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Towards 2016 – the new social partnership deal: fighting against it

Joe Craig

5 July 2006

In the first part of this article we examined the comprehensive nature of the attacks on workers represented by the new social partnership deal – ‘Towards 2016’.  That the deal has been concluded for 10 years signals the complete solidarity between bosses, State and trade union leadership in the assault. 

The deal basically makes it clear that almost every and any attack on workers’ conditions can be made and they will receive the backing of the trade union leadership.  Workers seeking to defend themselves face not just the bosses and Government but their own unions.  The task of opposing partnership is thus not just one of voting against the deal but opposing its consequences afterwards.  Most of all it means a continuing struggle against the police inside the unions who will fight to protect and implement it.

Whatever way the vote goes the task of opposing it will continue.


Unfortunately the ability of the left to campaign against social partnership deals has withered as the agreements have multiplied.  The failure to mount continuing opposition to partnership after voting on previous deals has left socialists with no united campaign of opposition to the latest agreement.  At its root this reflects a willingness to accept the role of loyal opposition to the ICTU bureaucracy – once the vote is taken we are all supposed to abide democratically by the result.

When a speaker from Socialist Democracy at the recent ATGWU sponsored meeting on left unity proposed a united socialist campaign against ‘Towards 2016’ he was responded to with instances of the various separate initiatives against it. Even in these circumstances the left cannot follow its own advice of workers unity.

In a recent discussion on the Irish indymedia site one contributor described the current position of the left in this way:

“It's all late, it's all ad hoc, it's all a shame that the left (the WHOLE left) didn't establish a campaign months ago when efforts were made for that. But this 'just in time' (or not) scramble is genuine. No strokes are intended, at least by the non-SWP people involved. Everyone should lend a hand.”

It is possible to sympathise with this approach but only if lessons are learnt.  For many years Socialist Democracy has been calling for a rank and file campaign against partnership so that we are, among other things, prepared for campaigning against the new deal.  The reason it hasn’t happened is not fundamentally due to bad faith.

The left has sought the widest unity against any new deal but as usual has regarded any talk of the political basis of such unity as ‘sectarian.’  In fact unity involves some political basis even if all the people involved are unaware of it.  Previous unity initiatives have sought unity with left, or not so left, bureaucrats who usually oppose a partnership deal on some sectional basis, such as private sector unions opposed to a perceived public sector bias, or unions who object to some particular aspect of the deal, but are not opposed to social partnership as such.

This opposition is not a principled one to social partnership but only to a particular manifestation of it.  This means there is no fundamental opposition to partnership and thus continuing loyalty and unity with those inside the union movement who remain wedded to the whole process.  The dissidents are thus not interested in threatening the wider unity of the trade union bureaucracy by continuing to oppose partnership after the vote.  To do so would be to signal complete opposition to the ICTU bureaucracy and in the end they are part of this bureaucracy.  For them ICTU has simply made a mistake, not, as Socialist Democracy would say, expressing an essential identity of interests with the State and bosses. 

The left which has tried so hard to unite with this ‘left’ bureaucracy is thus left high and dry when its dream of unity collapses after voting on the deal.

This is why we are in the situation now described in indymedia.  It’s more difficult to forgive and forget when what we are invited to forget is how we got into this weakened state in the first place.

Yes, we need to unite against the deal.  But the question of how we do so cannot be ignored again.


All this is not just harping back on past mistakes.  The issue of how we oppose partnership has been raised again and again the same issues have arisen each time.

The issue has been put on indymedia like this:

“The perspective is yes oppose the deal but get on board people who may not oppose social partnership on principle but oppose this deal and get on with the job of fighting it."

What are we to make of this perspective?

Well a number of points arise.

Firstly, we should not exclude anyone from a campaign of opposition to the deal even if they are not clearly opposed to partnership as such.  But this does not mean the campaign itself should remain silent on the issue. Contributors to the indymedia debate who say that: ‘I would not be content with the campaign's literature saying send 'em back for another partnership deal’ are absolutely correct. The campaign should oppose what amounts to a demand for a different social partnership deal.  If individuals want only to oppose this deal while joining a campaign that opposes all possible partnership deals then that is their contradiction.

But what if thousands of workers were campaigning on just this basis – of opposition only to the terms of this deal?  Firstly we don’t face this situation and are currently very unlikely to.  Neither should we confuse this situation with some unions or union leaders pledging the opposition of their tens of thousands of members.

But even if thousands of workers did get involved in active campaigning against the deal socialists could not dump or hide their opposition to social partnership. We would have our own campaign of principled opposition which would seek to work with those workers not yet willing to break with partnership in principle.  Otherwise we would simply be following the illusions of these workers and laying them open to a different but equally pernicious agreement.

The call by SWP leader, Kieran Allen: “The deal should be sent back and the negotiators told to bring back an improved version” displays not opposition to social partnership but support simply for an improved social partnership deal.  It promotes not opposition to the ICTU bureaucracy but faith and confidence in their ability to achieve more.  It thus flatly contradicts one of the key lessons we want workers to learn – to have absolutely no faith in the union bureaucracy and to oppose them.   As long as workers think of the bureaucracy as their friend they will fail to discover the class interests that are fundamental to any struggle for socialism.

This argument of Kieran Allen robs opponents of the deal of the main argument against it.  In fact the whole idea of opposing only this deal but not partnership as a whole robs the opposition of nearly all its arguments.  It weakens a “NO” campaign by reducing its opposition to one that only a bit more negotiation could satisfy.

What if we were to take Allen’s perspective seriously?  Let’s ignore the vote of confidence it gives ICTU or the latter’s ability to turn round and say it got the best it could and the long period negotiating the deal proves it.  Who but ICTU is in a better position to say that they couldn’t get a better deal if they went back?

