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Fighting Social Partnership:  Left race to the bottom?

Kevin Keating and John McAnulty

1 August 2006

As we reported earlier in the year, one outcome of the ATGWU conference to discuss a new party of the working class was a promise from everyone concerned to unite around opposition to Social Partnership. We would oppose ‘Towards 2016’ and the ICTU proposal to handcuff the workers to the bosses for the next ten years. Even as the conference broke up, it was clear that the groups involved interpreted unity as doing their own thing and that the endemic disunity of the left would prevail.

Unfortunately, as events have progressed, a number of currents have engaged in their own ‘race to the bottom’ – moving sharply to the right and accommodating to the trade union bureaucracy that produced  the partnership deal.

There were three promises made to the conference:

ATGWU secretary Mick O’Reilly promised to lobby within the bureaucracy

Kieran Allan of the SWP promised to open the platform of their ‘People before Profit’ meeting to an anti-partnership speaker.

Des Derwin of Dublin Trades council promised to organise a meeting of independent trade unionists.

The way in which these promises panned out has marked a real step backwards for the socialist currents in Ireland.

Mick O’Reilly did what he always does in Social Partnership deals – looks for unity with the right bureaucracy. However, because the betrayal is greater than ever, the attempt was more lame and bizarre. The Irish Labour Party announced a Living wage campaign ‘Race to the top’ based around a Labour resolution to Dublin Council that all council contracts are awarded only to companies paying a living wage of at least €10 an hour.  The campaign was launched on 12 July with a platform of  Labour Youth, Mick O’Reilly of ATGWU, LP leader Pat Rabbitte and Jack O’Connor of SIPTU.

So the workers are to gain a living wage through a resolution in a council that outsources much of its work, that is up to its neck in privatisation drives and in any case doesn’t control its own finances!  Not only that, but Mick is going to fight for a ‘race to the top’ by uniting with Jack O’Connor who, through Social Partnership, is actually enforcing the ‘race to the bottom’ across the state and explicitly endorsing the mechanisms of outsourcing and privatisation that are driving wages down!  The icing on the cake is the inclusion or Rabbitte, the political side of the double act, determined to lock the Labour party into coalition with the most right wing elements of Irish capital and mount a pincer attack from the Dail on whatever remains of the rights of Irish workers.

Independent trade unionists did a great deal of work. Des Derwin chaired a number of meetings and former TUI leader Eddie Conlon produced a well researched and detailed ‘Briefing Document’ providing a point-by-point assessment of the betrayals of ‘Towards 2016’ that was then used widely by socialists and trade union militants.(

But the most dramatic shift was from the Socialist Workers party.  It has long been known for its ability to change direction by 180° , but this time  it outdid itself!  Kieran Allen, in an article in the Irish Times, listed a number of the negative aspects of the agreement and concluded with the demand that:

 “The deal is sent back and the negotiators told to bring back an improved version that better reflects he contribution that workers have made to the Celtic Tiger.” (

The argument is that if the deal is sent back on any grounds then this will be a victory for the workers and a defeat for the bureaucracy, and it will then be possible for the left to argue for further advances.  This argument completely confuses militants about the role of the left in relation to the workers.  It is true that if the workers rejected the deal it would be a setback for the bureaucracy.  In the absence of a political opposition that setback would be easily overcome – by, for example, returning to the government and bosses, coming out with some scrap of paper and announcing a better deal.  The role of the small left forces is to speak clearly to workers, explain the nature of social partnership and the role of the bureaucracy and be able to set up at least the outlines of the policies and structures that workers will need to fight around.

An ‘improved version’ of social partnership is almost the classic definition of reformism.  To amend or improve something you first have to support it and you are unable to convince workers of the need for the irreconcilable fight that is really necessary. 

SWP supporters argue that workers make concessions in any wage deal but can make gains and press demands.  It would be ultraleft to oppose this process from some purist perspective.  Right away those taking such a position are retreating far to the right and accepting the union bureaucracy’s defence that the agreement is ‘just’ a pay deal.  Social Partnership is not a pay deal, as every line makes clear, it is the utter subordination of the interests of the workers to those of the bosses.

