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The ‘breakdown’ of social partnership and…

The logic of collaboration

8 September 2008

The issue of the present round of wage talks could not be clearer.  How are the Irish working class to pay for the current capitalist downturn?  The bosses won’t pay so that leaves the workers with the bill.  It’s important not to take a moralistic approach and see this as just another example of bosses’ greed.  The approach of the Irish government and the capitalist class they represent is coldly logical.  If capitalism was to pay back the surplus value that it had extracted from the workers then there would be no more capitalism.  In fact it is necessary to increase the exploitation of the working class to ensure the survival of capital. 

It’s a logical position and the logic has been shared by the trade union bureaucracy through decades of social partnership.  No wonder that many workers issued a strangled cheer when, at the beginning of August, the pay talks collapsed.  We are already paying with astronomically mounting bills and with jobs being cut.  Maybe this time the union leaders would reject the bosses’ logic and defend the workers?

Closer examination suggests that this optimistic assessment is unlikely to be the case.  The talks ended amicably and the union leaders saying they were within a hairsbreadth of striking a deal.  Even more telling were the issues on which the talks fell and what this tells us about the bureaucracy’s agenda. 

The headline issue was said to be pay, with the unions looking 5%, the bosses calling for a wage freeze and the government offering a compromise that would have stretched the 5% over a number of years and would have in practice amounted to a major pay cut.  Immediately after the collapse of the talks ICTU leader David Beggs confirmed that the unions would have accepted a settlement below the cost of living – in other words pay is not really an issue and any cut that can be presented as the best of a bad deal will be acceptable.

The second issue was the legal protection of migrant workers.  The fact that this demand is so central is an indication of the falsity of the bureaucrat’s position.  From their point of view the jewel in the crown of social partnership is the minimum wage.  In reality the minimum wage, from the point of view of the bosses and government, is the maximum wage.  Not only is it the maximum wage for unskilled labour, it is a maximum which must be driven down at every opportunity, normally through the mechanism of superexploitation of migrants. The unions have proved totally incapable of acting within social partnership to protect migrant workers.  Now, instead of mobilising themselves, they look to the very people who have benefited most from migrant labour to protect the migrants. The bosses are unwilling to offer even cosmetic reform – in the coming period they plan to increase that exploitation.

The major issue for the unions was rights to representation.  Nothing could more clearly show up the reality of social partnership as class collaboration and the subordination of the workers to the interests of the bosses than the fact that, after decades, the agreement does not even give to unions the right to be present in a workplace and to negotiate on behalf of the workers.  Even more telling is the fact that, yet again, the unions are turning to their partners for yet more guarantees that they will be able to sign up members and collect subs, all the better to police the workers.  The difficulty here is that years of partnership have eroded the union base.  They have less to sell and many employers are of the opinion that social partnership is no longer necessary.  They want to dump the bureaucracy and impose cuts without any cosmetic pretences. 

So the much vaunted collapse is simple a dispute about the willingness of government and employers to throw the union leaders a few bones in order to involve them in enforcing what will effectively be a pay cut.  All the signs are that the government and the majority of bosses are willing to strike that deal and the bureaucracy   are willing to sign up.

It is however worth remembering that there is much that is not in dispute.  Theses issues should be flagged up, because they are issues in which the union leadership have already indicated that they will either support or act quietly to sabotage any effective resistance. 

So the decimation of the health service is not on the agenda.  The whole issue of privatisation of public service is not on the agenda.  The massive mini-budget cuts announced by the government as a response to the economic downturn are not on the agenda, although all are public service cuts aimed at the working class.  On the issue of the Lisbon Treaty the unions stand four-square with the government in seeking to negate the effect of the no vote, with the slight qualification that SITPU want some concession from the government before coming out clearly on its side. So we have an open policy of support for a raft of measures and structures meant to impoverish the working class and strengthen the power of capital! 

Following the end of the August negotiations Jack O’Connor of SIPTU suggested that we might be facing the end of social partnership.  This is simply rhetoric.  Both bosses and unions, foreseeing the downturn, crafted towards 2016 to armour plate the agreement so that it would not be derailed by problems over wage cuts and so that wage negotiations could be held separately.  The bureaucracy are locked in a series of structures throughout the economy and civic society where they work in harmony with government and bosses and where there is harmonious support for the programme of capital.

A perfect example of this is the national competitiveness council.  In an unpublished report leaked at the end of August the report expressed concern at Ireland’s lack of competitiveness and identified as a key challenge ensuring that “pay costs are flexible enough to ensure competitiveness”. Given that the union leadership, as one of the social partners, helped draw up this report, how likely is it that they will be leading a defence of workers living standards?

As this article spelt out initially, there is a logic to all this.  If capitalism is the only system then workers are logically bound to sacrifice to ensure its survival and the union bosses can argue that they are doing their job by joining in the system and doing deals which they will claim ameliorate the worst effects of the cuts.  It is not enough to shout defiance or sell-out.  What is necessary is a socialist programme – a willingness to take initial steps; nationalise key elements of the economy, impose sharp restrictions on the movement of capital, insist that workers control the provision of public services and the direction of the economy, look to bilateral agreements with other countries that are not controlled by European and US capital and eventually moving forward to build an international organisation of the working class that can put paid to the world domination of capital.

There are necessary mechanisms.  We need a rank and file union movement that can win back control of the unions.  We need a political party of the working class that can act across society and not just in the trade union field. To make this possible we need the first elements of a programme that will, from day one, counter pose a socialist society to capitalist decay.


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