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Trade union leaders back pay cuts and redundancies 

JM Thorn 

25 December 2008

The endorsement of the national pay agreement by ICTU illustrates once again the failure of the trade union leadership to defend, let alone advance, the interests of Irish working class.   The agreement, which was endorsed by an overwhelming majority of delegates (305 votes to 36) at a special conference, represents an effective pay cut for hundreds of thousands of workers.  It offers an increase of 6 per cent, but phased in over 21 months.  The increase will also be delayed with a three-month pay pause for workers in the private sector and eleven months for public sector employees. Low-paid workers will receive an extra 0.5 per cent. 

While these terms were considered poor when the outline of the agreement emerged earlier in the year, subsequent events have rendered them even worse. The measures outlined in the Government’s emergency budget have diminished the value of the proposed pay increases.  The most direct reduction is the one per cent levy on wages – this completely wipes out the supposed cushion for the lowest paid.  Drastic cuts in public spending also served to diminish the social wage, with workers in the public sector facing redundancies and workers in general facing higher costs for deteriorating public services. 

Irish workers are being hit with a combination of redundancies, diminishing wages, higher taxes and poorer public services.  But what is particularly scandalous is that the onslaught is being facilitated by the trade union leadership.   They have completely bought into the argument, just as they did with the first partnership deal twenty years ago, that workers must make sacrifices in order to revive the economy.  A generation of social partnership has bound the trade union bureaucracy so closely to the Government and employers that trade unions have effectively lost their independence and trade union leaders any identification with their own members.  This was reflected in the tenor of the discussion at the pay agreement conference in which trade union officials sounded indistinguishable from management consultants and government spokespersons.  It was exemplified by Peter McLoone of Impact who recommended the pay deal on the basis that it would bring stability to the labour market.  He also defended social partnership, arguing that ratification of the deal should be seen as the beginning and not the end of partnership’s contribution to economic recovery.  The clear inference here is that trade union leaders are more than willing to prove their worth in making Irish workers pay for the economic crisis.  There was some opposition to this at the conference but it was limited both in size and scope. Only two unions, Unite and the Guinness Staff Union, opposed the agreement.  Jimmy Kelly of Unite, who was backed by the SWP, spoke out against the agreement, but the basis of his opposition was very narrow.  It focused on issues such as pay, pensions and union negotiating rights rather than on the whole structure of social partnership that had produced such a rotten deal.  This position implicitly accepts social partnership – the only objection is that workers aren’t getting enough out of it. 

As is so often the case with recent trade union sell-outs, the most notable being the Irish Ferries dispute, the latest pay deal was accompanied by some empty sabre rattling.  This ritual task fell task fell to SIPTU president Jack O’Connor with his call on the Government not to award “lucrative contracts” to companies that did not pay increases under the terms of the new deal.  Emphasizing his patriotic credentials, he claimed that any attempt to renege on the deal would “represent nothing short of national sabotage at this critical moment for our economy and society”.  He also claimed that employers would feel "the Government's wrath" if they did not pay up.  Such statements illustrate the complete identification of trade union leaders with the policies of the Government; as well their belief that the state is the guarantor of workers’ rights.   The baseless nature of such beliefs was demonstrated almost immediately when Fianna Fail chief whip Pat Carey declined to rule out the idea that some companies would renege.  Indeed why wouldn’t he?  After all the pay agreement that the trade union leaders are demanding be adhered to contains an affordability clause that allows employers not to pay the increases.  The bureaucrats posturing is therefore not only delusional but also thoroughly dishonest. 

An illustration of how trade union leaders combine bluster with betrayal is the deal over cost cutting at Aer Lingus.  This is particularly pertinent as it coincided with the national pay negotiations. When a newspaper leaked the company’s plan to dramatically reduce staff numbers through redundancies and outsourcing, trade union leaders initially denied that such a plan existed even though they have representatives on the Aer Lingus board.  When executives confirmed the story trade union leaders went in to sabre rattling mode, warning that such plans would torpedo the negotiations.  Of course they had no intention of walking out of the talks.  They were determined to keep partnership alive and get an agreement no matter what. 

When the Aer Lingus issue arose again after the pay negotiations there was more sabre rattling from the trade union leaders which went as far as a ballot for strike action by SIPTU.  But there was no intention of fighting the cuts.  This was merely a mechanism to activate the industrial relations machinery and reach an agreement.  SIPTU accepted the need for the cost cutting - it was only a question of how this would be achieved.  A deal was soon worked out through the LRC.  It included a voluntary redundancy package, changes in work practices and a seven per cent reduction in overall numbers of personnel working in ground operations at the airline.  Most importantly new entrants will be employed on revised terms and conditions.  While there is no outsourcing SIPTU has accepted the creation of a two tier workforce at Aer Lingus.   The deal also excluded cabin crew staff, represented by Impact, who are expected to bear the brunt of redundancies.   It represented the worst aspects of trade union sell-outs and 

In the current period trade union leaders are playing a thoroughly reactionary role – aiding the Government attacks on the working class and dampening down any opposition.  But this isn’t just down to the corruption of individuals.  Rather it is the inevitable consequence of a social partnership founded on the idea that there is a national interest binding together all classes in society.  As long as trade unions remain locked into social partnership resistance is stunted.  That is why it is imperative for socialist and trade union activist to oppose social partnership and fight to restore trade unions as independent organisations of the working class. We have seen how protest action by other groups in society, such as pensioners and students, have put the Government on the back foot and even forced it reverse some of its budget proposals.  Think how much more effective, given the level of organisation and numbers, a trade union based opposition could potentially be. 



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