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Education unions debate social partnership

ATL lecture talks up social partnership -  Back to the future or time to turn left?

John McAnulty

24 July 2009

The following  article was originally carried in the INTO journal printout

The AGM of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, held in Belfast in May, set itself the ambitious task of raising the game of everyday trade union discussion with its fourth annual lecture given to guests before the annual dinner.

The topic: “A successful model of trade union participation in running a state? 20 years of social partnership in the republic of Ireland”, was presented by Dr. Phillip O’Connor, the director of Dublin Employment Pact.  The topic could not be more important at a time of general economic collapse, worst in the 26 country state where formal social partnership was pioneered. It is also a time when experiments in social partnership are being run in various elements of British society, especially in the education sector.

All the more disappointing then the presentation the audience received: less of a lecture or a reasoned presentation of a brief, more of a harangue by someone absolutely convinced of the rightness of his case.

When a lecturer goes to the trouble to attach an academic title to his name we expect that certain elements will be present in the lecture. Even when they strongly endorse one position or another we expect them to offer balance. There will be pros and cons before the speaker endorses one position or another. This was entirely absent from Dr O’Connor’s talk.

A central element of the talk was a list of assertions as to why we should support social partnership. The assertions strained credulity and were frequently contradictory.  James Connolly would have supported social partnership because he admired German social democracy and the factory councils that the German trade unions had set up. The trade unions supported social partnership because they were descended from the Irish Citizen army and considered the state to be their state in a way that British unions did not.  Social partnership owed much to early Catholic corporatist social theory and, although this had been discredited because the Nazis borrowed from it to construct their social theory, it deserved to be rehabilitated because it had helped lead to social partnership. There were allegations that social partnership was undemocratic but that was all right because it was even better than democracy. One breath-taking assertion was that 150,000 workers marching in Dublin in February had not been protesting the cuts to their income but supporting calls for more social partnership!

The list of reasons for supporting social partnership was accompanied by a list of the great and the good who had supported it. A section of the Irish Stalinist movement are given credit for the initial design. Leaders of the Trade union bureaucracy endorsed it, as did Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein and the late great Charlie Haughey. In an example of the circular logic which pervaded the lecture, the listed names are given heroic stature because of their support for social partnership. You search in vain for the controversy and scandal that surrounded many of the people involved, not least Charlie himself. 

Almost all the assertions made are questionable. Which Connolly would have supported social partnership? The early one that admired German social democracy or the one that led the Easter rising partly to protest the same German social democratic support for war? Are we to draw our example from the early factory councils in Germany, feared as precursors to revolution, or from todays German movement, utterly reformist in character but still a great deal more effective than anything Irish social partnership has produced?

But of course these points are not at the centre of Dr O’Connor’s discourse. His central argument is around the nature and genesis of the Celtic Tiger.  These centre around the following assertions:

· The Celtic Tiger was the result of careful planning centred on targeting US foreign direct investment and centring on the new information technologies.

· Elements of Irish education and infrastructure were important, as were a low tax regime and the guaranteed industrial compliance brought by social partnership. 

· The chief element of the Celtic tiger was an economic boom that benefited everyone.  Workers benefited from low unemployment, an end to migration and excellent social welfare. 

· The agreements saved Ireland from Thatcherism

· As social partnership evolved over time it became a new way of doing business. The mechanism is now essential for Irish prosperity and must be retained even in times of economic recession.

Again there is much to question here. As the good Doctor admits in the fine print, social partnership was initially an emergency method of protecting the interests of Irish business rather than attracting foreign investment (FDI). The motor of FDI was the tax regime and the entry to Europe – as many of the companies did not recognise trade unions they had little concern over the peace powers of organisations they would not allow over the front door.  This is a somewhat telling point – after decades of social partnership the unions aren’t even recognised by many of their “partners”.

Many critics would argue that social partnership did not save Ireland from Thatcherism – it merely saved the unions from the necessity of fighting it. Although there was a massive expansion in the Irish economy, the period of social partnership was also accompanied by a steady decline in the proportion of that wealth that accrued to Irish workers in the form of wages and a logarithmic expansion of the gap between rich and poor.  The whole period is elided together, even though the boom caused by FDI is long over and what is now ending is a classical speculative bubble build on junk bonds and housing speculation.

Phillip O’Connor, perhaps wisely, restricts his claims on the benefits of Irish social welfare to the narrow ground of welfare payments.  Some of these would have cost relatively little in a period of full employment.  A number have now being cut and all are under threat. In any case when one looks at the wider field of welfare one sees a very different picture.  Irish social housing, educational infrastructure, health – even the public water supply – have never seen the sort of standard taken for granted in Europe. 

The reason for this is very simple. The low tax regime that attracted FDI also made it impossible to raise the level of revenue need to fully develop the infrastructure. Right away we have a fundamental flaw in the social partnership argument, a process unable to produce the coherent and sustainable development needed for a robust economy.  If all Irish workers are left with is a hangover and a bad taste in their mouth, if the US firms are over the horizon in Eastern Europe and the far east, if all the Irish capitalist class were able to do with the money was play high class poker with junk bonds, just what are the advantages in sticking to this model? 

This really is a burning question. The Irish trade union leadership are fighting hard to retain the social partnership model. Their call is not to oppose the bailout of the bankers and speculators but to find a “better fairer way” for their members to meet the bill. Just what this means has been spelt out by the recent report of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes, often dubbed as An Bord Snip Nua. It means picking and choosing from a menu that will, no matter what items are selected, leave Irish society in a state of penury. Supporting social partnership will mean helping the state and employers to enforce these cuts.

Nor is it simply a question for the 26 counties.  Despite the claims made for the formal model, few people would doubt that many unions in Britain and the North see themselves as informal partners of the state, a position underlined by the address at the same lecture by ATL general secretary Mary Bousted, talking up social partnership in British education as the wave of the future.

The Celtic tiger economy has gone. The Orange cub economy that many hoped to see in the North is stillborn. Across the world leading economist are scratching their heads and wondering if capitalism itself can survive. The majority agree that any revived financial system would at the very least depend on a public, collectivist control of the economy.  It really would be the deepest of ironies if the last people to defend what is in essence the final gasp of Thatcherism were to be the leadership of the trade union movement.



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