From Socialist Voice, November 2008

Can the “partnership” model survive with collective bargaining?

The president of SIPTU, Jack O’Connor, rightly resurrected the old industrial relations issue of local collective bargaining and union recognition legislation being an integral strand in the recent “partnership” talks. While it might be that this didn’t cause the momentary collapse—as it is the opinion of this writer that an agreement will be struck in the next month or so—it nevertheless raises the incredible paradox that is Irish “social partnership.”
     With regard to collective bargaining, IBEC and its firm supporter, the Government—irrespective of which party-political cabal is in power—refuse to enshrine in law the rights of workers to locally represent, at the minimum, their economic interests in the work-place. This lack of recognition of trade unionism by those serving the business community’s interests, and ably supported by successive Governments, is then “parked” at times of renewal of “social partnership,” at which time it is formally recognised that the ICTU’s support and agreement is necessarily critical to achieving this.
     Is this not de facto recognition by the state and business of trade unions and subsequently a somewhat limited form of state-level collective bargaining?
     And is it not a fact that it is readily availed of by certain “partners” to ensure that the economic benefits to workers are at best limited when compared with the slavish profiteering that is Irish capitalism and similarly to straitjacket true and proper public-sector spending?
     But as the success or otherwise of “social partnership” historically rests on number-crunching future national wage increases, other important worker-related factors have been lost in the mists of these complex and convoluted agreements—most notably job control.
     Stephen Hill, in Competition and Control at Work, argues that the “collective strength of organised labour enables them [trade unionists] to secure scarce economic rewards which individually they would be unable to attain.” This level of collective action is primarily and strategically concentrated on workers’ economic interests, while at the same time the same work force has forgone much of what can be perceived as job control: where one works, when one works, what one works at, etc. This is, as Hill describes it, the “political” issue, because “it concerns the distribution of power within the enterprise and the economy as a whole.”
     Irish “social partnership” has strategically allowed a form of state-level collective bargaining to oxygenate the neo-liberal economic agenda of western Europe today. In return for limited pay increases—which, when implemented, further marginalise the working class, as they obviously favour higher income earners—swathes of the working class, if not all workers, have been required to relinquish job control and potential industrial democracy.
     The Teachers’ Union of Ireland, in the interests of its members, recently raised the point—in the form of a motion at the recent ICTU biennial delegate conference—that where parts of social partnership agreements affect one particular work force it is electorally and democratically incumbent on the ICTU to ballot only that work force and not allow the resultant impact to be won or passed in an aggregate-style ballot. This wasn’t even allowed for debate. Why? To defend the economic agenda that is “social partnership.”
     The same could be said for all Irish workers as the pursuit of increased business, through extended opening and longer working hours, business-related staff rostering, the ever-increasing computerisation of labour functions, etc., has consistently eroded job role and status in exchange for minimal pay increases. In accepting this, job-holding workers have effectually lost industrial power to the corrosive effects of aggregate balloting accorded by social partnership arrangements.
     Social partnership, when sought and achieved, physically demonstrates what has become the institutionalised tool that is state-level collective bargaining but at the same time minimises or at best dilutes its potential strength to address the age-old employment conflicts between workers and employers, labour and capital, i.e. the “economic and political” dimensions of trade unionism.
     And while empirically it can be shown that collective bargaining, of a local nature, has failed to focus on trade union members’ job control demands—i.e. the “political” dimension of work—it nevertheless represents a better opportunity to really challenge Irish capitalism than what now exists.
     And if, as Hill puts it, the policy of collective bargaining concerns power distribution within the economy, then it is fair to say that the inherent conflict within industrial relations is representative of Gramsci’s “field of control,” provided it is freed from the “social partnership” straitjacket. Local collective bargaining and union recognition—while possibly a sop towards saving the current round of social partnership—would present real potential benefits in the future when, as Gramsci said regarding the field of control, “the working class, when it has won the trust and consent of the great mass of the population, can construct its state, organise its governmental institutions . . . and initiate the positive work of organising the new economic and social system,” and further that “existential problems of the present historical period . . . can be resolved when all economic power, and hence all political power, has passed into the hands of the working class.”
     Jack O’Connor is right to introduce this important trade union matter in the present round of social partnership.
     When “partnership” eventually fails—as it will—it is important that the trade union movement have the necessary tools with which to effectively challenge capitalism not only in economic terms but, equally and more importantly, in the “political” terms of job control.

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