Towards 2016 – the new social partnership deal: what’s in it
4 July 2006
The latest social partnership deal, ‘Towards 2016’, is a significant assault on workers’ interests. After all the usual blather about the difficulty in achieving another deal, and the possibility that the process may have reached an end, the new deal breaks from the usual practice of lasting around three years to encompass a 10 year agreement.
This, above all, is the significance of the latest deal.
Right from the start ‘Towards 2016’ makes it clear that its purpose is to support the profitability of multinational and indigenous business. ‘The key macroeconomic focus over the lifetime of the Agreement will be . . .enhancing productivity and competitiveness.’ Often these declarations are overlooked and not seen for what they are – the whole point of the exercise and the determinant of everything in it.
Every promise in the deal, and there are few enough of them - most being recycled existing government pledges - is conditional on ‘maintaining a sound budgetary position.’ Again and again the overriding priority of profitability and competitiveness is asserted. ‘Achieving the goals set out in this framework agreement . . (is) subject to the key principles of macro-economic policy set out in this agreement . . . the overriding policy focus and priority . . is . . to enhance productivity and competitiveness.’
The whole experience of the Celtic Tiger in which productivity and competitiveness grew enormously yet workers are now in greater debt than ever; are facing pressure on wages and job security; and social services and especially the health service are in crisis, is all just ignored.
Promises on additional social housing, promises broken in the previous deal, are dependent on ‘resources available.’ ‘Progress’ only is promised on child social welfare rates becoming 33-35% of adult rates. Adult workers are given the existing commitment to welfare rates of €200 per week but again ‘having regard to available resources’; and increasing eligibility to medical cards isn’t even promised but will only be ‘reviewed.’
Despite pensions rearing its head at the end of the negotiations as a crunch issue the deal promises only that the government will ‘consider’ the problem and issue a Green Paper. ‘Employers are committed to promoting the introduction of occupational schemes . . . subject to the costs involved not undermining competitiveness.’
Long term care for older people ‘must be financially sustainable.’ Increases in the respite care grant for carers is ‘subject to available resources.’ Funding of the voluntary sector is ‘subject to the budgetary parameters’ and additional community mental health teams are ‘subject to sufficient resources being made available.’ ‘Personal security’ and an ‘opportunity to balance work and family commitments‘ must be ‘consistent with business needs.’
Nothing has been agreed to increase the minimum wage despite the low paid supposedly being a priority for union negotiators. No new hospital beds are promised but instead the National Treatment Purchase Fund is to continue to be used to subsidise private medicine.
By contrast unconditional commitment is given to the needs of business.
The government promises to protect its tax breaks by continuing to oppose tax harmonisation within the EU and ‘stable industrial relations’ are demanded in order to maintain the State ‘as a desirable location for foreign direct investment.’
The States ‘flexible regulatory framework has been a key factor in encouraging a number of foreign companies to invest here’ and ‘it is important that our regulatory framework remains flexible,.’ There is no longer even the pretence that the government will facilitate union organisation in multinational industry and not the slightest indication that the union bureaucracy is the least bit interested in doing so. Instead the government promises to ‘conduct a wide-ranging survey to ascertain business attitudes to regulation’ so that ‘this will better inform Government of those regulatory areas causing most concern to business.’
The Agreement will be subject to ‘periodic policy reviews throughout . . . to ensure there is no diminution in the competitive capacity of the economy.’
Finally ‘the Government and Social Partners remain committed to full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement . . . there is a clear role for social partners and the social partnership process in energising the peace process.’ The union leadership, having agreed that the way to defend workers rights is to support capital, also argue that the road to democratic and national rights is to support an imperialist scheme that has already failed. The virtue of consistency is only negated by ICTU consistently getting it wrong.
The means to achieve these aims flow naturally from the aims themselves.
The requirement of workers to embrace flexibility and change, without any resistance or compensation, is repeated again and again throughout the deal. ‘The parties are committed to full co-operation’ with ‘change and flexibility to maintain and improve competitiveness.’
Intensification of the process of privatisation is explicitly declared. ‘Public authorities will seek to pursue the PPP (Public Private Partnership) option in accordance with the National Framework for Public Private Partnerships, as adopted under the partnership process in 2001.’ But the unions will gain out of this, at least the bureaucrats will, for they will get yet another slew of jobs in the quango state structure: ‘Government is favourably disposed to providing for trade union representation on the Board of the National Development Finance Agency . . . resources will be made available through partnership funding structures to part fund appropriate training for unions to fully familiarise themselves with the PPP process and related procedures.’
