Return to contents menu

  Dissolving the partnership

Maeve Connaughton

Review of 
Joe Craig. Prisoners of Social Partnership:
A socialist analysis of Social Partnership in Ireland.

Socialist Democracy Publishers. 150 pages. €9/stg£6.

It’s that time again. Already IBEC and ICTU spokespeople have thrown the old familiar shapes: their side hadn’t come off too well from partnership... perhaps the time had come to rethink the concept... they would be extremely reluctant to enter into another deal.... It’s called playing hard to get. For all their protestations, you couldn’t help thinking that, come the end of the night, they would still hook up—even though part of them knew that they’d hate themselves in the morning.

Social partnership has all but been elevated to a compulsory state religion at this stage. Just ask the poor heretics on the trains and in the classrooms who’ve received an unmerciful stoning without so much as a Massachusetts witch trial. All the more welcome, therefore, is a book that stands in unapologetic opposition to partnership. In the run-up to whatever P the next deal will be called, the more dissenting analysis the merrier.

Joe Craig’s basic argument is very good. Partnership is about more than wage deals, it is a whole ideological offensive of capital on labour. His useful recounting of the genesis of modern partnership in the late 1980s concludes that “few seemed to grasp the enormity of the assault that social partnership represented”. 
(p 41). The whole tortuous edifice has been built up and extended, not just to knock a few percentage points off the annual pay round, but to lock the workers’ movement into a deadly grip with the bosses. It’s not just that they only concede us a few crumbs, but that our side affixes its stamp of approval to the crumb distribution process.
Antonio Gramsci, the Italian socialist, tells the story somewhere of a beaver being hunted because its testicles contain a substance from which an expensive drug can be extracted. To save his life, the beaver tears off his own testicles and throws them to the hunters, thankful that, although emasculated, he has managed to save his life. The arguments of the union leaders for partnership would put you in mind of him. Their support for partnership kept Thatcherism out of Ireland... by introducing it in a more cute and subtle way. Craig describes the circular descent into hell (p 43):

Social partnership was justified in the name of stopping privatisation. Then partial privatisation was supported in the name of stopping full privatisation. Then joining in with full privatisation was justified in the name of—what?
It should go without saying that socialists confront the totality of the partnership project, and oppose it as such. Otherwise we more or less concede defeat before we’ve started, and end up with (as a union leader quoted on p 49 approvingly put it) “a debate about what is in the agreement and not about the concept of such agreements”. The concept of such agreements is precisely what needs to be fought—and not just on paper, but in the actuality of campaigning work.

Such a position is clearly a minority one at present within the working class. Most of the discontent with partnership focuses on the tiny amount we have got out of it. In the midst of the biggest boom the country ever saw, workers have seen comparatively little of it. Many would not have a problem with a partnership that gave us a bigger share of the fruits of our labour. Their opposition is not to the principle of partnership, but the practice of it.

The problem with this book is that it constantly sets up this type of opposition against a principled socialist opposition. But how do people reach a position of opposing partnership in principle? Usually by opposing what’s in a particular partnership deal! One grows over into the other, if socialists do their job right. The simple resistance to an unfair pay deal is something to be built upon, the potential basis for an outright resistance to partnership as such. Limiting opposition to those who are ideologically opposed will ensure that opposition doesn’t get very far.
So, after mentioning the strikes that accompanied the early days of the Programme for National Recovery, Craig says that they “did not constitute attacks on the deal, or even defeats for it in the event that they won, because social partnership was not identified as the target” (p 37). So workers have to assume a position of outright opposition to the concept of partnership before their struggles mean anything! Even if they were to win a 40% pay rise, it wouldn’t dent partnership (p 129). A workers’ movement that managed to wrest such a huge chunk of its profits from the capitalist class would surely have holed the LE Social Partnership below the waterline! The majority of workers will come out against partnership, not through reading analyses of it, but through coming up against its limitations in practice, in the course of everyday struggles against its implications.

