From Socialist Voice, April 2006

Mandate returns to local collective bargaining

As the present round of “social partnership” talks characteristically splutters its way to an inevitable deal, one trade union—Mandate, the union for Ireland’s retail, bar and administrative workers—has set out its stall in respect of its views on partnership.
    Mindful of the fact that Mandate represents the vast majority of the country’s lowest-paid trade union members, and that previous partnership deals have been consistently voted down by its membership, the union has decided to opt out of this round of partnership talks. In doing so it has not abrogated its responsibility to its members by adopting a stance of idle observation, so allowing employers a free rein regarding how they will respond, but rather is determined to resurrect its members’ local collective bargaining strength in pursuit of pay increases above those that arise out of the current partnership round.
    Some observers, including many within the trade union movement, are suggesting that Mandate’s position is not only unfortunate but is mistakenly isolationist. While the same individuals and the organisations they represent might argue that successive partnership agreements have provided economic booms for the country and its people, they are choosing to ignore the fact that the benefits are sectional in nature and in practice. Mandate can point to a number of recent studies that clearly demonstrate not only the ever-widening gap between the lower-paid and higher-paid workers but furthermore the gap that now exists between the lower-paid and those in the middle pay sector.
    The economist and business journalist Colm Rapple, in his recent paper “Beyond the boom: Towards an economic policy for welfare and security,” states—among many other invaluable points—that “the pay of top civil servants jumped by 74% over the ten years, while shop assistants only managed an increase of 32%.” “Social partnership” negotiations have rarely moved from posturing to actually addressing low pay rates by ensuring that some of the available pot of money is so directed. Maintaining the percentage type of pay increases only benefits those on higher pay rates and increases existing pay differentials. The general secretary of the ICTU, David Begg, publicly postulated that the various “social partnership” constituents have embraced this inequity, as demonstrated in the last partnership deal—“Sustaining Progress,” part 2—where the low-paid, i.e. those on less than €9 per hour, were awarded an incredible 0.5 per cent above the 5.5 per cent agreed national pay increase. This is a derisory award to those on low pay and is clearly irreconcilable with the much-lauded ICTU position on this question.
    In advance of the current negotiations, and probably with one eye on next year’s election, the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and his Minister for Finance, Brian Cowen, acknowledged the need to consider weighting any nationally agreed pay increases towards the less well-off. Welcome sound-bites indeed; and that is what they are. No sooner had these two business-focused protagonists (one of whom declares himself a “socialist”) announced their latest electioneering rhetoric than they qualified their position by asserting that, despite the current economic boom, workers cannot expect to see any significant wage increases, and certainly not in the region of 10 per cent, as Mandate suggests, which if achieved might begin to bridge the pay gap.
    At a time when the country’s work force faces many challenges—not least to the dignity of being a worker, irrespective of colour or creed—the competitive-based arguments of both government and business (a) will undermine and dilute the ICTU’s attempts to achieve any noteworthy national increase and (b) will certainly achieve little or nothing in addressing the plight of the low-paid in terms of take-home pay. The Irish Ferries, Gama and other recent disputes have rightly driven the agenda at the latest “partnership” negotiations; but in the process the trade union movement must also recognise the roots and the reason for its existence. Any balance between labour and capital can be achieved only by ensuring that workers are appropriately empowered and enabled to confront the more than anecdotal evidence of the exploitative nature of Ireland’s capitalist forces, with profit margins far outstripping wage costs, where employers enjoy huge state tax dividends and incentives, can brazenly flout the employment legislation without fear of effective retribution, can at a whim destroy workers’ lives and their communities by globally chasing the bigger profit, and can do so with the Government’s best wishes. And there’s more! This clearly demonstrates the unfairness and inequities of the country’s industrial relations system, where employers have the unlimited means to up sticks and leave, and workers are expected to jump through legal hoops in order to engage in any form of official industrial action.
    The means of empowering and enabling workers is local collective bargaining, which also allows employers to locally demonstrate their inability to pay any sought-after pay increase or work-place benefits and so potentially sustain competitiveness. Furthermore, it importantly allows workers to chase those employers who can afford to release some of the profits their workers have helped create. This is Mandate’s position, and it is adopted in the light of the fact that “partnership” has failed to deliver in real terms for its members.
    The Irish Bank Officials’ Association has also declared its intention of seeking a local collective bargaining clause in any new agreement; and while Mandate applauds its endeavours, it is confident that the IBOA will be joining it on the ICTU fringes of any future agreement and, like Mandate, will be preparing its members for employer-specific related pay claims.
    It is difficult to imagine that any new “social partnership” agreement will forgo future industrial peace and harmony, especially when IBEC is ready and willing to belittle the ICTU’s assertion that job dignity and displacement are manifestly real in Ireland. And they haven’t even got down to discussing pay yet!


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