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Will Irish Ferries sink Social Partnership?

Joe Craig

1st November 2005

The decision by ICTU, at the prompting of SIPTU, to defer a decision whether to enter negotiations to a new social partnership deal to succeed Sustaining Progress has raised the possibility in many commentators’ minds that the whole partnership process is coming to an end.

The decision to defer a decision has been precipitated by the dispute at Irish Ferries. The company has taken steps to replace its 543 Irish staff with workers from Eastern Europe who will be paid only €3.50 per hour, or as much as a third of the existing rate. The East European workers will work up to three months on ship on a 12 hour day with no weekends, bank holidays, overtime or annual leave entitlement.

The Irish workers were given the choice of accepting these conditions or taking redundancy money that the State was going to subsidise. It later became clear that the redundancy money was less than anticipated because the workers’ jobs were not actually being ‘lost’ but replaced. They would not therefore qualify for State money or even perhaps for welfare payments while on the dole.

The company has stated that it ‘would be anti-democratic and anti-competitive were the Government to seek to interfere with the legal entitlement of our staff to their statutory two weeks’ redundancy pay.’ The company’s attachment to Irish law is further reflected in their moves to register their ships abroad, probably the Bahamas.

SIPTU have denounced this ‘race to the bottom’ and its President Jack O’Connor has said the issue is ‘the greatest test that the social partnership process has faced.’ It has called on Bertie Ahern to prevent this exploitation and Bertie has responded by calling the moves by Irish Ferries ‘deplorable’ and an example of ‘sharp practice.’ The company has received the support of the employers’ body IBEC which has only criticised it for not exhausting the industrial relations machinery of the State through the Labour Court before implementing its plans. Irish Ferries has subsequently re-engaged with the process but no one expects this to make any difference to its actions.

No talks?

ICTU is now engaged in discussions to see if there is any point in negotiating a new social partnership deal. SIPTU meanwhile has demanded specific commitments from the Government on measures to maintain employment standards and prevent exploitation. ‘We are now looking forward to what the Government intends to do about the problem. There is no point in the Irish trade union movement participating in national agreements if they allow this type of situation to arise.’ Pat Rabbitte has weighed in, questioning whether, with the actions of Irish Ferries, ‘that kind of social partnership has a future.’

SIPTU, which represents some of the workers, saw its conference witness its President Jack O’Connor’s ‘finest hour’ when, in an ‘atmosphere (that) was electric’, he laid into Irish Ferries, drawing ‘a long, loud standing ovation.’ Delegates to the conference ‘queued to shake his hand at the conference dinner’ apparently under the impression social partnership was to be ditched. (Irish Times 8/10/05)

Bertie Ahern has written to the trade unions assuring them of his concern but this has been rejected as insufficient by SIPTU. So are we at the end of social partnership?  Well, let’s look a bit more closely at what has been going on.

The End?

Firstly the apparent concern of the government at workers’ exploitation. Well, this is the government that privatised Irish Ferries in 1991, selling it on the cheap, but assuring everyone that it would continue to sail under an Irish flag, ensuring ‘the maintenance of vital Irish shipping/maritime skills.’ This is the government that is privatising Aer Lingus and CIE, threatening An Post and breaking up Aer Rianta while fattening up the ESB for the same process; has poured PRSI subsidies at Gama while awarding it State contracts to super-exploit immigrant workers, and let it be known it was going to make it difficult for Irish Ferries to re-register its ships abroad but then later announced in the Dail that ’legal advice’ meant it might be unconstitutional to prevent re-flaging. As Joe Higgins put it, which part of Bunreacht na hEireann promoted ‘slavery?’ ‘Words are cheap’ he said with reference to Bertie’s expressions of concern but what about Jack O’Connor’s?

While one trade union official has accused the government of wringing its hands, ‘like a bystander at a mugging’ what exactly is SIPTU up to? After all, making militant noises and refusing to enter social partnership talks are par for the course for SIPTU.  Eighteen months ago it pulled out of the upcoming talks after Mary Harney said the Progressive Democrats’ participation in government would be in question if it failed to ‘liberalise’ bus routes and break up Aer Rianta. So what happened? Mary Harney and the PDs entered government.  Aer Rianta is being broken up and bus routes are being privatised, and, oh yes, SIPTU entered into talks and signed up to a new partnership deal with the Fianna Fail and PD government.

So just what is SIPTU asking Bertie Ahern to agree to since they have already said they aren’t asking for legislation before agreement to enter talks? Apparently they want to see the government’s plans. But this government has been in power for years. We know its plans. It plans to privatise as much as it can, including education and as much of the health services as it can possibly get away with.

