Chapter 7: UCATT National Delegate Conference in Killarney, June 5th - 9th 2000

Conference proper. British Building Workers’ Union. Why Killarney? The National Delegate Conference of a UK-based building workers’ union, where the vast majority of members and sites are located in cities and towns in England, Scotland and Wales, and where about one third of all construction work in the private sector of the UK building industry takes place in London and surrounding areas, with many thousands of UCATT members there (where a UCATT Conference has never taken place!), was held in Killarney, Co. Kerry in Ireland. WHY?

The reason given by the UCATT General Secretary and (his poodles on) the Executive Council is that it was time for the conference to take place in Ireland as it’s never been held there before where we have some members. But not a lot in or around Killarney, I’m sure. So why has a conference never been held in London where we have many thousands of members?

The real reason is that UCATT Conferences, since the union was formed in 1971, have traditionally always been held in towns and areas as far away from any concentration of building sites and UCATT members and the BWG since our formation in 1974, as the General Secretary and EC can get away with. Places such as Llandudno, Dunoon, Perth, Bournemouth, Scarborough and Killarney, to name but six. At this rate it’ll be the Outer Hebrides next! All this means no large lobbies of site workers and UCATT members pressing delegates to vote for policies, such as on wages and conditions, which are actually in the interests of site workers and UCATT members and against those favoured by the General Secretary, EC and building employers!!

But why deepest Kerry this time? A beautiful place but extremely remote and hard to get to even for a UCATT Conference. In my opinion, and of the BWG’s and quite a few UCATT members who’ve learned of them since, the dark deeds perpetrated by the General Secretary and EC on the first day of conference go a long way to explaining why they were ‘hiding’ the conference in deepest Kerry.

First day skullduggery. Treachery afoot! On that day, June 5th, the first real business on the agenda was ‘The Standing Orders Report’, which included debating and voting on what is called ‘reference back’ of resolutions which have been removed by the Standing Orders (of the general secretary) Committee. Those resolutions removed in this manner can only be put back on the conference agenda (then debated and voted on) if a majority of delegates vote for a reference back and against the Standing Orders Committee’s decision to remove it.

The main ‘reference’ back debate and vote was on the London South East (of England) Regional Council resolution which was that NO SETTLEMENTS on wages and conditions claims in the private and public sectors should be reached without ballots of the membership agreeing to whatever was the ‘final’ offer. All were aware Brumwell and the EC, and most especially the building employers in the private sector (quite a few of whom were in the hall during this debate!), wanted another three year deal with a pitiful % wage rise like the last one.

However, if the London South East resolution was voted back on to the agenda and won in the subsequent debate then the deal the employers and UCATT Officials had given the nod and the wink to, and all but agreed, would go to a ballot of the membership and how could they vote for such a turkey!! This would scupper the employers’ and union officials’ plans, at least for the time being.

Irish Fiddle? No! Definitely made in Britain!! The debate and vote on the ‘reference back’ on the London South East resolution took place against this background. It was obvious there was quite a lot of support for the resolution being put back on the conference agenda. (Which probably meant for the resolution itself). Brumwell, who was on the platform and the chair of conference, John Thompson, looked decidedly worried.

At the end of the debate the chair called for a show of hands. The vote was clearly about 2-1 in favour of ‘reference back’. The chair didn’t even attempt to count the vote but instead announced the ‘reference back’ was lost.

There were a few shouts of ‘fiddle’ and such like. Also calls for another vote and tellers to count it. When the chair saw he wasn’t going to get away with overturning the 2-1 vote for the ‘reference back’ he latched onto the call for another vote and tellers and announced this would take place. Tellers were not elected and to my knowledge the general secretary appointed them!!

Brumwell ‘flips his lid’.
Delegates and union visitors then witnessed what must surely have been on of the most outrageous, extraordinary and scandalous sights ever seen in the history of British Trade Union Conferences.

The UCATT General Secretary stepped down from the platform and onto the floor of conference, walked among the delegates and began eyeballing some of them and was clearly trying to ‘persuade’ them to vote against the ‘reference back’. After the vote was taken he then went to some of the tellers totting up the votes on their respective pieces of paper, lent over them, pointed to (what could only be the figures written there) while simultaneously saying something to these tellers.

The vote the chair declared was 30 FOR the reference back’ and 32 AGAINST it. Many delegates were clearly unhappy at this and there was a feeling it was ‘too close to call’ given the unprecedented interference of the General Secretary with the vote. It left a very bad taste in the mouths of many - but not the building employers of course. They were licking their lips!!

