Con Scanlon

by Seamus Roche

When Con and I grew up in Moyvane together in the sixties, the world, it appears to me, was a much different place. The Summers were longer, warmer, drier and the Winters with floods and storms and the seasonal good coat of snow. (Winter now seems to be with us all year round). The Glin Road where we lived had its fair share of thatched houses, motorcars were few, and the bark of a distant dog or the rocking of a donkey and cart or the ring of the hammer on the anvil in the forge were the loudest noises to be heard.

The old Murhur School, built in 1888 was the biggest landmark (apart from the Church and Water Tower) and a hive of activity during the school year. After school, most of the youngsters in the Glin Road played football, hurling, (believe it or not) handball and other games in the school yard, scampering into Kearney’s field and hiding among the rushes as soon as Master Callaghan or the Parish Priest appeared.

Our biggest crime and greatest thrill was robbing orchards, hitching lifts on the back of hay carts, and climbing to the top of the Water Tower, sometimes the highlight of the day. Most people didn’t have a lot of money but people corred to save the turf and the hay, and helped each other in hours of need. They shared the little they had, and their troubles. The sixties were a good time to be a child, and Moyvane wasn’t a bad place at all to grow up in.

In the mid to late sixties, thankfully it had become more common for children leaving the National School to go to Secondary School. Before that many worked locally for a few years and then hit the boat for England and others parts of the Globe. That was the time when the Irish economy was weak and our greatest export was our young people. In our time a number of people went to Boarding School but the vast majority headed for Listowel and were distributed between St. Michael’s College, the Presentation Convent and the Technical School, now the Community School. Con and I and many more from the Glin Road, the rest of the village and the country went to the Tech, cycling there for the first two years and thereafter on the bus when public transport was introduced. The Tech at the time may not have been regarded as the “in” place to go, but in my time there were many fine teachers none more influential than the Principal, Paddy Drummond, who seemed to have taken a personal interest in every single student. He went to extraordinary lengths to make sure that they completed their education and were in a position to compete with anyone for the best jobs available at the time. There are many in Moyvane who benefitted from Paddy Drummond’s caring approach; indeed there are many throughout North Kerry who will always be thankful to him. He was a modern day career guidance teacher. There were good times, in the comings and goings and learning a bit at the Tech.

Con and I joined the Department of Post and Telegraphs as Trainee Technicians in 1969. We went by train from Limerick and stayed with my Uncle Paddy and his wife Kathy. We duly reported to the Training Division in Dublin Castle to sign up as Civil Servants. I would have been 171/2 or thereabouts, and Con, about a year younger. I stayed a week, but had no option of becoming an apprentice Fitter in Tarbert power Station, so I left to join the ESB. Con remained on but low and behold, a fortnight later, the Department discovered that he was a week too young, and in true Civil Service fashion, was sent home. At the time, our parents found it hard to believe anything other than those two were sent home for devilment.

Con went back to the Tech; a year later he joined the P&T (Post & Telegraphs) again as a Trainee Technician and qualified three years later. In those days, you joined the Union on your first day and it was then the Irish Post Office Engineering Union. Slowly but surely he became involved in its day to day activities. This led him on a path that was to take him from being Branch Secretary of the smallest branch in the Union in Listowel, to General Secretary of the Communications Workers Union which was formed in 1990 with the amalgamation of the two major Unions in AN Post and Telecom Eireann. When the new Union (CWU) was formed in 1990, Con was its first Vice President and later that year was appointed to a full-time position of Assistant General Secretary.

This was a major turning point in his career. No longer would he be subject to vagaries of annual election and the political wheeling and dealing which attends this activity of which incidentally he was the acknowledged master. After all, here was a man, who as a member of the Listowel Branch of the CUI, one of the smallest branches in the Union numbering about 25 members or so, who successfully contested the highest elected office as President of the Union on five occasions, a remarkable achievement by any standard. However, the elevation to Assistant General Secretary was not without its cost, and Con and his family soon departed their beloved North Kerry, heading for the metropolis on the East Coast, eventually stopping at Ashbourne (Co. Meath) to re-establish the Scanlon household. Over the course of the next five years or so, he was intimately involved in negotiating many of the major changes which Telecom Eireann (latterly “Eircom”) underwent , particularly in the areas of technology and computerisation advancements, and also in developing a new Sales and Marketing operation within the company. He became renouned, some would say feared, as a wily and tough negotiator and a master tactician. It was an apprenticeship, which would stand him in good stead some years later.