But Craig places little value on such everyday struggles. Writing amidst a minor rash of strikes, he tells us that “The success of this book will be judged not on whether the number of such strikes increase or are more successful but on whether militants and socialists learn and implement the political lessons that are required”   (p 9). Is it not a good thing if workers go on strike and win more often, then? Well... yes, OK then, it is, he admits, but only grudgingly. “While raising money and support for individual struggles is important”, it’s not the main thing (p 142). “If this [pay] becomes the issue around which groups of workers regain their confidence well and good” (p 128).

It has become a cliché among socialists to say that a strike isn’t important in itself, but only for what it teaches us about the capitalist ‘system. Ask anyone who has won even a limited victory in a small strike and they will soon be able to put you right. Those few extra euros or pounds in your pocket do make a real difference. Maybe you can go on a holiday abroad this year, where you couldn’t last year. Maybe now you can afford to get the kids the things they need. Within the workplace itself, things like the right to go to the toilet without raising your hand to ask permission are not to be sneezed at. None of these concessions bring the era of capitalist exploitation to an end, but they are very “well and good”, even if people don’t draw the lessons socialists would like them to.

Craig proposes an ‘all or nothing’ strategy:

There is only one alternative for them [workers] and it is not wealth distribution from these [multinational] companies to working people. It is the international organisation of workers with the aim of taking control of these companies for the benefit not just of Irish workers but of those around the world subject to their blackmail.... The only alternative is one where the whole system of production is geared towards workers needs and not profits... an economy, planned for social need... [pp 96, 131]

Socialist revolution is here posed as an alternative to the actual spontaneous struggles of the working class. Don’t try to get some of the wealth off the bosses: that’s not an option. Take over the world already, or forget about it. Having quoted Marx saying “We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle” (p 9), the book proceeds to do just that.

Like every self-respecting Marxist book on the unions, the conclusion to Wages, Price and Profit, where Marx calls for abolishing the wages system rather than getting a fair wage within it, is quoted (p 147). Turn back a page in that pamphlet, though, and you’ll see the following:

Is this saying that the working class ought to renounce their resistance against the encroachments of capital, and abandon their attempts at making the best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement? If they did, they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation.... By cowardly giving way in their every-day conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement.
Of course, Craig is not by any manner or means advocating giving way in this everyday conflict. But we see little comprehension of how the socialist alternative arises from that everyday conflict. The nurses’ strike of 1999, he says quite rightly, needed central rank and file control to succeed—but “Unfortunately no such structures existed” (p 27)! Where are these structures supposed to come from, if not from the experience of partial resistance to specific elements of capitalism? For a group of workers who had never been on strike before, what the nurses put together—including the biggest workers’ march Dublin had seen in two decades—was incredible. But out of 25 paragraphs on their strike, only in the last two does the positive side get a look-in (p 23).

The scenario in the event of social partnership collapsing would be a return to free collective bargaining. Compared to the straitjacket of the past fifteen years, this would be a tremendous advance. But Craig dismisses it as “sectional struggle” which holds no prospect for poorer workers and in fact amounts to “a victory by the bureaucracy” (p 39). Is it not a little eerie to see a revolutionary echoing the bugbears of union leaders about the bad old days of free-for-alls that weakened the worst off? The likelihood is that some groups will move first and others will follow. Fair enough, says this book (well and good, perhaps?), but it “is not an alternative” (p 139). It would be grand, of course, if the entire working class lined up together and moved forward as one with no unevenness at all, but posing that as the only alternative is a recipe for a long and fruitless wait.

The union leaders come in for a hell of a lot of stick, and all of it is thoroughly deserved, of course. Craig avoids the temptation to excoriate individual leaders as traitors and tumcoats, focusing instead on the nature of the union hierarchy as a layer in society. There is a reason that the leadership behave in a different way to rank and file union members: “the professional staff and ordinary workers have separate interests arising from different circumstances” (p 119). Living far from the pressures of the factory or office floor, inhabiting a world where they sit round big tables smoothing out problems with their opposite numbers, they develop a milieu of their own. Militant combat against the capitalists is not their weapon of choice, but negotiations, contracts, partnerships for economic and social progress/competitiveness/work/prosperity/fairness and whatever you’re having yourself....

