contribution towards the recovery of the economy over the last two years with over €3 billion saved from the potential public service pay and pensions bill.

    •The general round pay increases under the terms of the Review and Transitional Agreement due in 2009 were not paid;
    •A general moratorium on recruitment and promotion was applied to most of the Public Service, and incentivised early retirement and career break schemes introduced;
    •A pension related deduction of an average of nearly 7% was applied to all the earnings of all public servants; and most recently –
    •A reduction in rates of pay and allowances took effect on 1 January, 2010.

    3. The core concern for Government is to restore the public finances and to reduce the deficit to less than 3% of GDP by 2014, in part by achieving sustainability in the cost of delivering public services relative to State revenues. To help achieve that goal, the Government intends to restructure and reorganise the Public Service significantly in the coming years, having regard in particular to the Government Statement on Transforming Public Services, the Government decisions already taken on rationalising State bodies, the recommendations arising from the Reports of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes and the Local Government Efficiency Review Group and the National Strategy for Higher Education. This Agreement will enable public service numbers to reduce substantially over the coming years in accordance with a new Public Service numbers policy, which will facilitate a progressive reduction in staff numbers across the Public Service by end-2012 and will be implemented by Employment Control Frameworks.

    4. In order to sustain the delivery of excellent public services alongside the targeted reduction in public service numbers over the coming years, the parties accept that efficiencies will need to be maximised and productivity in the use of resources greatly increased through revised work practices and other initiatives. The parties will work together to implement this Agreement to deliver an ongoing reduction in the cost of delivery of public services along with excellent services to the public.

    Public Service Commitments

    Reduction in Public Service numbers

    5. To facilitate the necessary reduction in numbers of public servants, the moratorium on recruitment to and promotion in the public service and other employment numbers control mechanisms will continue to apply until numbers in each sector have fallen to the appropriate level specified in the Employment Control Framework for that sector. In addition, where the circumstances require it, the Government may offer voluntary mechanism to exit the public service, whether generally or in specific sectors, bodies, locations or services.

    6. The Government gives a commitment that compulsory redundancy will not apply within the public service, save where existing exit provisions apply. This commitment is subject to compliance with the terms of this Agreement and, in particular, to the agreed flexibility on redeployment being delivered. To that end, the redeployment arrangements referred to below will include opportunities for re-skilling and re-assignment as a key method to retain and secure employment in comparable roles in the public service.

    Redeployment in the integrated Public Service

    7. Flexible redeployment is necessary to sustain the commitment to job security within the Public Service. The parties have agreed appropriate arrangements to redeploy staff within and across each sector of the Public Service. If it is not feasible to redeploy within the sector, cross-sectoral redeployment may taken place, within a geographic area where possible, having regard to the arrangements agreed in respect of non-commercial semi-State bodies.

    8. In order to help in the integration of the public service, barriers to a unified Public Service labour market will be dismantled, including through legislative provision as appropriate. To the greatest extent possible, there will be standardised terms and conditions of employment across the Public Service, with the focus initially within sectors. In that context, the Parties have agreed to review and revise contractual or other arrangements or practices which generate inflexibility or restrict mobility.

    Reconfiguring the design and delivery of Public Services

    9. The parties agree that public bodies and management and individual public servants will have to work more closely across sectoral, organisational and professional boundaries when designing and delivering services. The greater integration of the Public Service will not be achieved through the creation of a single organisation. Instead, the focus will be on having few organisations in total, working more closely together, to deliver cost effective public services. The Parties are committed to engaging at a national, sectoral and local level to achieve specified and measurable outcomes in relation to cost containment, service integration and reconfiguration as well as to engaging staff in progressing change.

    10. In order to maximise productivity gains, both from how work is organised and from streamlining procedures, processes and systems to allow for shared services and e-government developments, a substantial commitment to the redesign of work processes will be necessary. The parties will co-operate with the drive to reduce costs through organisational rationalisation and restructuring and by service delivery organised in different ways or delivered by different bodies. The aim is to minimise duplication of effort, reuse data within the public system and reduce information demands on the the citizens and business. The introduction of new or improved technology, service provision online and electronic funds transfer will be regarded as the norm. Processes and service delivery will be improved by better collation and re-use of data and personal information and by centralising transaction and certain sectoral data handling support functions. Inter-operability and standardisation of specifications and systems (hardware and software) will be mandatory both to achieve cost savings and facilitate integrated approaches. More risk-based approaches in inspection and enforcement activities will be adopted, with fewer but better targeted inspections through co-operation agreements, joint inspection teams and the merger of inspectorates and higher penalties for non-compliance.

    11. There will be a greater sharing of resources through the use of shared services within and across sectors.

    12. The parties are committed to public service modernisation as set out in previous agreements.

    Performance and Skills

    13. The parties agree that, in order to ensure a high performing, high productivity Public Service, appropriately skilled personnel from outside the Public Service will be recruited to secure scarce and needed skills at all levels. Merit-based, competitive promotion policies will be the norm. There will be significantly improved performance management across all Public Service areas, with promotion and incremental progression linked in all cases to performance. Performance management systems will be introduced in all areas of the Public Service where non currently exist.

    Sectoral Agreements

    14. The parties agree that there will be full co-operation with the arrangements made in the agreements for each sector which are appended to this document. The parties further agree to work further to develop new collaborative approaches at a local, sectoral or public service level, including cross sectoral redeployment within the parameters agreed, to deliver significant cost efficiencies while protecting the quality and effectiveness of services provided to the public.

