Return to Trade Union/Social Partnership menu


The Politics of Social Partnership: Organisation and Bureaucracy

Joe Craig

28th April 2003

The following essay was written as a response to the review of our book ‘Prisoners of Social Partnership’ which appeared originally in the journal ‘Red Banner’ no. 14 and which was posted on our web site in February.  The essay below is the full version of the reply which appeared in Red Banner no.15.  We gratefully acknowledge the support of the editors of the journal for permitting the publication of these essays on the Socialist Democracy web site.

In her review of our book, ‘Prisoners of Social Partnership, Maeve Connaughton raises a number of criticisms which I hope readers of ‘Red Banner’ will agree are worth debating further.  The purpose of this contribution is not to take up all the faults she finds with the book, readers will be in a position to form a judgement by reading it for themselves, but to focus on what both of us clearly think are the central questions to be answered.

For Maeve the problem with the book is that it sets up an opposition between those who oppose social partnership in principle, a distinct minority, and the majority who oppose it only because it has not given them a bigger share of the fruits of their labour.  She writes ‘But how do people reach a position of opposing partnership in principle?  Usually by opposing what’s in a particular deal!  One grows over into the other…Limiting opposition to those who are ideologically opposed will ensure that opposition doesn’t get very far.’

Maeve will find no evidence in the book that we limit opposition in this way.  We agree that opposition in principle will often come through opposition to partnership’s effects but this can only be the start of analysis and was only the start of our own.  Maeve’s review unfortunately does not bring us forward but repeats the starting point while struggling to convince readers that the book ignores it.

Firstly we pointed to the phenomenon of certain groups of workers using favourable conditions to win demands outside the limitations imposed by partnership deals.  This occurred not just during the Programme for National Recovery but also P2000 and the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness.  It is not that we claim these struggles didn’t mean anything, as Maeve puts it, but they clearly didn’t bring down social partnership with all its effects.  Between this first (PNR) and last partnership (PPF) deal we witnessed a decade of agreements.  Clearly this needs an explanation.

For us the explanation is quite evident.  These workers did not defeat partnership because they didn’t set out to do so and the bureaucracy never lost control over the movement as a whole.  If Maeve has another explanation she should have disclosed it.  These struggles may have had more or less significance for the individual workers involved but politically, for the working class as a whole, the gains for some clearly meant next to nothing.  What this shows is that certain groups of workers could win demands that were barred to the majority by partnership deals but their struggles did not grow over to opposition to partnership itself, in large part because they did not have to.  These struggles never broke out of the sectionalism that imprisoned them.  Clearly struggle, even if successful in its own terms, was, and is, not enough.

The book argues that those workers who have opposed some of the restraints of partnership while seeking unconsciously or deliberately to ignore its overarching framework of control have failed to defeat it.  This is a simple observation of fact. While most workers will come into conflict with partnership because of its effects on their living standards and rights they will not defeat it unless they are actually conscious that they must do so.  Opposition to the effects of partnership must grow over to opposition to partnership itself for opposition to the former to really matter.  Very large and militant struggles that have held wider implications for the whole class have suffered defeat despite their size and militancy because of this failure.

It was because of the central importance of specific worker’s own struggles to understanding both the nature of partnership and how it can be defeated that the book began with an examination of two very important struggles, including the nurses’ strike of 1999.  It is because our programme can only grow out of struggle that we put it centre stage and did not dwell on (but did cover) the arguments against partnership dealing with its effects on living standards etc. that Maeve bemoans we fail to adequately provide but which could be found elsewhere.  Her charge that we place ‘little value on such everyday struggles’ is therefore misplaced.

What cries out for explanation in dealing with the nurses’ strike is why this very militant and popular struggle failed.  The book could have recorded twenty positive paragraphs out of the twenty five devoted to it, rather than the two which Maeve feels is too little, but this problem would have remained.  One, but not the only, lesson we drew was the lack of rank and file structures to control and lead the strike.  Maeve says this could only come out of resistance itself, but then she has no more to say about this process.  That more needs to be said is obvious since we have had the struggle, and the 1999 strike was not the start of the nurses dispute, but we are, to my knowledge, no further forward in creation of structures that could ensure such rank and file control of any future action.  Clearly then struggle in itself is not enough.  Someone actually has to argue that rank and file structures are necessary and they can only be considered necessary because of a political analysis which the book puts forward.  Maeve’s own thoughts on bureaucracy are certainly not adequate to advance the case for rank and file control, but we shall come to these presently.

The book’s method is that quoted at the start from Marx which Maeve believes we do not adhere to:

‘…we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it!  We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles.  We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle.  We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.’

