September 2011        

Will the ICTU finally get the message?

Social partnership is dead

The biennial conference of the ICTU took place earlier this year, and with it the death knell has unequivocally and finally sounded for social partnership. Both the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste made it very clear that they would not be returning to social partnership as the trade unions knew it.
     Kenny told the conference: “I am open and receptive to dialogue with the trade union movement.” However, he also said that “we will not be returning to the kind of social partnership that collapsed two years ago.” Gilmore said that “the Government is willing to engage with the trade unions about social partnership but any new deal would be different to those agreed in the past.” He went on to say: “I do not think anybody would expect such an agreement to be like the ones before.”
     It is clear that the dialogue they want to engage in is about cuts in the public service, cuts in public-service jobs, outsourcing public services and public-service jobs, a fire sale of national assets, and further deregulation of the labour market.
     More than ever, the trade union movement needs to find an independent political voice for engaging and leading its members, based on a total rejection of the neo-liberal medicine being forced down workers’ throats.
     The challenge faced by trade unions, to represent their members in the industrial relations arena and in the broader political and economic environment, has become more urgent and more complex. For trade unions, this challenge is compounded by a significant loss of membership, particularly in the private sector.
     The decline in union membership has weakened union power, and this in turn has played a part in the demise of unions’ representative status. But the real problem, we would argue, has been the failure of the movement to represent and give leadership to its members. One of the root causes of this is the long involvement of the trade union movement in social partnership.
     “It’s easy,” has been the cry of some trade union officers, “for some political parties to snipe from the long grass at the failures of the trade union movement.”
     This has never been the Communist Party’s position. However, we do want to pose a challenge to the trade union movement to enter into a debate about the future direction of the movement.
     Through the publication of our pamphlet The Challenge for Trade Unionism, which will be launched on 8 September in the head office of the TEEU, the CPI seeks to focus the debate on the politics, structure, vision and actions of the trade union movement with a view to mobilising its resources in advancement of a just society. The pamphlet deals with a number of areas: a clear view of the roots of the crisis, an analysis of the trade union movement’s response to the crisis, an articulation of a class analysis for the way forward, and proposals for renewal.
     We have invited the general secretaries and presidents of trade unions to respond to our pamphlet, which we hope they will do. We want to make the discussion as broad as possible, and so we also encourage activists to become involved in the debate.

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