    Public Service Pay Policy

    15. There will be no further reductions in the pay rates of serving public servants for the lifetime of this Agreement. This commitment is subject to compliance with the terms of this Agreement.

    16. The position concerning public service pay, including any outstanding adjudication findings, will be reviewed in Spring 2011 in accordance with the statutory requirement under both the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Acts of 2009 to review the operation, effectiveness and impact of the Acts before 30 June 2011, and every year thereafter. In addition to the criteria set out in those Acts, that review will take account of sustainable savings generated from the implementation of this Agreement and of the agreements in each sector. Those savings will be independently verified by the Implementation Body. In the event of sufficient savings being identified in the Spring 2011 review, priority will be given to the public servants with pay rates of €35,000 or less in the review of pay which will be undertaken at that stage.

    Public Service Pensions

    17. As announced in Budget 2010, the Government has decided to introduce a new single pension scheme for all new entrants to the public service. Consultations on the new scheme have started between the parties and it is agreed that these consultations will conclude in time for legislation to be enacted to allow for the introduction of the scheme on 1 January 2011. Discussion will take place on the method of determining pension increases for existing public service pensions and current public servants in the context of the review of pay policy in Spring 2011. There will be an extension of the period by a year within which the January 2010 pay reductions will be disregarded for the purposes of calculating public service pension entitlements.

    Performance Verification

    18. The implementation of this Agreement and of the sectoral agreements between the parties, which comprise the transformation agenda cross the Public Service, must be driven by a dedicated implementation body so that early, robust and verifiable outcomes can be assured. The implementation body will comprise an independent chair and six persons, three nominated by public service management and by the Public Services Committee of ICTU respectively. In addition, the body can deal with the resolution of implementation issues as they arise.

    19. In order to enhance the prospects of successful transformation and more integrated services, the Implementation Body will have:

    •access to management in every sector;
    •direct contact with national and sectoral union representatives as appropriate;
    •access to timely and accurate information on staff numbers and payroll costs; and
    •independent support to cost and verify savings derived from the implementation of this Agreement and of the sectoral transformation agendas.

    20. As part of the Body’s working arrangements, it will meet regularly, including on a sectoral basis, with the relevant management and unions to review implementation of the transformation agenda for the respective sector. The Implementation Body will make regular reports in relation to progress on the implementation of the transformation agenda across the public service, based on this Agreement and the sectoral agreements, to the Taoiseach and the Cabinet Committee on Transforming Public Services.

    21. In addition to helping to drive implementation of the Agreement, the Body will provide a forum for interpretation and implementation difficulties arising from the relevant sectoral agreements to be addressed in some detail between management and unions, prior to any decision on referral on any issue for mediation and/or arbitration. The Body could be supported by sectoral sub-committees established under its aegis from time to time.

    22. The Implementation Body may appoint people to promote the process of change under the agreement in each sector or to provide mediation or arbitration in the relevant sector on a case by case or standing basis.

    Mechanism to Resolve Disagreements

    23. The parties agree that they will seek to resolve disagreement where they arise promptly. Trade unions and employees will co-operate with the implementation of change pending the outcome of the industrial relations process.

    24. Where the parties involved cannot reach agreement in discussion on any matter under the terms of this agreement within six weeks, or another timeframe set by the Implementation Body to reflect the circumstances or nature of the particular matter, the matter will be referred by either side to the LRC and if necessary to the Labour Court; where a Conciliation or Arbitration Scheme applies, the issued will be referred within six weeks, or another timeframe set by the Implementation Body to reflect the circumstances or nature of the particular matter, by either side to the Conciliation machinery under the Scheme and, if unresolved, to the Arbitration Board, acting in an ad hoc capacity. The outcome from the industrial relations or arbitration process will be final. Such determination(s) will be made within four weeks, or another timeframe set by the Implementation Body to reflect the circumstances or nature of the particular matter.

    Stable Industrial Relations Climate

    25. The parties recognise the importance of stable industrial relations and are committed to maintaining a well-managed industrial relations environment to minimise disputes affecting the level of service to the public. A stable industrial relations climate has important benefits for the general public and the public service itself. These benefits include the provision of uninterrupted services, improved productivity and staff morale, increased public confidence and the maintenance of Ireland as a desirable location for foreign direct investment.

    26. Many public services differ from services which are provided by the private sector in that they are essential services which the public cannot obtain from alternative sources. Providers of essential services and their staff, therefore, have a special responsibility to ensure that they have well developed communication channels and to seek to resolve problems before they escalate into industrial disputes. If the problem cannot be resolved then it is agreed by all parties to take up all available dispute resolution mechanisms (both statutory and non-statutory).

    27. The parties agree that:

    •no cost-increasing claims by trade unions or employees for improvements in pay or conditions of employment will be made or processed during the currency of the Agreement;
    •Employers, trade unions and employees are committed to promoting industrial harmony; and
    •Strikes or other forms of industrial action by trade unions, employees or employers are precluded in respect of any matters covered by this Agreement, where the employer or trade union concerned is acting in accordance with the provisions of this Agreement.

    28. The implementation of this Agreement is subject to no currently unforeseen budgetary deterioration.

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