But Craig goes so far as to locate them on the other side of the barricades. In contrast to militant trade unionists who have maintained that union leaders are not the enemy, he insists that they most certainly are, “pillars of capitalist society” (p 122). Rightly stressing the interests that lead the union bureaucracy away from the interests of workers, he forgets the counterpressures that can pull them back towards us. Many of them have openly joined the ranks of big business but, as a group, they can’t completely ignore the working class and go over to the capitalists wholesale. If they did, they would lose their role as the accredited negotiators for the workforce, and then who would bargain with them?

These conflicting forces find an expression in some union leaders being less collaborationist than others. This division can be exploited by rank and file trade unionists to advance their own cause. A rank and file movement would place demands on them, force them to turn their words into action, instead of letting them off the hook. Lumping them in with the ruling class does just that, and would also wrongfoot us all when the bureaucrats do come out with radical talk and deeds.

‘The left’ is a term of abuse throughout the book. An undivided, uniformly useless left seems to be the biggest problem: it certainly comes off worse than the employers do. The left has offered just “two conceptions” of an alternative to partnership, we are told (p 130). It is easier, of course, to pick a fight with just two easy targets than to deal with the myriad range of left responses, many of which have addressed the question honestly.
But Craig’s criticisms do ring true for a certain type of left approach. Politics “was to be left to their own organisation, or ‘party’, so that in the end the alternative they gave to workers in dispute was to join their own little organisation” (p 52). Fighting partnership and posing a political alternative “is not the sole territory of socialist parties. It must embrace the whole working class” (pp 140-41). Hence his call for a broad workers’ party based on a radicalised union movement (pp 145-6):

The purpose of such a call is to place the question of political organisation in front of the widest number of workers, especially those already willing to engage in activity and organisation. It does so in a way that shows them that it will be their own creation. That it will be under their control and responsive to their demands. It is a way for the already existing left to show that they do not assume their own organisations are already adequate instruments of working class emancipation, that all they really need is just more recruits.

If such a prospect is a good way away from where things are at currently, it is at least well motivated. However, he seems to rule out the idea of large numbers of workers getting politically active until the revolution is imminent, “because workers by definition have to spend most of their time working for a living” (pp 124, 127). So who is going to do the business? Are we back to the old idea of a self-selecting vanguard importing socialist politics into the working class? A happy few who concentrate on polishing their perspectives until the revolutionary tocsin sounds?

A book like this should marshal loads of arguments against partnership for use in the “debate among ordinary workers” the author is looking for (p 8). But on the next page he tells us to consult the raft of books and articles in his bibliography to get such arguments. Surely, having spent €9 or £6, the reader can expect to get them between these covers! He says the share of wages in the economy fell to 57.2% in 2000—based on a report published in 1999  (p 102)! Going by CSO National Income and Expenditure statistics, profits in 2000 came to £32,402m and employees’ remuneration to £32,6l3m, so our share of the cake—just over 50%—is actually overstated in this book. Craig seems to regard VHI holders as some kind of privileged layer in the Southern health service, and to be unaware that private companies are already in on the act here (p 104).

The economic analysis leaves something to be desired. The argument on page 136 shows that underconsumptionism is alive and well amongst people who think they’re adhering to classical Marxist economics. While it may seem an easier and more obvious position to defend, the root of crisis in the capitalist economy is not that workers “won’t have the purchasing power” to buy what they produce, but that the need to invest in technology and machinery tends to push down the overall rate of profit. Neither is trying to force the 26-county economy into a neo-colonial mould tenable any longer. Calling it “the 51St state” of America (p 92) sounds good, but rings a little hollow when the previous page has informed us that US companies account for only a sixth of its GDP. The role of multinationals in Ireland cannot be summed up with an old-fashioned lefty rallying cry.

For all these criticisms, Prisoners of Social Partnership is a welcome addition to the debate on how to defeat partnership. Its argument for an explicit socialist response to partnership is timely, and deserves a wide hearing. Any book that cuts through the current fog of consensus can only be a good thing.


Return to top of page