Return to Trade Union/Social Partnership menu
Trade unions sign up to new partnership talks

Joe Craig

2 February 2006

ICTU begins a new round of collaboration with government and bosses today after a special delegate conference of SIPTU decided to enter into negotiations on a new social partnership deal to follow ‘Sustaining Progress.’

These deals have been the primary mechanism of neutering the industrial and political potential of Irish workers and facilitating the neo-liberal restructuring of the economy.  This has involved a shift in income share in favour of profits and a continuing crisis in the social wage. On the day that SIPTU agreed to enter talks the government announced that €200m would be raised in the part privatisation of Aer Lingus.  This, it said, was only an interim exercise to strengthen its balance sheet in preparation for complete privatisation.  Earlier it had been reported that a woman had spent eight days on a trolley in the A&E department waiting for a bed in Tallaght hospital.


While announcing the new negotiations the policy of the government was denounced by SIPTU and the problems of the health service referred to by ICTU but there is not even a note of embarrassment that after nearly twenty years of partnership these problems still exist.  The sheer nonsense of Jack O’Connor claiming it was the trade union partner – the government – that was responsible for the decline in the social wage rather than partnership itself, continues a long tradition where the union leadership has sold partnership with denunciations that actually show its failures.

The pantomime quality of the moves enacted by the union bureaucracy before each deal have been in evidence yet again.  SIPTU threatened not to enter negotiations unless the undermining of Irish wages and conditions by displacement and outsourcing was addressed beforehand by the government.  In a complete u-turn O’Connor has now led his union into partnership on precisely the reverse argument – that only by entering partnership negotiations can the question be tested.

This claim was made after the government had proved it was going go do nothing but mouth platitudes and had claimed that it was impotent in the face of Irish Ferries’ attack on its workforce, while the rest of the employing class had signalled its support for the company and its push to drive down wages and conditions..  Just what the bosses understand by partnership has been graphically revealed by the sacking of a union steward in Dunnes because she wore a union badge.

It might be asked how the unions could even consider the idea of partnership given this background, like renewing marriage vows after your partner has inflicted years of domestic violence.  But if anyone is confused it can only be because they haven’t cottoned on to what is happening.

Real Partnership

It is only possible to be confused if one accepts a view common on the left that the union leadership has been hoodwinked and that it is simply a matter of appealing to these leaders to reject partnership and ‘explore new strategies to tackle corporate globalisation’ (Kieran Allen, Irish Times , 4 January 2006)

The social partnership process is not false and it is not a mistake.  It is a real marriage of interests.  Not between workers, bosses and government but between trade union leaders, bosses and government.  While the interests of workers and bosses conflict, the State has stepped in to ensure that the interests of trade union bureaucrats and bosses more and more coincide.  In return for betraying the interests of their members the trade union leaders are invited to play a subsidiary but privileged role in the paraphernalia of the State.

One recent example is the State training agency FAS.  Straight after hundreds of Irish workers were dumped from Irish Ferries and their replacements put on the minimum wage, a union bureaucrat Peter McLoone was appointed as Chair of the State agency in charge of training and workforce issues, including the work permit system that allows the super-exploitation of immigrant labour.  The board includes four other trade union nominees.

This is not (only) a question of personal corruption but a very tangible sign that the union bureaucracy is intimately tied to the State and is in no position to fight for the independent interests of workers.  It is not a question of debating with the union bureaucracy. Rather the task is for workers to break free of the grip of the bureaucrats and organise a real fightback.


The latest round of negotiations that will further the betrayal of workers interests follows the defeat of the struggle to defend terms and conditions at Irish Ferries.  A unionised workforce was pushed out and replaced by East European workers on the minimum wage. Even this wage is set to fall to half its current value (the initil proposal). The company has won the right to reflag its ships and will not be bound by Irish industrial law oce they have done so.  Yet some on the left described this outcome as a victory because thousands of workers protested against it.

The unions withdrew from partnership talks at the height of the protest against Irish Ferries. The ease with which they returned to the partnership process is proof in itself that the struggle at Irish Ferries was a defeat.  A further proof is also making itself known.

SIPTU has made an issue of migrant displacement of Irish workers not because the bureaucrats who run it have any interest in defending the most exploited workers, either native or foreign.  They were quite happy to take dues off the Turkish worker employed by the front company GAMA while those workers were being screwed.  The concern of the bureaucracy is only that they are being undermined by an erosion of union membership in areas in which they have traditionally been based.

This is what makes their protest at outsourcing so hypocritical.  Not only have they favoured the outsourcing of American jobs through US multinational investment in the Irish State, while deliberately rejecting any idea of organising in these outsourced plants; they now protest at jobs moving from Ireland to Eastern Europe or further a field.  The union bureaucracy has no answer to the threats to Irish workers except increased reliance on a narrow agenda that ignores the need for solidarity across borders to oppose global capital.

The bureaucracy rely on their special links with Irish capital to dream of reform, but this dream has been rendered more and more irrelevant in one of the most globalised societies on the planet.  This is what lies behind the increasing reliance on the State signalled by partnership.

Unable to present any progressive agenda to the threats posed to Irish workers by the globalised compulsion of ‘competitiveness’, to which ICTU itself has openly subscribed, their nationalist perspective is now taking on an increasingly reactionary colour.  This has been hinted at for some time in some of the remarks of David Begg but this has been more openly expressed recently by Pat Rabbitte of the Labour Party who wanted fresh restrictions on migrant labour from the latest countries to join the EU.  He asked for extension of a work permit system that has been the mechanism facilitating the super-exploitation of migrant labour and received the public support of Jack O’Connor.

Now SIPTU has made the issue of ‘unregulated immigration’ a central part of its propaganda and reliance on the State’s labour regulation laws as the main means of defending workers.  Its unwillingness to use even traditional union measures to defend workers has been exposed in both the GAMA and Irish Ferries cases where effective solidarity action was withheld.

Of course SIPTU has also said that unscrupulous hiring practices are also to blame but it still proposes partnership with the employers while calling for restrictions on foreign workers, showing exactly who it thinks its friends are.


The exposures at GAMA and defeat at Irish Ferries are the fruits of social partnership and have in turn facilitated the continuation of the process.  It is not possible to fight the exploitation in evidence at both without opposing partnership and this cannot be done without breaking from and defeating the union bureaucracy.  The continuation of the process will only see further degeneration of the trade union movement of which the disgraceful attacks on migrant workers are a nasty example.  The alternative was on display at the magnificent protest against the actions of Irish Ferries and it is with these workers that the alternative lies, not changing the minds of O’Connor or Beggs.


Return to top of page