The Left Overs of Social Partnership

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In Ireland, after four years of an austerity program we now find the economy is getting worse and not better. Most of society is asking where it all went wrong and what the solutions are. The trade union movement in Ireland appears to be divided on the approach we should take on the economy. Citizens of countries with austerity programs like Spain, Italy and Portugal are protesting and it’s mostly organised and led by the trade unions. But in Ireland there appears to be no will on behalf of some trade unions to take this approach. So why is this?

Did the trade union movement lose its way during social partnership and now finds it very difficult to cut the umbilical cord from the corporatist approach? Some people may even argue the trade union movement were complicit in the financial crisis, in that they had gone a step too far in their relationships with the Government and no one from the trade union spoke out at the time, on the economic and social policies implemented by the government.

The trade union movement in Ireland are no doubt reflecting and are asking themselves did the Corporatist Partnership approach with the Government and employers in the period from 1987- 2007 serve the objectives of the trade unions, its members and create a fairer society.

Well let’s just take a glance at some facts during the period.

Union Gains
Unemployment fell; job creation was up; community development companies were set up; social welfare payments increased; take home pay increased because of tax and fiscal policy; trade unions leaders were appointed to social and economic groups and legislation was put in place to improve working conditions.

Government and Employers Gains
Historic levels of industrial peace; wage restraint; surplus budgets; higher tax in takes; higher investment; profits higher than ever; unit labour costs reduced; institutions set up to ensure industrial peace; legislation to oversee trade unions powers; privatisation of public services and financial deregulation.

On the face of it you might say that the trade union movement met some of its objectives, but at what cost? And the Government and employers never had it so good.

But now, since the bank bailout, our country has a far greater challenge than ever before and the gains made by the trade union movement during social partnership are all but gone.

Some in the trade union movement appear to have adopted a policy of going along with austerity measures, in the hope, they may believe, that they can come out of the program intact and some of the leadership may even believe it’s the correct policy. This appears to be the very same approach the trade union movement had when entering talks going into social partnership in the first place. That a select few knew what was good for the rest of us. In theory, the partnership seemed to be a great idea and in the trade union leadership view, “that it had worked well in other countries.”

However the paying and non-partisan members of the unions had very little say in the progress or measuring of its achievements. This is one area the trade union movement needs to learn from.

Some pro-Social Partnership trade unionists argued before entering into social partnership, that the neo- liberal agenda of Thatcher and Regan would impact Ireland, now that globalisation and the free market was among us and trade union powers could be curtailed like what happened in the UK. Given that the Industrial Relations Act 1990 curtailed its powers anyway after three years of Partnership, it’s hard to figure out where this trade unionist was coming from and what were their motives.

The trade union members in hindsight, may have been better off in collective bargaining given micro goals were never achieved such as workplace democracy, such as enjoying the profits, decision making and sharing goals, were wishful thinking at best

Some will argue in the trade union movement that Social Partnership worked. However, it depends on your perspective. It could argue that society and workers enjoyed more disposal income, social welfare recipients fared better at least, and it created more employment (at least temporarily).

Other would say at what cost to the trade union movement.

Are workers better off today on real pay and conditions then before Social Partnership? Has the moral among trade union members gone up? Are the most disadvantaged in society better off? Has there been a fair distribution of wealth? Have public services declined and privatisation increased? Has public confidence increased in trade unions? Has membership increased? Has the government made legislation compatible for the trade unions interest? Is there fractions appearing in the trade union movement?

With this in mind the trade union movement needs to think carefully what policies and strategies they adopt during this crisis, if anything is to be learned from Social Partnership. The Irish people and workers are far more educated than ever before. The increase in social media and access to information means that trade unions policies are subject to more forensic scrutiny than ever before to ensure they’re been acted on and underpinned by trade union values. The membership, workers and the public will be judging whether they are living up to these policies.

However, before deciding any strategy and policy going forward in this crisis, it would be wise to engage its core membership in consultation and debate. Here I’m not talking about partisan groups, but the membership, workers, public and activists that are experiencing austerity post Social Partnership. These are the members of society who face the real challenges of the financial crisis and have experienced social partnership in the workplace and it has value in the lessons learned to be shared.

It’s now more important than ever for the whole trade union to be transparent and engage radically in this process, so the movement can influence society based on their values and core believes. The trade unions must not lose focus on the fact that it is their members who keep them solvent and that their views are critical to the movement. This debate and consultation must happen in the context of lessons learned and it should inform policy going forward.

If we are going to influence change in society and in democracy, then we need to learn from the mistakes of Partnership, because as John Powell said:

“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”

Now is the time to ask yourself, what real contribution do you want to make society and the trade union movement, given what you know now. The country is crying out for thorough transparent leadership.

This can be done immediately and I’m up for it.

Anyone else?

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One Response

  1. Des Derwin

    October 3, 2012 2:39 pm

    A very helpful contribution.

    “With this in mind the trade union movement needs to think carefully what policies and strategies they adopt during this crisis, if anything is to be learned from Social Partnership”.

    Trouble is the unions have already adopted a strategy for this crisis: the Croke Park Agreement, social partnership for the public sector (economic downturn and union weakness mean the employers don’t need social partnership in the private sector at this time). The problem is how to replace that strategy.