The naked emperor of social partnership steps out again
17 February 2008
It’s all so wearily familiar; like a pantomime or perhaps a waltz. On Friday Bertie Ahern invited his partners up onto the dance floor for the latest negotiations under the ‘Towards 2016’ social partnership deal. The choreography is so obvious it’s almost embarrassing. For months union leaders have billowed hot air and blustered about the need for agency workers to receive equal treatment before negotiations could begin. Lo and behold, Bertie announces that two new employment rights bills will be published in just a matter of weeks, although even he has admitted that there might be ‘issues’ over the strength of the measures within them.
In a rare fit of honesty, and despite commentators anguish about how hard it will be to get a deal - and Jack O’Connor of SIPTU claiming that ‘there are formidable obstacles against conclusion of another agreement, Bertie also blurted out that he had seen all this before, and while it all might be ‘a bit protracted’, a deal will be done. And so it will. There is less reason now than any time before to doubt that a new agreement will be reached.
Firstly this is because the negotiations aren’t about a whole new partnership deal, which has already been agreed. Indeed firms like Aer Lingus have recently quoted its terms to justify lock-outs of staff in their push for cuts in workers’ terms and conditions. The union leaders have yet again threatened industrial action, but have already offered to work out the precise cuts themselves, which then make them much easier to force on the workforce.
The second reason is obvious from the choreography. O’Connor has signalled he wants something on employment rights and Ahern has obliged. What it will be worth is not hard to guess but that really isn’t the point. The real point is that this will provide cover for O’Connor to sign off on a new pay settlement.
And this brings us to the third reason to be pessimistic that a deal will be struck. O’Connor and his fellow bureaucrats are heading into negotiations that are essentially about pay. The last such agreement resulted in a 10 per cent increase over 27 months, which was more or less swallowed up by inflation. This was both predictable and predicted at the time. So what is O’Connor’s negotiating line now in these talks? What is the amount he says he will need below which he will walk away from a deal? Well, it would appear there isn’t one. Union leaders have no particular amount in mind – at least not one they want to share with their members. And why would that be now?
Well it’s obvious that what O’Connor et al. will accept would not be acceptable to workers so instead we get the choreographed deals on the side that could very well be worth diddly squat. Socialist Democracy has often argued that pay percentages are not what these deals are about, but in this case this is precisely what the deal is about and union leaders won’t tell their members what it is they are demanding – knowing full well that what they are willing to deliver won’t meet expectations.
It shouldn’t be like this. The partners of the trade union bureaucrats have hardly been less popular. Ahern is now widely discredited and can have zero credibility calling on workers to tighten their belts. This is a guy who has just received a pay rise of €38,000 – more than most workers earn in total. A guy who feigned poverty, getting a ‘dig out’ from wealthy friends, while having tens of thousands of pounds in the bank (sorry – in his safe) and one of the best paid jobs in the State. This is a guy whose honest bona fides is so impeccable that he has gone to court rather than be asked at the Mahon Tribunal how his fairy stories at the Tribunal stack up against his pontifications in the Dail. A guy so infused with honesty and respect for republican values that he waves the integrity of the constitution in order to protect his own bumbling and incoherent explanations for having so much money while being so hard up.
The negotiations have just kicked off after virtually all public sector workers got zero pay rises under benchmarking in a transparently rigged process. Yet we have the other ‘partner’, in the shape of Irish Business and Employers Federation Director General Turlough O’Sullivan, claiming that pay rates in Ireland have been growing at too high a level and that ‘moderation is an urgent requirement.’ Yet this moderation doesn’t seem to extend to his fellow bosses. Only this week it has been reported that there are now 33,000 millionaires in Ireland and that the banks are vying for their exclusively tailored custom. ‘The Irish Times’ has added to its burgeoning property pull-outs with umpteen articles on managing wealth and the investment opportunities available for the rich. The increases awarded under benchmarking were given only to those at the top of the public sector because these salaries had to be consistent with top pay in the private sector. Obviously ‘pay moderation’ is only for the plebs.
Expressed concern for the ‘competitiveness’ of Ireland inc. is therefore also only a concern about the salaries and wages of the working class. But what do the figures about this actually show? Log on to the Central Statistics Office and the National Income Tables spell out just who has been paying themselves too much. The share of net national income earned in salaries and wages (and this is excluding the profits made by foreign multinationals) has risen from 56% of total income in 1995 to 55% in 2006. In other words it has gone down; while the labour force – those actually earning salaries and wages - has increased by over 60 per cent in the same period and unemployment has fallen by over 120,000. Meanwhile the profit share for Irish bosses has gone up - from 26% of net national income in 1995 to 34% in 2005!
In any case Ireland inc’s international competitiveness depends overwhelmingly on foreign multinationals and these companies actually exaggerate their Irish costs in order to attribute more economic activity to the country. These companies are sited in the Irish State not least because corporate taxes are low. ‘The Irish Times’ has offered its own tuppence worth of advice for the government in the talks: that it should lower taxes in exchange for wage restraint, as was done in the past. If accepted this would amount to the working class cutting its own throat, or rather the bureaucrats doing it for them. These taxes are principally paid by workers for services used primarily by other workers, so any tax cuts simply result in cuts to public services – and the health service is already in a mess. Indeed the health promises previously contained in ‘Towards 2016’ have still not been delivered. Those in the past around union recognition have proved next to worthless, all while the issue has supposedly been top of the agenda for over 20 years. Union leaders have highlighted the question of pensions but both of their partners have simply continued to erode workers entitlements.
The well rehearsed arguments of the bosses will be heard again and again over coming months but behind them lies the naked class interests of the bosses. ‘We’ are paying ourselves too much is never referenced to profits, and higher profits that often result from higher prices are never discussed as a threat to competitiveness.
Along with these ideological arguments we can expect a lot more choreographed theatrics before we get another deal. In the past union leaders have huffed and puffed: declared partnership dead and threatened to finish it, on occasion even walking out of talks. The reality of these negotiations however was revealed a long time ago. A journalist from ‘The Irish Times’ in 1994 wrote that ‘the fastest way to cause an industrial revolution would be to take workers who pay tax and dues to Government buildings during the negotiation of a national agreement’ as union delegates ‘spent their time playing cards, having quizzes and on one occasion having a sing song.’
It’s time militants put a campaign together that can put an end to this charade.