From Socialist Voice, February 2007

Is Mandate delivering?

Mandate—the union that represents Ireland’s retail and bar workers—recently balloted its Tesco membership on a negotiated set of extensive proposals that encompass pay increases, new pay scales, certainty of hours, pensions, and profit-sharing. The proposals were resoundingly accepted by Mandate’s members, who now stand to earn an increase of 11 per cent on all pay rates for the twelve months beginning September 2006.
     Similarly, those members on the lower points of the current seven-point pay scale (based on years of service) will, alongside any new recruits, move to a new three-point scale, which subjects any new recruits to an eighteen-month (rather than one-year) incremental progression. The maximum pay point of the new scale is noticeably less than the current pay scale’s maximum.
     The certainty-of-hours element of the proposals—which for many Mandate officials and members was the real selling point—clearly affords members greater earning potential and control than heretofore. Those employed on fully flexible eighteen to thirty-hour contracts—and they are possibly the majority of this employment’s membership—regularly experienced a draconian cutting of hours from one week to the next. This in effect negated any net gains in wage increases under national wage agreements and incremental pay-scale progression. Members will now be contracted onto bands of hours, which will ensure that their hours cannot be cut below an agreed minimum without the union’s and the individual’s consent.
     These bands of hours are as follows: 20–25 hours, 25–30 hours, 30–35 hours, and 35 or more hours, up to and including full-time contract hours of 39.
     While the latter is clearly laudable and is a watershed in balancing the retail industry’s stated imperative for complete employee flexibility, in its relentless pursuit of profit and competitiveness, against the same workers’ social interests, the former needs to be properly contextualised within Mandate’s present precarious positioning outside “social partnership” and the organisation’s resulting pay claim.
     Certainly this was not the case when the deal was presented to the membership throughout the length and breadth of the country. In fact it could be safely stated that in general the same and wider Mandate membership is wholly unaware of their union’s pay claim and its non-partnership position.
     Motivated by the fact that successive “social partnership” agreements demonstrated an obvious disregard for the low-paid, Mandate felt that enough was enough. From the onset of the “Towards 2016” negotiations Mandate publicly announced its intention to go it alone and seek pay increases above and beyond those of the current “social partnership” agreement.
     It appears that that same pay claim is worryingly stuttering to a halt, which raises serious questions about the organisation’s leadership, in terms of strategic vision and drive. This recent deal does little to compete with that of social partnership’s “Towards 2016” and nullifies Mandate’s welcome rhetoric of properly addressing the obvious imbalances in the country’s labour force.
     While the odds have always been stacked against those unions that have dared to break the “social partnership” ranks, it nevertheless behoves the same unions to strategically identify their aims, prepare the necessary ground, and strike according to relative circumstances—up to and including industrial action.
     The Mandate leadership—in lauding and selling this Tesco deal—potentially runs the risk of alienating itself from its membership if it believes it has bridged the declared 30-plus per cent wage differential manifest in successive “social partnership” deals. The Tesco deal represents little better than what is offered in “Towards 2016.” It rubber-stamps long-term cost savings for the employer, in that it will reduce wage costs. It officially allows for the introduction of a comparatively poorer pension scheme. It offsets guaranteed Christmas bonus payments for new workers against company shares, and certainly does nothing to bridge the wage differential gap that motivated Mandate to leave “social partnership” in the first place.
     As a means of delivering a new focus and impetus to its pay claim, the Mandate leadership—elected or otherwise—must analyse its present position within the parameters, and limitations, of its pay claim strategy, actively and methodically engage the membership, and where necessary develop proper partnerships with like-minded unions, so creating a broad alliance that can effectively outmanoeuvre the “social partnership” protagonists and drive the country’s trade union movement to a local collective bargaining environment.
     The portents for the latter are in abundance. The nurses’ unions have demonstrated an impressive strategy of for their vision both with members and the public, laying bare their demands, mandating their members to pursue them, and delivering a timely propaganda nightmare for the country’s political elite.
     Other unions, such as the IBOA and its recent and continuing pensions dispute with the Bank of Ireland, have more than whispered their concerns at the fact that “social partnership” pays little or no heed to social need, and that the business agenda is the main driver in its formulated agreements.
     Is it possible that the country’s social climate is changing, whereby the trade union movement can shed the shackles and restraints that are “social partnership”?
     While Mandate can rightly argue that it broke the ground first, and was right to do so, the Tesco deal of 11 per cent, compared with the “Towards 2016” 10½ per cent—never mind the other painful elements of the deal—does not demonstrate in any way that it has delivered and can deliver for its low-paid members.
     An immediate 11 per cent—or, as the pay claim puts it, €1 on the hourly rate—with the 10½ per cent of “Towards 2016,” goes some considerable way towards bridging the very gap that drove Mandate out of partnership. It was hoped that Mandate, by its anticipated actions, would ask more questions of partnership than are now being asked of it.

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