Union/employer ‘CABAL’ do dastardly deed that evening.
The reason for the General Secretary’s and chair of the conference’s (who’s also chair of the EC) desperation and agitation and shameful behaviour became abundantly clear when we (at conference) learned the GS, EC, and representatives of the building employers federation met at 6 o’clock, almost right after the conference finished on Monday, in the Great Southern Hotel and the utterly treacherous and reprehensible three year deal was ‘rubber stamped’ by this ‘CABAL’. Imagine the consternation, wringing (instead of shaking) of hands and beating of breasts if the first show of hands had stood and the next vote had been conducted in a fair and democratic manner and a ballot of the membership had won the day!!

The UCATT GS, EC and building employers would have had to go back to London and figure out and concoct another way to foist the unacceptable on the unsuspecting! A ballot would also have given us and the many others in UCATT utterly opposed to three year deals time to go to the UCATT membership and onto the sites and organise a campaign against this three year deal and most importantly for the Rank and File alternative to it.

Without any alternative on the conference agenda the three year deal was voted in as one of the many things included in acceptance of the EC’s ‘report’ on wages and conditions. A sad day for UCATT and site workers. Those officials in UCATT (and the other unions TGWU and G&M - let’s not forget them!) who stitched up this latest sell out will live to regret it as building workers, many of whom are on £15ph plus, piss themselves laughing and see construction unions who negotiate such deals as an irrelevance and naturally will not join them or see any need to. And who can blame them?

"The party’s over” said George.
During the debate on ‘Wages and Conditions’ and the (terrible) state of the building industry George Brumwell actually said "We’ve got to tell the employers THE PARTY’S OVER". He must have been referring to the one they had with them to celebrate the three year deal, with some great fiddlers bending their elbows, in the Great Southern Hotel in Killarney!!

He also came up with the usual claptrap that the deal was as good as they could get and blamed the membership for this, saying UCATT had mounted a national campaign on the wages and conditions claim (which was a joke for a start!!) and after two very poorly attended national lobbies no one turned up for the third one.

Yet in Northampton we managed to get 25-30 site workers, not even in a union!, from local sites to come to a meeting after work to discuss the ‘UCATT Holiday Pay Campaign’. The moral to this tale is that if we in a small UCATT Branch in the ‘sticks’ can get 30 to a meeting then think of how many the national union could get to a national lobby if they really tried. The truth is they didn’t!

Q. How many site canteens did Brumwell and members of the EC visit and
how many gatherings of UCATT members did they address to
encourage these workers and UCATT members to support the
‘National Wage Claim’ and Campaign including attending lobbies of
meetings held with the building employers to ‘negotiate’ the claim?

A. NONE!

They call for campaigns and lobbies over wages and conditions, do absolutely nothing to build these and have been known to wind them down if they look like taking off and then use the fact very few UCATT members or site workers get involved as the excuse for selling out!! It would also help if the claims coming out of UCATT, TGWU and G&M were worth organising, mobilising and fighting for. They’re not. Most definitely not!!

Gen. Sec. tries to bar me from UCATT social evening/dinner.
On Tuesday the 6th we sold the Summer 2000 issue of ‘Building Worker’ at the conference. As ever it sold like hot cakes. The UCATT General Secretary seems to think ‘The Geordie Bumalot Column’ by the General Secretary of FATCATT, the largest construction union in the pockets of the building employers, is a parody or spoof of him and UCATT. Whatever makes him think that??

He definitely doesn’t like our paper as we continually expose what they’re up to (but was not averse to stealing our title ‘Building Worker’ for the pathetic rag Traduced, sorry produced, at UCATT General Office). In an act of petty and spiteful revenge he told me he wouldn’t allow me in the UCATT Social Evening/Dinner being held that night in the Great Southern Hotel. I said "while building employers are invited and crawling all over the place , we’ll see about that."

Johnny Jones and Kenny Irvine, both delegates said we’ve got to get the support of conference delegates against Brumwell’s ban and set about doing just that. A union conference is SOCIALLY (NOT POLITICALLY!) a ‘close knit’ community and word I’d been barred from the social went round like wildfire. I went to the Great Southern Hotel (incidentally this is where the conference was held) and sat in the foyer while Johnny and Kenny did some serious lobbying! Delegate after delegate came up to me and said Brumwell won’t get away with this, don’t worry. To cut a long story short, a delegation of delegates with a couple of full-time officials went to Brumwell and basically told him if I didn’t get into the social/dinner then none of the delegates would go in. I was in! Talk about eating humble (steak and kidney) pie!!

