From Socialist Voice, November 2008

Time for an alternative!

Global capitalism’s tailspin set the context for the current “social partnership” proposals; and while the parties involved will tentatively argue and anticipate their acceptance as the best that could be achieved, Irish workers and their international comrades are faced with the challenging question, Is there an alternative, and if so, what is it?
     Setting aside the pay element of these proposals (dealt with elsewhere in this issue), whispered promises that mark the proposals’ sub-plot will ultimately prove to be the deal-maker or breaker.
     The ICTU’s agenda of protecting the low-paid in the pay element hasn’t been delivered, but such areas as the Ryanair Supreme Court decision, employment regulation orders and legislation regarding agency workers, among others, might just prove to be the social partnership’s tonic for survival.
     That in itself raises important questions. Basic workers’ rights that have previously been legislated for are now conscripted bargaining tools in the social partnership process and as such are potentially endangered.
     The word is that stronger legislative provision against trade union victimisation, stronger governmental support for employment regulation orders that are now being attacked by big business, IBEC and Government expressions of “concern” at big-boss wages, pay increases, bonuses, etc. sugar the current deal’s proposals, as it is obvious that the proposed pay pauses and subsequent pay increases have no chance of delivering on their own.
     What should be a basic right for workers is now negotiable, which should serve particular notice that “social partnership” straitjackets workers’ collective strength, and has been cleverly designed for the purpose.
     This is nowhere more evident than in Ireland, where the ICTU takes its seat at successive partnership talks. It has always been accepted, both at the academic and the practical level, that trade unions collectively negotiate with employers in the knowledge that, if required, the workers can exercise their collective threat of industrial action as one particular option. This does not and cannot apply to Congress, as it is legislatively strapped and prevented from exercising universal collective action and so can only benefit employers and governments striving to maintain nationwide “industrial harmony,” so necessitating continued capitalist advantage against ordinary workers.
     Even allowing for having to play the hand you are dealt with, as in social partnership, it is important to recognise that post-war social democracy has engineered the tools, the processes, the dedicated diversionary tactics to obviate real left-wing progress. Neo-liberalism and laissez-faire capitalism are the real beneficiaries of successive social-democratic pursuits, and recent news-grabbing headlines demonstrate the evils of such policies. Those of us who feel that this is purely an accidental environment should awaken to the obvious and evident historical industrial relations facts imminent after two successive world wars.
     And when global capitalism is in a state of free fall, Irish and international workers are asked and expected to curtail their wants and needs. Worse, those same workers are undemocratically required to allow the financial bail-outs that might prop up the very system that does not, cannot and will not deliver for them.
     At a time when the economic backdrop should have served as social partnership’s gravedigger, it is a credit to the social partners that they could exit the talks with some form of proposals. But at what cost!
     Workers and their leadership should now concern themselves with examining a life outside social partnership; and those on the left have a responsibility to deliver the motives for such a change in direction.
     These social partnership proposals should serve as motivation enough for a change of direction. Generic attacks on the public sector, ordinary workers’ pay, the low-paid, etc., by both IBEC and Government, alongside having to negotiate whispered promises for basic workers’ rights and irreconcilable pay pauses, pay decreases, etc., cannot conceivably be regarded as the makings of a deal.
     The word is that throughout the social partnership talks one particular Government official appeared to relish telling the ICTU delegation of further global financial failures—so much so that some in the same delegation felt that the global economic collapse was the fault of the trade unions!
     Irish workers, through the trade union movement, should create the conditions that will require its leadership to think outside the box that is social partnership. They can do so now by voting down this deal and all that is delusional in the “social partnership” model. Doing so will not only restore workers’ collective strength but also stimulate the necessary debate about the alternative.

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