The new SWP line was rolled out at the ‘People Before Profit’ meeting on the 22nd June. The meeting involved a conscious rejection of a campaign against social partnership in principle.  Opening the meeting Des Derwin stated that while he would prefer a campaign that opposed partnership in principle, a No vote campaign was the only option in the timescale available. Why, after 20 years of failure to build a campaign against partnership the same tired old tactics should be useful was not explained. Instead we got the usual SWP bluster, the call for a no vote by some bureaucrats, the mobilisation around Irish Ferries and a claim that this deal was of a different character and content than previous ones amounted to a possible groundswell which could swing the vote.   Bernard Lynch of ASTI proposed that, at the press conference to launch the campaign. we should call for the resignation ICTU negotiators rather than send them anywhere.  Socialist Democracy seconded that proposal as a realistic starting point for a campaign against partnership. Another experienced ASTI member Bernadine O’ Sullivan also contradicted the consensus, she said the current deal was not different in character, it was a progression. Support for the destruction of education was a betrayal, after their experience why would you want to be in a union.   The fact that ASTI members had managed to get control of their union executive, had stood outside the ICTU consensus, had taken industrial action and had fought a campaign much more extensive than anything the SWP and its supporters could dream of and had been defeated primarily through betrayal by their fulltime official and bureaucrats of the other teacher unions– all this counted for nothing!  Within days Peter McLoone of  ICTU had dealt with Kieran Allen’s  call for renegotiation, saying it was the best deal possible. 

What is being proposed is the standard left fare of opportunism.  There is an opportunity to win if only we fudge the political questions and pull in as many people as possible.  This tactic has now been applied for two decades.  The result is a brief flurry of activity followed by total collapse and the return to loyal opposition inside the respective unions.

At its heart the call for renegotiation is dishonest. What parts of the deal are good and which bad?  What amendments would socialists accept that would lead them to support the renegotiated deal?  The truth is that there aren’t any good bits and there is no deal subordinating the interests of workers to those of capital that socialists would support. 

Opportunism doesn’t work.  It assumes the working class are stupid and that if you speak slowly about only concrete issues the workers will understand.  But its not the complexity and abstraction of social partnership that baffles workers – it’s the simple concrete reality that baffles them – the reality that whenever they try to fight for their rights the organisations that they built up to defend themselves turn on them, stifle dissent and turn out to have already sold out their rights in the fine print of the last agreement. They don’t need to be encouraged to vote the right way on one single moment that will define the next ten years – they need mechanisms that will work day after day and defend them from the union bureaucracy that is increasingly a police force within the working class.

That’s the heart of the matter.  Workers don’t need to discuss the pros and cons of the current agreement.  There are no pros.  They need to organise an opposition to the bureaucracy that is not loyal – that is in fact thoroughly disloyal, that recognises the difference between the interests of the bureaucracy and that of the workers and that is willing to organise a rank and file movement that cuts across union structures.

The SWP call for renegotiation assumes that the bureaucracy are representing the interests of the workers.  They lay great stress on the number of union leaderships who oppose the details of the agreement, even though this happens with every new agreement and fades away afterwards. The SWP lays great stress on its connections with the union bureaucracy and its support for them, willing to declare the ICTU sellout around Irish Ferries as a great victory.  From this perspective union votes become an immense loyal lobbying exercise to get the union leadership to see the light.  In reality the bureaucracy negotiate successfully, buying influence for themselves and selling their ability to control the workforce.  As time goes by the workers become more and more fragmented, the bureaucrats have less to sell and get less in return, but the demoralisation also means that workers become atomised and apathetic and the voting is concentrated among the placeholders and minor functionaries of the union branches, so it becomes easier to pass even the most open betrayals.  Failure to recognise this means that the great opportunities fade to dust and the real opportunity – to build an enduring rank and file opposition – is squandered yet again.

There are plenty who oppose any retreat to the right or dilution of opposition to social partnership.

