From Socialist Voice, January 2006

Social partnership—
Can we afford it?

It appears that the question is not whether the trade union movement will enter negotiations for a new partnership agreement but is one of timing. But before the ICTU enters new talks, some very serious thinking needs to be done.
    Over the last two decades the main beneficiaries of “social partnership” have been the better-paid workers. The gap between low-paid workers and those at the top has grown. We now have one of the main civil service unions champing at the bit to enter partnership talks, despite the fact that it has the largest concentration of low-paid workers, who benefited very little from this whole process. They need to be asking themselves some very hard questions.
    Another area that needs to be taken cognisance of is the very sharp decline in trade union concentration. This decline will only intensify. Despite the dramatic expansion in the economy, there is growing evidence that the number of employers who refuse to recognise, or who “derecognise,” the right of their employees to join and be represented by a union of choice is growing.
    How can you have partnership with someone who constantly either refuses to let you in the door or wants to push you out the door?
    These agreements are increasingly seen by tens of thousands of workers as agreements in the main between the Government and its employees, having little relevance for the needs of workers in the private sector. To the few who are organised in unions, and to those who are unable to join one, unions appear not to care, or to be powerless to help them. The bosses are using international bench-marking in the race to the bottom, which we need to resist.
    If trade union concentration continues to decline, this will have a major bearing on a number of areas.
• Union influence will decline.
• Union dues will decline, which will affect the capacity of unions to defend their existing members.
• There will be a sharp contraction in the number of union officials and ancillary staff.
• It will affect the pay and conditions of those employed with the trade union movement, such as the pension funds, etc.
• Existing pension funds may be sustained only with the liquidation of union assets.
• The number of unions will be reduced, and so the democracy of the movement will be affected.
    There are important areas that need to be addressed by our movement if we are to stop the decline in concentration, to expand, to organise the unorganised, to make the movement more relevant to the nearly two million workers in Ireland, and to stop the race to the bottom:
• Legislation guaranteeing the right to be represented by a union.
• Repeal of the Industrial Relations Act, particularly those sections that prevent trade unions from effectively representing their members.
• Greater legal protection for workers.
• Increased penalties on employers who flout the laws regarding health and safety.
• Increased penalties on employers who break the Working Time Act or the minimum wage legislation.
• Forcing employers to adhere to legally binding registered agreements.
• Beefing up the Labour Inspectorate and increasing the number of inspectors, to ensure that all places of employment are visited at least once a quarter.
    Trade unions in the near future will face even more challenges to their members, their influence, and their survival. The Services Directive now being steered through the EU Commission by Charlie McCreevy will have a profound impact on Irish workers.
    The Nice Treaty is coming home to roost. The ICTU bought a pup when it supported the Government in forcing through the second vote on that Treaty. We now have leading elements within the trade unions and the Labour Party whingeing about this directive, when those who opposed it pointed out that this was all going to happen.
    Work permits and restrictions on labour are not going to solve our problems. The countries of eastern Europe are now colonies; and there’s no point having colonies if you can’t exploit them: history shows that. The labour movement needs to learn lessons from the past and not keep repeating the same mistakes.

Home page  >  Publications  >  Socialist Voice  >  January 2006  >  Social partnership—Can we afford it?
Baile  >  Foilseacháin  >  Socialist Voice  >  Eanáir 2006  >  Social partnership—Can we afford it?