However, to see the representatives of building employers, who are responsible for the deaths of about two building workers every week, sitting at tables with the different delegations made me sick to the pit of my stomach. Needless to say there wasn’t one at the London SE table we in BW sat at!!

Northampton Republican resolution politically dominated conference.
As this was the first time a UCATT Conference was being held in Ireland some of us in Northampton UCATT and the BWG felt there should be a resolution on Ireland on the agenda, reflecting the continuing partition, division and occupation of that country by the British State and the political controversy, social strife and division among the working class this causes. Subsequently the following resolution was debated at a meeting of Northampton UCATT Branch and it was agreed by a majority vote to send it for inclusion on the conference agenda.

"Conference recognises that the only way a lasting and just peace will be brought to Ireland is when the whole country is united in one Republic and Independent Sovereign State that is completely independent from the British State. Furthermore Conference supports all political movements towards a 32 County Republic of Ireland and the right to self determination of the Irish people as a whole as the most democratic and progressive way to achieve one United Republic and Independent Sovereign State".

As I said at the Northampton meeting and since, it is not a matter of winning or losing the vote (which we knew would most certainly happen) but by far the most important thing to establish was the political and democratic right to debate and vote in terms other than the ‘British Consensus’ on this matter and issue. In fact this consensus has always led to resolutions on Ireland which didn’t toe the British Line being removed by the Standing Orders Committee or, if one got through this, being remitted. That is being left to the General Secretary and EC to do something about it and they do sweet FA but bin it of course!

Our first political surprise, nay shock!, was that the resolution had not been removed by the Standing Orders (of the General Secretary) Committee. Perhaps George Brumwell has a soft spot for a ‘United Ireland’. He certainly indicated this at the UCATT Social/Dinner referred to in the last section, when with a few pints in him and clearly romanticising about Ireland and the Irish he said "like the Irish I look forward to the day there is a united Ireland". As one lad from the ‘Northern Irish’ delegation (made up of nationalists and unionists) said “fuck sake he’s played right into your hands”. Another said the only thing missing was “Danny Boy”!! I said “It would bring tears to a glass eye”.

Remit! Remit! The cry was heard.
We knew the Northampton resolution would cause a bit of political furore especially as UCATT has members on both sides of the political ‘divide’, caused by Britain in Ireland and no matter how unlikely it was to succeed it would be viewed as a political challenge to "The Good Friday Agreement". It was never that but such is the current state of British/Irish politics. However, we also realised if workers and trade unionists in a British Trade Union such as UCATT in this case, and indeed British Trade Unions in general, are denied the right to debate and vote on serious political and social problems, for which the British State is politically and socially responsible in Ireland, then there will and can never be a solution which will end the division and unite our class, the working class in Ireland and here in common cause and purpose. We felt ours was a small but significant contribution towards this.

However it seemed every time I turned round in the foyer of the conference hall, or socially in the pub in the evenings after it, sometimes even when in the toilet!, there was always someone there trying to persuade me to remit the Northampton resolution. As explained earlier, this means no debate, no vote and instead leaving it to the EC, which in effect means the GS. I told all of these people that I did not have the authority to remit the resolution, only Northampton UCATT Branch can do that and they’re not here and I’d no desire to do this either! Nor had the delegates who would be moving and speaking to it. They were just as resolute as I was. Incidentally a couple of us were also told we wouldn’t be too welcome around the Shankhill Road, to put it very mildly! Have republicans from anywhere in the UK or Ireland ever been since 1969!!??

TU and political heavies sent in. First Peter Cassells.
Neither did we realise the political importance and significance that would be attached to the Northampton resolution by the official Irish Trade Union Movement (and that also means the Irish Government!) or the British State. Peter Cassells, the General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, did not refer directly to the two resolutions on Ireland on the agenda, numbers 48 and 49, but he made it very obvious in his speech which one he and the people he represents were supporting and asking delegates to do likewise. And it wasn’t the Northampton resolution!!

Hel Jackson, Under Secretary of State for N. Ireland interferes.
The two resolutions on Ireland, number 48 calling for support for ‘The Good Friday Agreement’ and number 49 the Northampton resolution, were on the agenda of the last day of conference, Friday 9th June.

Helen Jackson MP, Under Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mandelson’s deputy) was flown in and immediately prior to the opening of the debate on resolutions 48 and 49 she addressed the conference, supposedly on the general situation in the north of Ireland. During the course of this she quite clearly said she thought resolution number 48 was a very responsible and reasonable one and thus of course, by implication, number 49 wasn’t!!

