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A new stage in partnership?

Joe Craig

25 November 2007

The last social partnership deal – ‘Towards 2016’ – involved a decade long agreement by union leaders with the business agenda of employers and government in return for periodic negotiations on pay increases.  It signalled that these negotiations could lead to higher or lower increases but that they would take place within the context set by a raft of agreements that surrendered workers ability to contest major changes to their terms and conditions.  It was testament to the stupidity of some of the left that they thought that in this context slightly higher pay rises amounted to a repudiation of partnership.  In fact by seeking to work with sections of the trade union leadership that negotiated this deal, and asking them only to deliver bigger pay increases, they signalled that they too were now inside the structures of the deal.

In fact this has been true for a very long time now.  The partnership deals have been based on the idea that every few years the relationship between the unions and the bosses and State would be up for negotiation which would set the terms for their relationship over the next couple of years.  The agreement would determine what and what was not allowed.  Anti-partnership socialists and workers de facto accepted this framework by cobbling together campaigns at the last minute to oppose these deals and then collapse them afterwards as if the question had then been decided.  Failure to maintain and build a permanent workers campaign against partnership indicated a failure to understand the importance of the deals as a means of strangling workers ability to struggle and amounted to acceptance of the union leaders/bosses/State rules of the game.  In the end it amounted to failure even to build periodic campaigns with any weight or impact.  In the end anti-partnership became demands for partnership on better terms.

This has been justified on the grounds that the left did not want to be isolated from ‘mainstream’ opposition, by which is meant a small number of more ‘left’ union figures whose position is not fundamentally one of opposition.  The latter refuse to break from the main trade union leadership who do not want to break with the employers and state.  The left is united with ‘left’ union figures who are united with the main trade union leaders who are united with the bosses.  In such a way does fear of isolation lead to an arms length unity with those whom the left claims to oppose.

The much greater isolation of socialists and militants from workers because of their unity with the bureaucracy is left out of the equation.  This isolation is expressed in the fact that while workers are compelled again and again to oppose the effects of partnership there is no campaign to which they can look to for support, solidarity or lessons from previous fights.

New Stage

The last couple of months have witnessed the increasing use of an old and aggressive tactic by employers to force workers to accept their demands, a tactic that makes no pretence to any sort of partnership approach – the lock out.  Aer Lingus management threatened it, and started to implement it, on the pilots who objected to unilateral changes to terms and conditions to staff recruited to the new base in Belfast.  In October they then effectively tore up the current partnership deal by stopping payment of the 5 per cent pay rise due under the deal and 2.5 per cent increase due under increments unless workers accepted their €20 million cost cutting plan involving longer hours, reduced wages and lower terms and conditions for new employees.

SIPTU leaders had accepted the privatisation of Aer Lingus and pushed it through their membership by claiming that they had a deal that promised terms and conditions would not be threatened – something now apparently forgotten by everyone and something that was fanciful at the time and even more of a 
nonsense now.  The changes have been agreed by all the partnership bodies that the union leaders sit on.  Now the workers anger and threatened action has been short-circuited by an appeal to the partnership National Implementation Body which has a remit to cut workers terms and conditions in a different way.

A farcical situation is in progress in which union leaders sit on bodies approving assaults on workers rights which the leaders pretend to oppose, then appealing to other bodies they also sit on which will impose the changes anyway.  And no one is supposed to notice!

Lockout is now the favoured mechanism of a company of which the workers are supposedly part owners!  The majority of the rest is owned by people they have been partners with for 20 years and will be for another 10!  It’s almost like mushroom management – shit on the workers and keep them in the dark – except the lights are on and reality is there for everyone to see if they only took their partnership blindfold off.

Dublin Bus also attempted to unilaterally impose changes to terms and conditions on two new bus routes which would have left drivers stuck in the city centre after a shift, forcing them to trek back out to their Harristown base, in effect an increase in the working day of two or three hours with no increase in pay.  It attempted to foist this on a junior member of staff and then suspended that member when they refused.  The rest of the drivers at the garage then ignored all the precepts of partnership and went on strike forcing the company to back down, at least temporarily.

At the same time workers at ESB have voted by 90 per cent to take industrial action up to including striking in order to stop the government splitting the ESB’s power generation and transmission business, an idea so stupid even ESB management are supposedly opposed to it.


The sheer arrogance and confidence of the bosses and government is demonstrated by the fact that these attacks arise just before negotiations for the next pay element of the partnership deal early next year.  SIPTU leader Jack O’Connor has said he is tired of SIPTU carrying social partnership on its own.  Coupled with his acknowledgement that 20 years after it started there is still no obligation on employers to recognise a union a bigger condemnation of partnership could hardly be uttered.  One partner doesn’t even acknowledge the other’s right to exist!  So is there a real partnership at all?

The answer is that yes there is.  But it’s not between workers and bosses, it’s between bureaucrats and bosses.  These trade union bureaucrats have stated that the big, big benefit of partnership is ‘access’: access by the bureaucrats to government and all the status and perks that this provides.  The fact that this ‘access’ produces next to nothing for workers is neither here nor there for them.  Things would be much worse for the workers if we didn’t exist is how they rationalise it to themselves.

The real content of partnership can be seen by noting that the Chief Executive of Aer Lingus will get a €581,000 bonus if he implements the €20 million cost cutting plan which will make some workers €4,000 a year worse off.  It comes when Bertie Ahern is getting a pay rise of €38,000, making him one of the best paid political leaders on the planet.  The use of the lockout is not an alternative to partnership but the stick displayed as the alternative to the pretty wizened carrot that will be offered in the upcoming negotiations.  It signals that the economy faces a real slow down and the government and bosses are confident that they can force whatever concessions they want from particular workforces while maintaining an alliance with union leaders which can be used to undermine resistance when it surfaces.

Socialists can do a lot about this by putting an anti-partnership campaign together now to fight this sort of obscenity.  Such a campaign could rally round the Aer Lingus workers, the bus workers and ESB workers and provide a permanent forum for organising militants brought into struggle.  After all, we’re not going to wait around another 10 years for the next deal to be presented – are we?


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