What bits of the deal would we want changed and what, if these changes were made, would we be prepared to swallow in return?

Should socialists demand increased pay?  How much, and how much would we settle for as a compromise?  Would we accept binding arbitration in return?  Or a no strike deal on what we have agreed?  What about commitment to flexibility, out-sourcing and privatisation?  Which of these could we accept?  If we could accept none of them could we then sign up to low corporate taxation, competitiveness and multinational investment as the road to working class advancement instead? If not then exactly what sort of deal are we proposing the bureaucrats of ICTU negotiate for us?

What in the end the argument comes down to is that socialists cannot accept any social partnership deal because to be a social partnership deal it has to fatally compromise the interests of the working class.  So why shouldn’t we just be honest and say this?

Not to oppose partnership in principle robs socialists of all the arguments that explain why partnership is a bad thing.  It leaves us open to the problem of just what we would accept and charges of dishonesty if we replied none!  This weakness on the left has already been used by the deal’s supporters including Peter McLoone.  Worse, campaigning for a ‘better’ deal  fails to explain how the partnership agreements work, why we have them and how we should get rid of them.  It does this by robbing us of an alternative because we end up agreeing with the bureaucracy that there is no alternative to partnership, which is one of their strongest arguments.


So what is our alternative?  On this there would not currently have to be agreement inside a socialist campaign but this is only because our forces are so small we are not being faced with having the responsibility of carrying an alternative through the union movement.  Were we larger the question of an alternative could not be avoided.  In fact were an opposition campaign to achieve even limited success the question of an alternative would be posed very rapidly indeed.

Many however think this is not an issue.  A contributor to the indymedia discussion stated the widespread view: 

“My alternative to social partnership is free collective bargaining, which could include sectoral and industrial bargaining as always was the case,”

But what does this involve?  Taken on its own it simply amounts to a watered down version of the Kieran Allen perspective.  Instead of the union bureaucracy uniting under ICTU to do a deal with the Government and bosses it would involve each union going its own way.  In other words the union bureaucrats negotiating separately instead of together.  It is not hard to anticipate these bureaucrats declaring hypocritically that ‘unity is strength.’

In other words the call for free collective bargaining is also a vote of confidence in the union bureaucracy.

The main benefit to free collective bargaining is that it would not involve signing up to quite such a set of sweeping concessions, on such a wide range of issues, or involve the ideological capitulation to capitalism that the partnership deals involve.  It would also leave individual unions freer to reject agreements they did not like and make it more difficult for ICTU to police workers on behalf of the government and bosses.  They simply wouldn’t have the mandate.  These are not inconsiderable advances but on their own they are not enough to represent an alternative and certainly not a socialist one.

There are at least three weaknesses. 

Firstly, as we have said, it poses no alternative to the union bureaucracy but leaves them to negotiate separately instead of together.  There is no reason to expect they would significantly advance the interests of the working class as a result.  The fundamental task of creating democratic and fighting organisations for workers would still remain.

Of course supporters of free collective bargaining might claim that they also stand for democratic unions, and if this was part of the alternative it would be a real advance, but this does not address the second weakness that we have also mentioned.

The charge by the bureaucrats that we are dividing our forces, while hypocritical coming out of their mouths, is true.  Sectional pursuit of claims that is the essence of free collective bargaining does involve sustaining divisions in the working class.  This is one reason why socialists have never claimed the unions to be socialist.  Simple trade union solidarity would again be an advance but it was the failure of free collective bargaining and trade union solidarity to protect workers in the 1980s that allowed social partnership to be introduced in the first place.

In order to avoid the charge of seeking a free-for-all in which only the strongest would prosper it would be necessary to state a minimum programme around which all unions could agree to unite to protect the interests of the working class as a whole.

In this way we can see the third weakness of free collective bargaining, it leaves out many of the questions that workers are genuinely concerned about but about which they can generally do very little – questions such as welfare levels, the social wage or tax policy.  This is not to mention questions of the EU and national economic policy which the partnership deals involve.  These are questions socialists have strong views on, it’s why we are socialists. They are questions we want workers to take up.  They must therefore be part of an alternative to the social partnership process that currently commits workers to support policies and organisations that are inimical to their interests.

But such an alternative cannot but be political and this brings us to the question of building a political organisation for the working class.  Not in order to bypass the task of unity against the latest deal or even to promote another bureaucratically constructed labour party that has left union bureaucrats reprising the same role currently reserved for right wing ones.  A trade union sponsored alternative will be a bureaucratic creation for as long as the trade unions themselves are bureaucratic.

What is needed is not some left union leadership sponsoring a new party on behalf of an ignorant or passive membership but steps towards mobilisation by the union membership itself.

What the content of this union alliance against partnership should be and what the content of a new working class political party should be are matters for debate, hopefully without charges of ‘sectarian’ being levelled against those with some ideas.

That instead we face some socialists calling for a better partnership deal and disunity among the rest shows how far we have to travel.  The petty sectarianism of small meetings that seek short cuts to success positively invites opportunism, division and failure.

Knowing the nature of an alternative however is better than simply bemoaning the failures of the past or trusting on everyone’s good faith to pull together and just do what we can.  What we can do depends a lot on what we decide we must do.

It is not now the responsibility of socialists to defeat ‘Towards 2016’.  The collective movement is too small and divided to do so.  It is our responsibility to give a lead of some sort to the thousands of workers opposed to it.  Those who accept their political responsibilities should unite to do so, however small unity might initially be.  Accepting there are no short cuts will allow a more solid foundation and build a campaign that is still on its feet after the last vote is counted and that can go on to defeat partnership and win workers to the socialist alternative.



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