The book nowhere calls for struggles to cease.  The need for rank and file control is demonstrated first by the actual struggle, the nurses’ struggle, before it is firmly established through analysis.  The fight against the effects of partnership that ignores partnership itself is what is meant by the need to develop consciousness of what the battle is really about (against partnership itself) whether groups of workers presently see it or not.  Raising the political consciousness of the working class is key because complete rejection of everything contained in partnership requires political understanding.  Nowhere does Maeve show that she understands the crucial importance or nature of this political battle.

Instead she attempts to poke fun at our description of a return to militancy around pay as very ‘well and good’ but lacking in appreciation of its importance to ordinary workers (and presumably more generally).  She tells us that ‘those few extra euros or pounds in your pocket do make a real difference.  Maybe you can go on holiday abroad this year…get the kids the things they need…things like the right to go to the toilet without raising your hand to ask permission are not to be sneezed at.  None of these concessions bring the era of capitalist exploitation to an end, but they are very ’well and good’, even if people don’t draw the lessons socialist would like them to.’  The opposition of very concrete gains to the rather abstract formulation of capitalist exploitation is revealing and really only makes sense if in some sense these gains are significant.  But they are not.  After all, what is capitalist exploitation but the denial of these things and much, much, much, much more.  So I get a wage rise but the kids can’t get the health treatment they need.  I can go to the toilet but I have to work twice as hard for the right etc etc.  Unless one believes that capitalism can be reformed then any gains are inadequate, insecure and always liable to be taken away.  If one accepts the argument of Luxembourg, that we face a world characterised by socialism or barbarism, amply demonstrated in two world wars and more, then they really are ‘well and good’ but what is infinitely more important is that people do ‘draw the lessons socialists would like them to.’

She accuses us of an ‘all or nothing’ strategy and asserts that we believe workers cannot get some redistribution of wealth from the bosses.  This however would not withstand full quotation of the remarks on multinationals that she uses to support her claims:

‘The mobility of international capital and the dependency of the State on it for revenue places definite limits on the increased pay, conditions and social services that Irish workers can expect to enjoy so long as they accept the parameters set by multinational companies.  There is only one alternative for them and it is not wealth distribution from these companies to working people.  It is the international organisation of workers with the aim of taking control of these companies for the benefit not just of Irish workers but of those around the world subject to their blackmail.’ (Page 96)

So it is clear.  There are limits on what workers can achieve; limits placed by multinationals, requiring workers to respond in an internationalist fashion that goes way beyond present trade union channels, and leading ultimately to revolution.  If there were no such limits there would be no objective basis for socialism.

Perhaps Maeve would claim that the battle for reforms can become, ‘grow over’ to, a battle for revolution, and then we could agree.  Except that we must further state that the goal of revolution must inform our strategy in the fight for reforms.  This need is imposed not only by socialists, but by imperialism itself.  At the end of the day revolution will come about not as a by-product of a struggle for reforms but because workers actually seek a revolutionary solution.

The book argues that social partnership is a political assault that can only be defeated by a political response. It is bolstered by a series of political arguments about the need for competitiveness, the requirements of the capitalist market, the need for light taxes on multinationals lest they desert us and leave many facing unemployment again or the road of emigration.  Can workers defeat partnership without confronting these arguments with their own alternative?  Perhaps through sheer bloody mindedness and militancy?  Of course it could not be excluded that some outrageous provocation could prompt such action but besides being very unlikely it would certainly not lead to any alternative but the imposition sooner (not later) of another partnership framework in whatever form.  It is certainly not a strategy that socialist could embrace.  Instead we must fight for workers to develop their own political resources that can be set against those deployed by the bosses and their state when they take militant action.  A class wide assault by the bosses and state requires a class wide alternative, which is what the book attempts to put forward.

Workers are not stupid and they will only be able to successfully take on partnership, in any of its guises, if they believe there is an alternative, and the only alternative is a socialist one.  The book provides our understanding of what this is.  Maeve makes no comment on this, which allows us to assert her lack of appreciation of the political fight necessary and her consequent misplaced elevation of the significance of workers own spontaneous struggles.

In advancing this programme we do not claim that all workers must accept it before they can win important struggles.  The book does not claim that, for example, all the nurses in 1999 had to become socialist to win their strike.  We said ‘This does not mean that until a group of workers fully understands the nature of social partnership they cannot successfully breach its diktats.  But it does mean that workers really do have to grasp the necessity for them to take control of their own struggles…’  Such rank and file control can achieve victories that severely weaken social partnership and provide fertile ground for workers to debate socialist politics.  We discuss the relationship between achieving rank and file democracy and the embracing of socialist politics in the book.  Maeve claims that ‘It should go without saying that socialists confront the totality of the partnership project, and oppose it as such.  Otherwise we more or less concede defeat before we’ve started...'.  ’  But why is this only true of socialists and not of workers as a whole?