Far from representing an attempt to stem the pressure on wages and the ‘race to the bottom’ the deal represents a stepping up of this process. ‘The employment of temporary staff, contracting out of work to the private sector or outsourcing it to other public service bodies’ is all accepted.
While workers were told that a new deal could not be negotiated until employment standards had been safeguarded, and no more Irish Ferries situations could occur, the deal now makes it clear that more Irish Ferries are not only possible but well nigh inevitable.
The Agreement cannot even bring itself to state that such blatant exploitation is bad. Instead we are informed that ‘in certain circumstances’ it may be ‘harmful to the maintenance of industrial relations.’
The ‘safeguards’ to workers set out in the deal do not apply to ‘the employment of agency workers, for temporary or recurring business needs, or the use of outsourcing/contracting-out, or other forms of business restructuring . . .’ They would not even have applied in the Irish Ferries case itself since the ‘safeguards’ are limited to ‘a collective redundancy proposal on a compulsory basis’ and there were no compulsory redundancies at Irish Ferries.
For these ‘safeguards’ to apply the workers must have proved that they did all they could to reach agreement with the company on its restructuring plans and that there was no attempt at industrial action. Even after this all the workers can do is take a case of unfair dismissal, which most often does not result in reinstatement. The employer meanwhile just loses his state redundancy rebate.
While ICTU has trumpeted additional labour inspectors, these will also have to work to this agenda and their increase is the least that could have been achieved on the back on workers’ mobilisations around Irish Ferries.
The deal thus allows for every and all methods to increase the level of exploitation in the workplace. The volume, time and nature of work can all be changed and terms and conditions altered with no recourse to industrial action and with no compensation. Instead the pay increases for cost of living are now also counted as payments for any change the employer wants to make. Like teachers and low paid civil servants recently, workers may find that changes to workplace practices that they oppose will already have been sold by their leaders without their even realising it.
Far from social partnership being a subsidy to public sector workers these workers are singled out for specific attacks on their conditions and other workers are invited to endorse them. Not for the first time the rights of specific groups of workers are to be voted on by those unaffected by changes.
While pay grabs all the headlines and some, even those opposed to it, regard this as the most important aspect of the deals, even on this score the deal promises nothing for workers. The timing between private and public sector workers’ deals are slightly different, so that public sector workers face a pay freeze until December, but the overall figures are similar.
‘Towards 2016’ proposes a 3% basic pay rise for the first 6 months of the agreement; 2% for the next 9 months (plus 0.5% for the low paid); 2.5% for the next 6 months and 2.5% for the final 6 months. In total it works out at just above 10% over 27 months. It thus will just compensate for inflation but only if you forget about the massive increases in the cost of buying a house, which for almost everyone is the greatest purchase of their life. Its genuflection to the low paid is an insult.
Employers can refuse even these increases by claiming ‘inability to pay . . where this would result in serious loss of competitiveness’ and any disputes will be liable to binding arbitration. The deal ‘precludes strikes or other forms of industrial action by trade unions, employees or employers (?) in respect of any matters covered by this agreement.’
The deal thus represents a comprehensive assault on workers and the collaboration of the trade union leadership in the assault so that the unions become not means of resistance but means of suppressing workers oppositions and discontent. In effect it leaves workers powerless to respond to future attacks, planned and unplanned, in exchange for pay rises that barely exceed current and forecast inflation.
Few workers will read the new deal but even a cursory examination would reveal that there is much more to it than the attention grabbing pay increases. In many ways these are the least important aspects of the deal. The trade unions have signed up to an agreement that surrenders every last claim to defend its members interests in exchange for a partnership process that declares openly the priority of the interests of the bosses and the State.
Behind all the talk of new policies and frameworks, of plans and strategies, the new deal reads like a neoliberal manifesto that differs only from others in that it has stamped on it the complete and unequivocal endorsement of the trade union movement. There are few of the promises in this deal such as tax cuts that characterised earlier ones and its negotiation is itself a reflection of the weakened power of rank and file workers.
It demands an alternative that unites all
workers in response. It is to the nature of such an alternative that
we will turn in the next part of this article.