Comment & Analysis
Sep 28, 2017

After Years of Frustrations, I’m Bowing Out as a Trade Union Leader

Mike Jennings recalls his years as a key member in the fight for workers' rights during his time in IFUT.

Mike JenningsOp-Ed Contributor

Like most people born in the 1950s, I have always been comforted by the belief that, however many injustices remain to be fought, there is a trajectory of social transformation. However disappointingly slow the progress, the situation is always getting better.

I recall that, back in the 1990’s, the biggest challenge facing public servants, and the trade unions that represented them, was the huge numbers operating on temporary employment contracts. One friend of mine, an engineer with Dublin Corporation (as it was then called) had been continuously employed on such contracts for eight years. Any plans he had as a man in his late 20s, to procure a mortgage and so buy a house, taking into account the length of time needed to qualify as an engineer, were at worst “pie in the sky” and at best “on hold”.

I also recall, as a union official representing such workers, drawing up the protocol needed to govern such situations. This protocol would minimise the occurrence of such contracts, and ameliorate the effects on those who ended up on them, despite all of our efforts.


I pushed it relentlessly in all of the public sector sections for which I had responsibility, and it was well-received. But, lo and behold, Europe came to our rescue and demanded that insecure employment for any period greater than four years be outlawed and enacted into Irish legislation.

Hallelujah! Problem solved! Onwards with the “continuous/inevitable progress” agenda. Or so I thought.

Sadly, I had not anticipated the awesome power of the Irish Civil Service to ignore and negate European and Irish laws.

A middle-ranking civil servant of Marlborough St, since retired, issued a request letter to universities assuring them that this inconvenient, binding statute need not apply to researchers (who, by the way, were being told by this same department that they were “crucial agents” in Ireland’s economic recovery). Sadly, and to this day, inexplicably, our Labour Court endorsed this, altogether untested and unjustified.

Sadly, I had not anticipated the awesome power of the Irish Civil Service to ignore and negate European and Irish laws.

Not all divisions of the court agreed with this undermining of the right of contract staff to equal treatment, in particular the area of liability for redundancy. But the essential “precedents” were sufficiently numerous to mean that the law maker’s intentions prior to 2003 could only be vindicated and reinstated by an appeal to, as a minimum, the Irish High Court.

This, for a small union such as the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), was never a realistic option. And so, we now have a situation where university researchers are routinely treated as second-class employees. All other public servants are protected from compulsory redundancy (about which the right-wing press continuously complains). Yet this entitlement is denied to third-level researchers and IFUT has to fight every single case one by one.

Let me reiterate that IFUT is still, and always will be, on your side.

And so, in late 2017, as I engage in the ritualistic “looking back on my time as a union official”, I cannot get closure on the frustrating fact that, if it comes to a contest between the law of this Republic as mandated by our democratically endorsed membership of the EU, and the short-term needs of Marlborough St, then short-termism will prevail.

If it’s any consolation to university researchers, let me reiterate that IFUT is still, and always will be, on your side. IFUT continues to take more cases on behalf of researchers seeking equality of treatment with their university colleagues than any other Irish trade union. The pity is that we have to do so without the support of a European law that was neutralised “just when we needed it most”.

Mike Jennings is the outgoing General Secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT).

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