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ICTU - clinging to social partnership 

JM Thorn 

17 November 2009

The public sector strike planned for next week (24 Nov) is the next stage of ICTU’s campaign against proposed cuts in public services and wage reductions for public sector workers.This campaign, which has been titled Get Up Stand Up, has already included a trade union day of action on the 6 Nov which saw tens of thousands of workers across the country attending lunchtime rallies, and a protest by members of the ‘Frontline Alliance' group of trade unions in Dublin on 11 Nov.Over the past month there has been a succession of ballots by public sector unions which have comprehensively endorsed the call for a one day strike. Trade union leaders say that strike action is now “inevitable”.

On the face of it, and this is certainly the impression that would be gained from the media, the stage is set for a major confrontation between trade unions and the Government. But while the Government has shown its determination to press ahead with cuts and pay reductions, the determination of the trade union leadership to oppose these is doubtful.It takes two to make a fight, and there is just no evidence that trade union leaders are up for such a struggle.They remain firmly within social partnership and are desperate to maintain relations with the Government and employers. It is all the current leadership has known, and it is impossible for them to contemplate anything else. 

If we look beyond the sensationalist headlines we actually find that ICTU’s campaign is extremely limited.It is a protest within the framework of social partnership, which doesn’t oppose what the Government is doing, but only seeks to mitigate its impact upon its members.Trade union leaders have accepted the main thrust of the Government’s argument that there needs to be deep cuts in public spending to bring down the budget deficit and keep within the rules of euro membership. The objections of trade unions have not been about cuts and deficit reduction, that has been accepted, but over how they should be implemented.This has centered on two areas – the balance between tax rises and cuts, and the time period over which the budget deficit should be reduced.After the Government immediately rejected any prospect of extra taxes on the wealthiest in society, trade union objections were reduced to just the timeframe for cuts.Jack O’Connor of SIPTU stated that the timeframe needed for economic recovery and the equity of cuts were the main stumbling blocks for unions.He claimed that the “short, sharp, shock, therapy” favoured by the Government and employers would do more damage than good, and that a national was “a key ingredient” for economic recovery.

This theme was taken up by ICTU president David Begg in an article in the Irish Times in which he claimed that “a short, sharp correction is too simplistic and could collapse not just public service provision but the whole economy”.However, his alternative was limited to “elongating our adjustment period until 2017”; even though he admitted that this would “not prevent pain and hardship”.In the ICTU document “Key Questions about the Crisis” we get a little more detail about possible alternatives. It points to other European countries where there has been Government intervention in the economy.A wage subsidy scheme in Germany is pointed out a successful example of intervention. But again this is rather light on alternatives – the thrust of argument being for an extension of the period over which the public deficit is reduced, what is described as a “little breathing room”. It even cites Gordon Brown and the right wing Bruges Group in support of this. ICTU has also re-launched its “There is A Better Fairer Way” document which was first published in February.New addictions to this include an accord which would match medium-term wage cut trends with competitor countries, and the introduction of a third tax rate aimed at the wealthy would be “up around 54 per cent”. These are alongside the original proposals for tackling the pension crisis, reforming the banking industry and introducing legislation on workers’ rights.

What stands out from these documents is the threadbare nature of ICTU’s supposed alternatives.They are a hodgepodge of neo-Keynesian polices and proposals drawn from economists and various European governments. It is doubtful how much trade union leaders actually support these limited demands.They appear to be more of a cover for their own complicity in the polices being pursued Government than any serious attempt to change them. David Begg has admitted there had not been “any move towards our position” from the Government and employers since February.Despite this talks have been ongoing.

We got some indication of the substance of these talks with the publication of a letter from IMPACT general secretary Peter McLoone asking officials to identify significant and substantial costs that can be cut out of the system in order to avoid pay cuts. McLoone warned officials in his union that any deal to avoid public sector pay cuts is likely to involve reductions in the number of people employed in the public sector from 2011.He stated that the “alternative [to pay cuts] is likely to involve a significant reduction in public service numbers over the next three to four years, with the likelihood that some additional exceptional measures will also be needed in 2010 to deal with the budgetary crisis next year.”The import of this is that trade union leaders have accepted the cuts and are presenting their members with the “choice” between redundancies and pay cuts.

Given the record of trade unions in the period of social partnership, when the leadership have persuaded members to accept redundancies and deteriorations in working conditions in exchange for maintaining headline pay rates, this could possibly form the basis a new agreement.However, such an agreement is likely to be only temporary, as the scale of the crisis in Ireland demands cuts year on year which will include both job losses and pay reductions. There is also the danger that it could widen the divisions amongst the working class, with private sector workers pitted against public sector workers. There is already an ongoing campaign by the Government and employers to build up resentment against supposedly “privileged” workers within the public sector.The aim of this is to divide workers so they can more easily drive down living standards across the board.An agreement that could be portrayed as public sector workers protecting their wages at the expense of services (sometimes described as the social wage) to the wider working class, can only aim them.

The run up to next week’s national strike has parallels with what happed earlier this year when massive street protests (over a 1000,000 in Dublin) were followed by a planned day of strike action. The strike was called off as union leaders decided to go back into talks with the Government to discuss an economic recovery agreement.This served to disorientate workers and emboldened the Government to intensify its attacks.Ministers have even expressed amazement at what they been able to get away.What more will they get away with if they go unchallenged. 

This it is why it is so important that workers start to take action and that next week’s strike goes ahead. While a one day strike won’t change anything in itself it will start to break down the barriers established by social partnership, and also give workers the sense that they can challenge the Government through industrial action. The most immediate barrierthat the workers face is an official leadership which is still committed to social partnership and wants to avoid a confrontation with the Government. Trade union figures such as O’Connor, Begg and McLoone have enjoyed many privileges through their involvement in social partnership and won’t give these up willingly. However, the fact that as a result of pressure exerted both from Government and their own members, they are now forced to threaten strike action indicates that the social partnership process and their own positions are increasingly unstable.

As long as trade unions remain under their current leadership the effort to build and effective opposition movement will be hampered and compromised. What is needed is a new leadership and the re-establishment of trade unions as independent organisations of the working class.While this has been the case for at least the last ten years, current conditions make it both more necessary and more likely. 


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