In 1997, discussions began with Telecom Eireann on a new Transformation Agreement designed to radically change work practices and to position the company to respond to the expected onslaught which would be the inevitable consequence of liberalisation and increased competition in the telecommunications market. The Union’s response to this challenge was both imaginative and ground breaking in an Irish context. It proposed the establishment of an Employee Share Ownership Plan (ESOP). This was to acquire 14.9% ownership in the company for the workers. This plan floundered and the difficulties were compounded by the departure of Con’s predecessor.

Con’s first major task after securing his new position of General Secretary in July 1998 was to get negotiations back on track. He made a tactical decision to alter course, and having to deal with financial stockbrokers, legal advisors, Government Departments, intense media pressure and open hostility from those ideologically opposed to workers shareholding in their own company, he rose to the occasion and secured the 14.9% shareholding for the workers. The successful conclusion to the deal was partly due to the rapport that he built on with the Minister for Public Enterprise, Mary O’Rourke, who recognised him as a straight-talking, trustworthy and honourable negotiator.
For his sins, he is currently Chairman of the Eircom ESOP Trustee, the company established to manage and administer the 14.9% holding in Eircom, which at current share price, is worth in excess of IR£1 billion.

Internally within the Union, he faced another important challenge to develop his knowledge and understanding of the Postal Industry. Foreseeing the major transformation that the Postal Industry was about to undergo, just as the Telecommunications industry before it had, he set about developing a new vision for the Union in An Post. While continuing to hold on tightly to the core principles and values of the Union, he is seeking to develop a new and radical approach to dealing with the major change which the Postal Industry is about to undergo. Familiar themes of Partnership, Change and ESOP are all part of his plan, but he is equally realistic about the scale of the challenge. His quote “A different culture operates in the Post Office, and the enormity of the adjustment required, needs to be recognised. I believe that there are opportunities for us to make these adjustments and to reward people for their contribution to making the enterprise successful” recognises the problems ahead but few would doubt his ability to get the best deal possible for his members.

Far from being content to sit back and rest on his accomplishments, he has plans afoot to expand the sphere of influence of the Union within the Communications Industry. The Union is now actively engaged in recruiting workers in other parts of the Industry, such as Call Centres, Couriers, and other Telecommunications companies. Con’s schedule continues to be a busy one. He is a member of the Executive Committee (of ICTU, which was involved in drawing up the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness between Government and the Social partners recently. On top of this he has extensive commitments in the International Trade Union arena, and is currently Ireland’s representative on the Union Network International -European Committee, which is an affiliate organisation of over 14 million members world-wide, representing workers in the Communications, Banking, Clerical, Print, Media and Entertainment sectors.

Looking back it seems a long way removed from childhood days playing in the old School Yard in Moyvane or that first day in ’69 when we crossed the road at the ‘Castle to catch the No.22 bus for Drimnagh only to find ourselves in Drumcondra. (Since then neither of us caught a bus going in the wrong direction). But you get the feeling that Con’s achievements are in some part at least due to the magic that Newtown casts upon its natives.

Con Scanlon (left) with Stephen Brophy
Executive Assistant to General Secretary)
Con Scanlon – General Secretary of Communications Workers Union

As General Secretary Con has overall responsibility for union strategy, finance, organisation and communications. He is Principle Staff Representative in An Post and eircom and is also Chairman of the eircom and An Post ESOP Trustees.

He represents the union on the Executive Council of ICTU and is also a member of the Union Network International Europa Committe and participates in the Social Dialogue Committees with UNI and the European Commission.