To our knowledge such blatant and direct political interference by a British Minister of State on an item on the agenda and up for debate and voting at the conference of a British Trade Union is unprecedented and completely out of order. It also shows how worried the same state is when organised workers break with the British tradition of ‘Economism’ and decide to debate and vote on something overtly and unequivocally political which the British State and politicians think should be their exclusive political domain!!

The debate proper.
We honestly thought we’d be much maligned politically and socially and told we were giving succour to those ‘dissidents’ opposing the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ by the UCATT Bureaucrats (i.e. GS, EC and Regional Secretaries) there. However, we also knew there was support for republicanism in Britain and a United Ireland in the wider union as I had stood for an EC position quite recently on a platform for republics in England, Scotland and Wales and a United Ireland and returned a very respectable vote in a three way contest. And the conference delegates were probably quite representative of that EC election and votes. So the bureaucrats also had a wee political problem if they tried to single us out and accuse us of other than what was in the resolution.

The chair started proceedings and asked John Jones, the mover, if he would remit. He shook his head vigorously and said NO! The debate then began. John moved it and in the process turned round and looked at the platform where George Brumwell was sitting and said "thank you George for supporting the Northampton resolution in saying you hoped for a United Ireland at the UCATT Dinner on Tuesday evening". That, we think, took care of George!! A delegate from a Sheffield UCATT Branch seconded the resolution and it did well. This took some political courage and we thanked him for this. Kenny Irvine delivered a strong message in support.

Jimmy Brown, the UCATT Convenor Steward at Harland and Wolf’s Shipyard in Belfast, stood at the rostrum and said he’d no problem with debating the resolution. Undoubtedly this helped set the democratic tone for the rest of the debate. He also said he was an Ulster Protestant and proud of it and that we’d no right to interfere in Irish business and the people of Ireland were telling Kenny and Brian to get lost. Or words to that effect. What he gives with the left hand he obviously thinks he can take away with the right!! Fortunately the other delegates and union officials who spoke preferred Jimmy’s ‘no problem with debating issue’ as no one else echoed his ‘get lost’ sentiments.

As a visitor and not a delegate I couldn’t exercise the right to reply. If I had this is what I would have said: "I’m a working class democrat and proud of it and welcome everyone here and encourage you all to exercise your political and democratic right to speak in the debate on this issue. I see the British State as seriously and grievously interfering day and daily with the rights of Irish people as it has done for generations. I see the Northampton resolution as giving political and democratic support to the many thousands of Irish people longing to be rid of this gross interference and for the United Ireland which can only become a political and social reality when Britain goes.”

We were pleasantly surprised, nay amazed!, when a delegate from the SW Region of England stood at the rostrum and said his delegation supported both resolutions (on Ireland). The debate was very even handed, fair and fraternal, showing what organised workers can do when they win and exercise the political right to on even, perhaps especially, those issues deemed most controversial. Although we could’ve and would’ve handled whatever was ‘flung at us’, even Allan Ritchie (the Scottish Regional Secretary) who we thought would ‘cut loose’ on us, as he indicated he might at a broad left meeting on Monday evening June 5th after conference, said he had some sympathy with the Northampton resolution but his region wasn’t supporting it . Thanks for being so sympathetic Mister Ritchie! No one attacked us in the manner we thought some would. The bureaucrats had obviously done their homework, right enough!!

The Northampton resolution got about 20 - 25% of the vote taken. Very respectable and encouraging. Think of what could be done if working class republicans had a political and industrial organisation with which to intervene and campaign in trade unions and most importantly workplace after workplace. I add here the BWG is not a republican organisation but a united front industrial one composed of workers of various political persuasions united in support of our policies and especially our opposition to the machinations of full-time union bureaucrats. We do take up and debate important political issues like ‘Ireland’ and do our best to support those struggling against state oppression. Be it national, as in the case of Britain in Ireland, (many in Wales and Scotland are not too enamoured with what Britain is doing to their countries either!) or by the use of such as racist or anti union laws in the UK.

Principled working class politics and democracy must reign supreme!!
They don’t in UCATT or any other union of course. But above all at the conference we proved it’s not always size and numbers that count but often the principles on which workers stand and are prepared to promote and defend no matter what. For a small UCATT Branch in the East Midlands of England and the wee BWG we didn’t half make an impact and give the ‘established order’ a run for their money in Killarney! For the first time in the history of UCATT a resolution on Ireland, which did not toe the official political line of the day, was NOT remitted but debated and voted upon. We are extremely proud of that!!”