*   Socialist Democracy’s opposition goes back many years and can be viewed by searching this website or ordering the book on the issue by Joe Craig.  Read:

*   The Irish Socialist network argue that:
“Our first response must be to argue that within a capitalist economy, there can be no such
thing as “social partnership”. Any dilution of that fundamental point means losing sight of the battle.”(

*   The Socialist Party have carried a series of articles opposing the partnership deal and have publicly attacked the SWP for their position:
“Incredibly, the SWP who claim to be socialists, are now saying it is possible to have a better form of "partnership" between the bosses and workers. The Socialist Party rejects this argument. It is not possible to have partnership between workers and the bosses. All such agreements are designed to increase the profits of big business and to stop industrial action”. (

*   The Independent Workers Union (IWU) was founded partly to put its members outside the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and ferocious opposition to social partnership. (

Unfortunately, despite this wide opposition, the SWP campaign is the most visible campaign and, insofar as there has been any independent activity, it has been around the SWP.  There are a number of reasons why this should be so.

One is the long history of focus on immediate demands.  Few outside the SWP support the ‘renegotiate’ position and the independents who have joined the campaign have been shamefully abused, with the SWP altering the Conlon briefing document to reflect their own position of renegotiation and linking Eddie Conlon and Des Derwin to the modified document by including their contact details.  Despite this shameful behaviour by the SWP there is a great deal of confusion about the basis for a campaign. 

Eddie Conlon argues that “The leadership of ICTU have failed abysmally in their objectives in going into these talks”.  We would argue that they have achieved their objectives of selling out the workers.  If it were a question of them failing in some heroic struggle to advance the cause of the workers then we could unite to launch a counterattack.  If their role is to betray the working class then object number one is to fight the bureaucracy. Des Derwin argues; “A broad campaign on a ballot for a particular deal should be prepared to take a neutral position on social partnership in general, in order to include all trade unionists opposed to the deal”. Again, those who oppose this partnership deal but don’t see the need to fight the trade union leadership will evaporate immediately after the vote, leaving the chance of a long term campaign further away than ever.

This confusion extends to those who oppose partnership in principle.  The majority of groups arguing for opposition to partnership on principle analyse the agreement in great detail but say relatively little about why ICTU are presenting a bosses charter to the workers and why the bureaucracy are calling for support for it.  The Socialist Party goes into more detail than most, explaining that the agreement is the work of a right-wing bureaucracy betraying the workers.  The clear implication from context is that there is a left-wing bureaucracy with whom the workers can unite and, indeed, the Socialist party call for ‘broad fronts’ in the union where there could be such unity between workers and left bureaucrats, as well as promoting to the ‘left’ union leaderships who disagree with the current deal.

One can not ignore the influence of political sectarianism.  Anyone who has tried to co-operate with one of the SP broad fronts will know that, while workers and left bureaucrats are welcome, members of other political tendencies most definitely are not.  In political campaigns such as the water privatisation issue in the North the SP do not co-operate with those who disagree with their analysis – but neither do they co-operate with the SWP or anarchists who share their views! 

In addition to traditional forms of sectarianism there is a very strong tendency on the Irish left to base united action on psychological basis – whether or not one group ‘trusts’ another or to unite on diplomatic grounds, where different groups have ‘ownership’ of different areas (usually constituency areas).  The simple idea that united action should be based on a clearcut political agreement that everyone understands and abides by is largely absent.

Towards 2016 represents a very deep crisis for the Irish left.  The deal involves a massive offensive on the rights of Irish Workers. It a matter of simple logic that, if we build a campaign to vote No to the deal, that campaign will be over when the last vote is cast.  In the unlikely event of the deal being rejected we would then have to build a new campaign.  What would it say?  Say ‘No’ to the ‘better’ deal that the bureaucrats will return with?  Or would we have to resolve the political issues that face us now?  What to we say to working class militants in the likely event of a victory for the bureaucrats?  See you again in 2016?

There really is no alternative to a principled fight against the trade union bureaucracy. The time to begin that fight is now.


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