UNITE came into being in 2007 through the merger of existing trade unions. It is the biggest union in Britain with over 2 million members. Its Irish region membership numbers 60,000 north and south, under the leadership of Regional Secretary Jimmy Kelly, who Kevin Brannigan interviewed for Look Left.
Jimmy Kelly is standing in the Unite canteen on Middle Abbey Street, looking out on a dull morning, a cup of tea in a union mug in his hand.
When we meet, news reports are all but confirming the end of a Labour government in Britain, an election campaign lost by Labour but fought with union money. Unite union money. Kelly’s views on 13 years of New Labour echo the mixed sentiments felt by Trade Unionists who actively canvassed for the party.
‘Our Union fought very hard for a Labour victory, but we’ve also, as a Union, made it clear publicly over the years what we thought was lacking in the Labour government. They had a house majority that would have allowed them to do things for working people which they just didn’t do. You can’t just blame Thatcher as they kept many of the anti – union laws brought in by her on the statute books.’
Despite his criticisms of the Blair and Brown administrations, speaking before the Conservative/ Liberal Democrat collation was formed, Kelly voiced his fears that an Eton-led Westminster would have drastic consequences for workers in the north of Ireland and workers in the UK in general.
‘There will be big negatives for workers to bear with a Conservative-led government. They will, as promised, interfere with the public sector and attack public services in Northern Ireland.’
Another aspect of David Cameron’s new government that doesn’t sit well with Kelly is the sectarian politics practiced by the Tories in their campaigning in Northern Ireland.
It seems strange to begin an interview with a union leader, conducted yards from Dublin’s O’Connell Street, by talking about the implications of the British general election. Kelly though holds an almost unique position in the world of Trade Unionism in that his brief takes in both sides of an international border.
In the morning he may be talking about Mary Harney’s latest plans for the Republic’s health system while a few hours, and miles up the road, later, his thought pattern will have to completely change as he deals with Stormont or London government policy.
‘It’s not easy’, says Kelly. ‘There’s no point pretending that it’s easy. When I drive back to Belfast you arrive in a different set up. You’ve got to represent people who vote on both sides of the divide.’
Kelly mentions the word divide a lot when he talks about the north but only once does he mean the sectarian definition.
‘The divide people may think is between Unionist and Republican/Nationalist but the real divide is between workers and bosses and that’s the only divide I am interested in. The divide shouldn’t be Catholic and Protestant, but that’s easier said than done.’
Kelly’s realises his views may seem like naive soundbites and is at pains to emphasise he doesn’t want to be seen to be downplaying the complexities of Northern Ireland. ‘There are people who have been in Northern Ireland decades longer than me. I don’t want to come across as someone with all the answers’ he says.
While he may not have all the answers he can point to real examples of cross-border and cross-community working class solidarity, examples that Kelly hopes can be built on.
‘I was proud to stand in the canteen in Visteon car plant in Belfast’ recalls Kelly. Their occupation took place at the same time as the Waterford Crystal occupation. The day we were in Belfast in that canteen there were workers from Waterford Crystal up to put a cheque into the fund for the Visteon fight back and on a day like that it doesn’t matter what religion you are, what you’re fighting for is working class people.’
Kelly doesn’t just represent the working class, he comes from it too. At age 15 he left school and joined Waterford Crystal as an apprentice, and he would spend the next 3 decades of his life working at the world-renowned plant.
At the time of his joining Waterford Crystal, Kelly recalls how in terms of wages and conditions it was the best employer in the south east.
‘Those favourable conditions had to be fought for and sustained; they didn’t fall from the sky,’ says Kelly. ‘The good news was that it was an industry that was growing ,there were people being taken on particularly every week as cutters or blowers as the market in America was growing by the day. We (the workers) were able to take advantage of that, but it didn’t happen overnight and it wasn’t easy.’
When the young Kelly arrived for his first day’s work at the plant he was immediately signed up to the Union, Waterford Crystal being a ‘closed shop’.
In the middle of a period of history which is seeing daily attacks on workers’ rights you would be forgiven for thinking that workers were inundating the various unions with membership forms. The 20% union membership in the private sector, though, tells a different story.
‘Maybe some people don’t want to admit it, but 20% and below is the sort of density you’re looking at in the private sector. Sweeping those facts under the carpet doesn’t do anything. We need to dedicate resources to raise that graph’, says Kelly.
While these figures may be replicated in many other countries this doesn’t offer the Irish Trade Unionist any consolation. ‘It may be the same across Europe and while that’s no consolation it does show that it’s not a case that everyone else is doing it right and that Ireland is doing it wrong.’
While Unite fight to increase Trade Union membership he believes that all Trade Unions should be looking to build the movement rather than just their own membership figures.’ There’s no point in simply moving the deck chairs around’, says Kelly, when broached on the topic of unions “poaching” each other’s members.
Before being elected to his position of regional secretary Kelly held membership in the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), a membership he has since had to give up due to the SWP’s policy on not having elected union members within their ranks. It’s a position he respects with no objections. ‘I’m the regional secretary of Unite and we’re affiliated with the Irish Labour party so I accept that there could be some conflict of interests if I was still in the SWP.’
Looking to the current struggle, Kelly muses that there is now a 2 year time period – if the government doesn’t fall before that – in which the Irish left should be building for a left-led Government in the next election.
‘We (the unions) should be more political but you can’t ignore the fact that there has been 20 years of partnership. The Movement hasn’t been politicising its members enough and we need to now be saying that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are not acceptable to working people in Ireland. The Trade Union movement should be taking a stronger, more political stance on that and we should be looking at the possibilities of a left-led Government that includes Labour in it but a Labour Party that doesn’t take an elitist position.
‘I’m saying things that I know other Trade Union leaders won’t agree with, but that’s not going to stop me from arguing in favour of a left wing government rather than a coalition that sees Labour tagged onto one of the right wing parties.’
There’s a knock on the canteen door and a delegation enters. Trench coated and sporting beards, they must be Trade Unionists. I depart. After his meeting Jimmy will depart too and head north to continue his double life.