Friday, January 02, 2009

David Begg is General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU). He is a consummate media performer, always coming across as intelligent, articulate, measured, moderate and calm.

Begg’s role makes him the highest ranking representative of the Union movement in Ireland but, in reality, his public persona is not at all representative of that body’s members in their modus operandi.

For a real insight into the mindset of Union activists, think SIPTU’s Patricia King or the ATGWU’s Brendan Ogle. These are traditional “not an inch”, “over my dead body” intransigent union reps – where the strike threat is the first rather than the last option put on the table. Change only comes when the business is about to close or a very large compensation payment is forthcoming.

It’s this bloody-minded approach, abetted by a supine Government approach to “social partnership”, which has ensured that the public services and semi-state companies are models of 1930s-style socialism in action – over-staffed, over-paid and under-delivering.

As long as David Begg continues to front the ICTU PR machine, the general public may well be fooled into thinking that the scope exists for real reform in the public services.

In reality, nothing will change unless the Government is prepared to tackle head-on the many deeply entrenched work practices (what an oxymoron that is) in the public sector and be willing to face a year or more of industrial unrest. Make no mistake - this will be politically difficult – disruption in hospitals, ESB, Bord Gais etc. will hit the general public hard.

Such action will require much more political will and staying power than has been evident to date from any FF-led government. In any organisation, major reform is most easily achieved in a time of crisis. When business is good it’s almost impossible to achieve major strategic change.

So the Government must grasp the opportunity which the current painful recession presents and force through the necessary reforms (always assuming that they have actually thought out what needs to change – which I doubt).

The first step should be to lock up (or banish) David Begg so that the “reasonable” mask is removed from the union movement. The public should be allowed to see the true face of trade unionism in order to galvanise public opinion behind the necessary, though temporarily disruptive, reform programme. SIPTU president Jack O’Connor, Patricia King or Brendan Ogle on the box every night will help convince the general public that the reform is worth the temporary pain and inconvenience of strikes, work-to-rules etc..

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