If social partnership talks deliver, as we are sometimes told, why not demand the talks now to get the protection Irish workers – and migrant workers – need? And if all this has to be sorted out before the talks what’s the point of them? Then again, why ask for the rationale for social partnership to make sense when the arguments supporting it have never made much sense before.


So to get back to the words of Jack O’Connor, how cheap are they? Well, outsourcing is already part of the existing social partnership deal that SIPTU has signed up to and supports. Outsourcing is part of the proposed EU Directive on Services which the Government supports, and SIPTU, along with the rest of the trade union movement, supported the last referendum tying the Irish State closer to this EU even after the Irish people had voted against it. In its open contempt for democracy the government called the vote again and the trade unions went along with it. An Post workers are currently planning strike action because they aren’t getting the pay rises promised under the existing deal, so why should there even be a question of entering a new deal when your partners won’t deliver on the old one?

We could say that it is better to just ignore what Jack O’Connor says because his words are, as Joe Higgins would say, ‘cheap.’ But that would not be an entirely useful guide to what the SIPTU bigwigs are really up to. In fact O’Connor has made his position clear, and it isn’t opposition to social partnership. What he is seeking is not its end but ‘genuine’ social partnership. In the conference speech which had the delegates on their feet he put it to them perfectly clearly: ‘I know you might not like this but I happen to believe that the best way we can make progress on issues of job displacement, exploitation and protection of employment is through genuine social partnership. I don’t see any better way of doing it. But I have no interest in participating in any sort of charade.’

In fact of course this is exactly what he is involved in, for if social partnership talks really are the way to address these issues why is he calling on SIPTU to defer entering them?  The only possible reason is to kid the membership that the bureaucrats that head SIPTU are joining the opposition or unease that many SIPTU activists have in the process.

As the Irish Times journalist at the conference put it: ‘it was difficult to escape the conclusion that the more congratulations he received the more worried he looked ‘ – surely the delegates didn’t take so seriously his militant rhetoric? The journo summed up by saying that ‘Supporters of the process will take comfort in the fact that should O’Connor, Hayes and O’Flynn achieve guarantees sufficient to satisfy them that the talks should take place, a majority of delegates would support them.’ This is not so much a commentary on the guarantees (?) as the consciousness of many delegates.

In fact O’Connor’s speech was a direct challenge to his critics. He said that if the union could not prevent displacement of jobs within the partnership process they were unlikely to do so outside it. Whatever about partnership he said, ‘we must carry on with our work.’ What this means is that even outside of a deal the union leadership will be there doing the same thing as before. Instead however of this being an invitation to savage the existing leadership for refusal to implement the will of the membership, for incompetence, cowardice or capitulation – or whatever one thinks motivates their craven existence, it is held up as a shield the bureaucrats know will deflect criticism.

What now?

A few short weeks before the SIPTU conference O’Connor laid out his analysis in an article in the Business section of the Irish Times (30/09/05). The article rested below another small article that noted that Bertie Ahern’s ‘unsparing… attack’ on Irish Ferries was ‘unusually venomous’ and a case of him ‘shouting loudly because there is little else he can do.’ The article went on to note that the profitability crisis at Irish Ferries had not stopped the managers giving themselves big pay increases while attempting to hack at the living standards of the workers.

But back to O’Connor. Far from signalling opposition to partnership he claimed it had ‘laid the basis for securing an unprecedented standard of living and quality of life for everyone on this island… under Sustaining Progress (we) have gained the highest increases in real pay since the Second World War… and, for the first time in history of the State, we secured legislation supporting the right of workers to be represented by a trade union(!)… experienced union activists know the forces promoting a race to the bottom will not disappear in the absence of national agreements, rather they will increase the vigour of their campaign.’ With all this to its credit talk about ‘a post-agreement environment’ doesn’t make much sense.

What militants in SIPTU and the trade union movement have to realise is that the question is not how we get the likes of O’Connor to oppose partnership, he has made it clear that in or out of the deals the bureaucrats will pursue the same policy. The question is how we get rid of O’Connor as part of getting rid of partnership. The tactics of O’Connor repeat the age-old policy of capturing opposition in order to contain and deflate it, not to liberate and energise it.

We can apply on test to this declared opposition to the super-exploitation of workers and to ‘non-genuine’ partnership.  Are they willing to organise solidarity action and break the anti-union laws that were the fruit of previous deals in order to defeat Irish Ferries?

To ask the question is to answer it. When the delegates to the SIPTU conference rose to their feet they should have linked arms with O’Connor and escorted him from the hall – and told him not to come back.


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