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Book Review – Prisoners of Social Partnership

Just issued – a new book outlining the impact of successive partnership agreements on the Irish Trade Union Movement.

Torrents of ink have been used to describe and analyse the ‘Celtic tiger’ – boosted by the bosses as an economic miracle totally transforming the Irish economy and Irish society.

The vast majority of these studies have been unanimous in seeing a series of partnership agreements between government, unions and the employers as key foundation elements in building the ‘tiger’ economy.

The story stops there. There is no detailed history or analysis of the agreements themselves.

Now this gap has been filled by Socialist Democracy activist Joe Craig, who has produced the first history of this key feature of modern Irish society, interpreting it through a case study of two key strikes – the strike by Ryanair baggage handlers for union recognition and the nurses strike against the constraints of the national agreements.

Joe Craig's analysis focuses around a number of penetrating questions:

To what extent was transnational investment  linked to the partnership deals?

Were the claimed benefits for workers delivered?

Did the union movement itself, as opposed to a narrow layer of the top of the union bureaucracy, improve its negotiating position and industrial rights?

The answers to these questions will surprise even hardened activists used to the history of betrayal by the Trade Union bureaucracy.

The main outcome of the Ryanair dispute, for example, was to establish that one of the major trade unions supporting the agreement did not have the right to union recognition under it.  If the employer objected the Government felt that it could do nothing and the union leadership were willing to give way.

The nurse’s strike was an even more graphic example of the workings of partnership. Their union were under the illusion that they were free to negotiate a pay settlement outside the agreement.  This idea was quickly dispelled when bosses, government and the ICTU leadership all combined to isolate the struggles and defeat the nurses.

The years of what was essentially a pay freeze were justified by the union leadership on the grounds that the payoff would be a slashing of tax rates. (In the South of Ireland the majority of tax revenue comes directly from the working class, who pay 50% of their wages.   Local capitalists and multinationals avoid tax.  Some of the multinationals pay a negative tax – collecting from the tax agency rather than paying in.)

In fact the agreements were marked by a whole series of tax amnesties that eventually persuaded Irish capital that it could repatriate its profits without risk of any sizable tax bill.  The result was a boom in house prices that left those on the average industrial wage without any affordable housing.

The history of the agreements has been a history of the trade union leadership gradually adopting the programme of the bosses.  They moved from wage agreements to enthusiastic support for rationalisation and privatisation.  So enthusiastic are they that one spokesperson recently referred to the ‘social partners’ in the North, where they have no agreement with the government or bosses – just a general habit of subservience. John Monks and other leading bureaucrats in the British movement have been quick to pick up the language – endorsing ‘new unionism’ and social partnership while new labour and the bosses kick them in the teeth.

As Prisoners of Social Partnership is issued the Nurses have yet again taken industrial action. There are persistent stories of unions breaking away from the national partnership agreements. All the signs are of a bumpy road for industrial relations in Ireland in the future.

Prisoners of Social Partnership will prove an invaluable primer for trade unionists, political activists and academics in understanding these coming industrial battles in Ireland and the industrial underpinning of ‘New Labour’ in Britain .


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