Ogle was not the ‘public enemy number one’ portrayed by the media

SOME people, egged on by hysterical sections of the media, suspected that ESB trade union boss Brendan Ogle had an agenda to destroy the State, to bring down the Government, to cause anarchy, that he was up to much more than defending the pension rights of ESB staffers.

Ogle was not the ‘public enemy number one’ portrayed by the media

Switching off the country’s electricity supplies through the withdrawal of labour could do some of that.

It is not as if Ogle hadn’t supplied content to support their prejudices, long before the ESB unions threatened the strike action that was withdrawn last Sunday.

Infamously, Ogle made a speech in May 2011 to a meeting of Eirigi members — a bunch of self-styled socialist republicans — in which he declared that the redistribution of wealth was going to “require more than good marches, burning up cars and smashing up buildings”. He said: “It’s going to require militant, industrial action — no holds barred, and, sure maybe, they’d sell us in the f***in’ dark, but at least let’s put it up to them.”

Like waving a red rag to a bull he even spoke of Cuba (long before US president Barrack Obama this week shook Cuban President Raul Castro’s hand). There wasn’t much in his comment — “and in two or three years’ time, or 10 years’ time or 20 years’ time, when I’m retired in Cuba, having my cigar and drinking my rum, enjoying the life, in 20 years’ time, at least there’s a movement” — but it played to the caricature that all of those mad lefties aspire to life in that supposed idyll in preference to the capitalist hell they suffer.

Ogle likes state ownership of important assets such as utilities. Referring then to the possible privatisation of the ESB, Ogle said that he had “about a year and a half” to get the “ESB lads” to “put up a fight”. He also castigated what he called the problem that “we’ve got probably the most right-wing trade union movement… and we’ve got a Labour Party who are so right wing” before he lashed into 20 years of pay agreements between governments and unions in which the former bought the latter’s acquiescence. He described his own ESB members as “spoilt” because they had been seduced by a bit of “gravy”.

Not surprisingly, some then discerned a hidden agenda in Ogle’s prompting of a strike by ESB unions 2½ years after that speech. It mightn’t be about pensions at all, they suspected, but other things left unspoken. Class struggle and revolution by some of the relatively best paid workers of the public sector loomed. Sections of the media set out to put manners on Ogle.

This ignored some seriously fundamental points. Ogle was only one of a number of prominent union officials advocating the strike action and 85% of the ESB staff had voted in favour of it. The strike threat was not an unreasonable response to the provocation caused by the company’s behaviour.

Here’s a brief outline of a complicated situation (as I understood it and tried to present it on radio in the absence of a never available company to put its argument). The ESB tried to pull a fast one in unilaterally renaming a defined benefit pension scheme as a defined contribution one, thereby attempting to dodge responsibility for any shortfalls that might emerge. It played merry hell with only recently constructed binding agreements with the unions as to the funding of the scheme. The unions tried to engage with the company for over two years but were ignored until they threatened strike action.

The company’s decision to unilaterally change the scheme from defined benefit to defined contribution should not have been done without prior agreement from beneficiaries and the unions. The idea that the company could give a nod and a wink that it would look after things if an emergency for the pension scheme funding took hold — as long as that was not stated in the notes to its financial accounts — was totally unworthy of a major state-owned company.

There are supporters for the idea that defined benefit pension schemes have had their day. Defined contribution schemes, with returns linked to the amount of money invested rather than the final salary of the beneficiary, are the way to go. Ironically, this has already been agreed at the ESB. New entrants to the pension scheme get defined contribution benefits only. What the ESB was trying to do was break old agreements for those who had paid into a defined benefit scheme.

Not surprisingly, the agreement at the Labour Relations Commission last Sunday, involved a return to the position that the ESB had abandoned. Effectively, the unions were proven to have been right.

It seems that much of the ESB’s tactical position was to hope that Ogle’s perceived antics would alienate the public, that it won’t be too interested in the causes of the strike threat if the media helpfully focused instead on the seemingly generous wage rates received by ESB staff and discounts for the provision of power to their homes.

This rather cynical approach relied on the public ignoring how staff at ESB has received pay cuts of 25% on average over the last five years, and that the public would remain envious of still good pay and guaranteed pensions.

Why wouldn’t it be hopeful of winning against a prominent firebrand trade unionist, a man who previously, in his time as a trade union organiser for train drivers, had shown himself to be up for a fight, even if the public was to suffer the consequences? It seemed to hope too that that Ogle’s Eirigi speech had alienated many of his union members but it hadn’t. They accepted his apology and explanation that he had lost the head.

Ogle was prepared for some, but not all, of what was thrown at him (including some disgusting personal threats that have been passed onto the Gardaí for investigation).

And as he had said previously, “There’s nothing wrong with workers being privileged and lucky and looked after. It’s not to be knocked at all.” He’s right there. That’s a union official’s job. Last Monday, after the ESB had folded, I invited Ogle into my radio studio for what I hope was another fair and objective interview, in which he was asked legitimate questions but was not demonised for acting as he thought was best in his member’s interests.

I asked him if he had been working to a second agenda, one to undermine the government and the State, based on what he had said in that infamous Eirigi speech.

His response was one of the most articulate expressions of supports made in defence of the government that I have heard from a non-government member in ages.

This is some of what he said: “This government inherited an abominable situation and we have sat back and watched as how, with all of its flaws and mistakes, it tried to dig itself out of a problem not of its own making. We did not set about to cause problems for this government.”

He declared that ESB workers are citizens too and as citizens want to see the country “back on its feet”. And he was entitled to add a reasonable qualifier that he wanted legitimate terms and conditions of employment for workers to be protected.

It doesn’t seem to me that Brendan Ogle comes anywhere near to qualifying for the vilification some were prepared to visit upon him. He is far from being a legitimate target as “public enemy number one”.

* The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.

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