Of course the debate around political organisation versus spontaneity is an old and recurring one and it can be easy to caricature a debating opponent with having a one sided appreciation of the questions posed.  This is easily done if quotes are taken out of context, which unfortunately Maeve does.  Thus when we said the only alternative was ‘one where the whole system of production is geared towards workers needs’ it was in the context of a model put forward by the ATGWU which posited one of co-responsibility.  I would assume that Maeve would agree with us in this choice but in her strained efforts to persuade the reader that we neglect workers struggles this context is ignored. She says that the book shows ‘little comprehension of how the socialist alternative arises from that everyday conflict’ but does not explain it herself except to say that ‘One grows over to the other, if socialists do their job right.’  Such a scenario looks very like one she appears to dislike: a ‘self-selecting vanguard importing socialist politics from outside the working class.’

A number of things must be understood in order to break out of this contradiction.  By definition socialists are self-selecting in the sense that one can only be a socialist by virtue of an understanding of socialist politics.  This politics is important because without it socialists believe workers’ struggles will go down to defeat and they will be unable to create their own society.  We know something of how to achieve victories and socialism, or think we do, because what we have learned to a great extent comes from lessons we have been taught by other workers, either in the past and/or in other countries.  To minimise the importance of these lessons, of the socialist programme, is thus to devalue the experiences of these workers in the name of hailing those of today.

These lessons in the present context include the irreconcilable nature of the conflict between bosses and workers.  The anti-working class character and nature of deregulation and privatisation.  The true nature of the European Union and its Treaties and the necessity for an alternative.  The necessity to reject the blackmail of multinationals and of the excuses that these companies and bosses cannot be taxed.  This is not to mention others such as the irremformability of the capitalist state, the need to smash it, the need to expropriate the capitalist class and the need for a political party to achieve this.  Most of these lessons are not going to be learned in ‘everyday‘ trade union struggle but in struggles that go way beyond them to decidedly un-everyday struggles, either through and then outside the unions or directly outside the unions through socialist agitation (for a minority initially but for a majority at some stage).  What the great leaders of the Marxist movement claimed was that workers will be won to socialism primarily through building a mass socialist party.  It is simply wrong to believe that this must first go through everyday struggles in the trade union movement.

The important question that the book takes up is the limits of trade unionism itself.  Not through quotes from Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky but through examination of the recent history of the movement itself.  One aspect of this is the position of the trade union bureaucracy.  Maeve’s criticisms of the arguments of the book on this issue confirms us in our belief that the nature of the socialist programme that must be campaigned for in the unions is not agreed in the way that some writers on the left seem to assume.

Maeve disagrees with the books argument that the trade union bureaucracy is a ‘pillar of capitalist society’ and that it has gone ‘over to the capitalists wholesale.’    She writes: ‘Rightly stressing the interests that lead the union bureaucracy away from the interests of workers, he forgets the counterpressures that can pull them back towards us…Lumping them in with the ruling class ..would wrongfoot us all when the bureaucrats do come out with radical talk and deeds.’

Lets leave aside the view that militant workers action that put enough pressure on the bureaucracy to move would also want not only to remove and replace it but also minimise the possibility of a new bureaucratic elite arising.  There are more fundamental objections to Maeve’s arguments.

The labour bureaucracy, in both its political and industrial arms, in its social democratic and Stalinist forms, went over to the capitalist class wholesale a long time ago.  In their long and ignoble history they joined with their national capitalists to send millions of workers to slaughter in the trenches, killing other workers who had been members of the same movement.  They ignominiously committed suicide rather than fight for the overthrow of capitalism when they cravenly capitulated to Fascism.  Their crimes could fill this entire issue of ‘Red Banner’ and of every issue before it.  The politics of the labour and trade union bureaucracy is irredeemably capitalist and it is amazing that Maeve declares otherwise.

In Ireland the bureaucrats of ICTU have endorsed the claims of the native and multinational capitalist class through subordination of all claims by the working class to ‘competitiveness.’  They have supported privatisation; punitive taxation on workers while bosses got amnesties; the introduction of laws that prohibit workers uniting in defence of their interests; supported political treaties that enshrine anti-working class policies in the law; supported attacks on health and education services that killed workers and has left a huge portion of the working class functionally illiterate etc etc.  This is not to mention its Northern component that has happily collaborated with a State guilty of murdering civil rights demonstrators, locking people up without a trial and torturing trade unionists.  There can be no doubt about it – these people support and defend capitalism.

When it comes to a clash of interests and pressure, real material interests will always be decisive.  These interests are decisively anti-socialist because the inequality bureaucrats enjoy is incompatible with socialism.  The power that they enjoy is incompatible with socialism and the function they play of helping regulate the sale of labour power on the capitalist market would disappear under socialism.  They oppose socialism because they would not exist under it.

The fact that their job is to come into contact with workers and that they can’t ‘ignore’ them changes none of this.  They do so so that they can serve workers up to the bosses.  Failure to appreciate the nature of the trade union bureaucracy is one reason why workers have failed to build rank and file structures.  If they can be pressurised as Maeve believes then there is no necessity for rank and file control.  It is therefore Maeve’s view that leads to radical talk (and even the very occasional deed) wrongfooting workers, for at the end of the day they make these noises only as part of a strategy to defend their own interests, which requires subordination of the working class to capitalism.  There is no excuse for not understanding all of this because social partnership explicitly claims the reconciliation of the interests of bosses and workers.  Since as socialists we believe this is untrue the only reconciliation of interest is between the bosses and the bureaucracy.

The second aspect of the limits of trade unionism is revealed in our criticisms of free collective bargaining and of Maeve’s defence of it.  First we should explain that we do not say that free collective bargaining instead of partnership deals would be ‘a victory for the bureaucracy’ as Maeve claims.  Once again placing this quotation in its proper context uncovers the real argument.  We say that ‘The flat opposition of free collective bargaining to social partnership weakened the opposition to partnership and represented a victory by the bureaucracy which placed only this choice before workers and left all the political questions to the preserve of the ICTU leadership.’  In other words there is a real political alternative to partnership which free collective bargaining does not match.  Of free collective bargaining we say that ‘socialists could not disagree with workers taking advantage of relatively profitable conditions to advance their claims..’ but we point out the weaknesses of free collective bargaining which Maeve, it would appear, does not endorse.

On the same page (Page 39) that these quotes are taken from we pointed out that free collective bargaining witnessed a fall in workers living standards both relatively and absolutely during the nineteen eighties.  Supporters of it point out that this occurred only because there was a capitalist recession during the decade but this just reveals in its own way a continuing subordination of workers interests to capitalist profitability.  It is in this sense that we stated that free collective bargaining was not an alternative to partnership.  It does not offer a class wide strategy because it leaves each group of workers to their own devices and is therefore as we claim, but apparently criticised by Maeve, ‘sectional.’  It is no alternative because the same bureaucracy is still in charge of the movement.  By definition a united working class movement armed with political demands is excluded from such a strategy yet it is just such a politicisation that is required to advance workers consciousness, as Marx demanded, in order to ready workers for a revolutionary project.

Maeve criticises this strategy because it seems to require that ‘the entire working class line(d) up together and move(d) forward as one with no unevenness at all, but posing that as the only alternative is a recipe for a long and fruitless wait.’  Once again we are criticised for an ‘all or nothing’ strategy’ that does not exist.  Once again nowhere do we say that workers must wait until everyone is united in a political movement.  We don’t advocate waiting because we do understand that the working class has uneven consciousness and that therefore a vanguard will arise that will have a higher level of consciousness than that generally existing in the class and which must fight for the whole class to adopt a political approach.  This is precisely the approach, of presenting a political alternative to the whole movement, which earlier in her review Maeve approves of.  Such an approach is not one to be left to the eve of revolution, too late then, but must be fought for now.  This is what we meant when we said that the fight for reforms must be informed now by the goal of revolution.  This shows the clear divergence of strategy between our conception of the socialist programme and one that is incapable of making the link between existing struggle and the future revolutionary one.

The demand for workers unity is therefore not an empty slogan but a political demand for unity that free collective bargaining, the quintessential trade union strategy, does not encompass.  When socialists say that workers unity is necessary for victory this is true not only of struggles within one workplace but also of those that seek to respond to political attacks by the whole capitalist class and its state.

It may be objected that this alternative is not on the foreseeable agenda but this is only a measurement of the distance to be travelled and the scale of the obstacles to be overcome.  The same objection could be made of any Marxist belief in socialism, except that this strategy is at least a strategy and not a cross the fingers hope that workers spontaneous struggles will answer all the questions, with an unspecified socialist intervention to help.

We hope that this response is taken in the same way that we have understood Maeve’s review: as an effort to understand and pursue the best means of advancing the cause of socialism.  Her review has allowed us to recapitulate and explain further our arguments and hopefully will be a valuable contribution to the debate on partnership that has opened up in recent issues of ‘Red Banner.’  The editors of the journal should consider how this debate might be furthered by public meetings which could come at no more appropriate time.



Return to top of page