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Social Partnership: a history of class collaboration

June 2017

The recent sell-out of the Bus Eireann workers strike has had the effect of exposing to a new generation of workers the utter lack of loyalty to the working class that lies at the heart of the leadership of the Irish trade union movement. It comes as neither shock nor surprise to older generations of workers however. Although Connolly's principles were thrown out of the labour movement in Ireland decades before, class collaboration by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions became shamelessly open in the 1980's. Their acquiescence was in no way due to an honest defeat, it was a complete acceptance of the Irish state as 'protector, patron or arbitrator'(1) in dealing with the imperialist capital that dominated both the semi colonial state and the reformist bureaucracy. It had been accelerated by the reversals of the 'neo-liberal' phase of imperialist development, and the ensuing period of Social Partnership and has “produced a leadership that is completely integrated within the establishment consensus”(2).

'National Understandings'

In1987 the Programme for National Recovery (PNR), which saw £IR500 million in cuts to public services, was initiated following a period of 'National Understandings' between the unions and the state. The signing of the deal was a reflection of the weakness of the labour movement internationally following the defeat of the British miners' strike and the surrender by the majority of the British trade union movement's leadership. Transported on to Irish soil this led to a conscious attempt by Irish union bureaucrats to make any deal which protected their own role, fearful of an all-out anti-union attack similar to the Thatcher assault. Peter Cassells spelt out the reasons for favouring partnership citing the Scandinavian countries as examples; “These countries have rejected the confrontationist approach of the New Right and have lower levels of unemployment than the US or the UK.” Or more directly put, they were seeking a way to make an accommodation with the state and with imperialism, or as he describes it, the 'New Right', during what came to be known as the 'neo liberal' era.

In 1990, without a shot being fired in defence of the workers, the Industrial Relations Act was introduced with the blessing of ICTU. This legislation was aimed at the bureaucracy and threatened the seizure of union funds if they didn't jump through all the legal hoops that were designed to take the momentum out of industrial action and demobilise it. What had taken the British Tories a decade to achieve in conflict with the strongest sections of the British working class was immediately gifted to the Irish capitalist class by the leadership of ICTU without a fight. The legislation suited the bureaucracy. The ruling class never have had cause to exercise these laws as the trade union leadership use them very effectively to control their own membership and the result of this tacit agreement on the rules of engagement for industrial action means that workers entering struggle today are curtailed from effectively defending themselves. The most effective methods of class struggle have been ruled out so workers taking any effective spontaneous action such as the flying pickets and the wildcat action that took place in the Bus Eireann dispute find themselves having to endure the indignity of patronising and cowardly public denunciations from their own leadership, in the full view, and to the great joy, of the ruling class.

Social Partnership

By 1991 Charles Haughey, singing the praises of social partnership, remarked in the introduction to the Programme for Economic and Social Progress (PESP) that “A small trading economy cannot prosper with divisive and competing interests.” It was a succinct way of announcing a formal agreement that the working class must make sacrifices in the 'national interest' and  it was the end of any pretence at a defensive class struggle by the trade union leadership as ICTU enthusiastically signed up to it.

Social partnership by means of a series of agreements helped the government tie the workers in to compliance with the strictures imposed by plans for a coherent European fiscal policy. The Programme for Competitiveness and Work (PCW) was explicitly for the purpose of “promoting industrial harmony” by precluding “strikes or any other form of industrial action by trade unions”. These agreements ultimately saw wages shrink and the eruption of bitter struggles by groups of workers at Pat the Baker, Nolan Transport, Irish Steel and particularly at Team Aer Lingus. All defeated with the same ICTU connivance we have recently witnessed at Bus Eireann and using the same methods of using the Labour Court and isolating the core group of workers in dispute.(3)


In 1992 the Maastricht treaty was signed. Within that treaty lay European capitalism’s strategy for unifying politically and forming the European Union into a coherent economic unit capable of holding its position competitively and strengthening itself in the global market in relation to the dominance of US imperialism.

As part of the conditions for ever greater economic unity and 'competitiveness' the much vaunted 'European', or 'social', model of capitalism was to go. The weaker economies, on the periphery of the core imperialist nations of Europe, that were spending 'too much' on social care, unemployment benefit or services were to comply with conditions that would shrink the public sector and the state's debts to less than 60% of GDP and the mechanism for doing so was the selloff of state assets and the annual limitation of social spending to 3% of GDP. This was later re affirmed in the 'fiscal compact' introduced in Ireland following referenda.

Plans for capitalist unification of Europe did not go unresisted by workers affected by attacks on their pay and conditions. There was a natural tendency for struggles to link up. After strikes in Belgium, Spain and Italy and a series of determined strikes in the French public sector German and French workers called for a Europe wide general strike against the conditions laid down by Maastricht in 1995, a request ignored and carefully demobilised by the bureaucratic union leadership(4).

The Legacy of Demobilisation

The conditions agreed to by ICTU in 1992 have been repeatedly signed up to and have haunted the working class ever since. The PCW was followed by Partnership 2000 the passage of which was eased due to a period of relative class peace. The investment by US capital in industry that provided growth in the early phase of the Celtic Tiger in the 1990's was as a result of that capital seeking to increase profitability by using cheaper Irish labour while gaining access to the European market. Wages were still held down but the payoff for social partnership came in the form of tax cuts and increased government borrowing. This period of growth helped conceal the betrayals of public sector workers by trade union leaders but imperialist capital's investment in industry came to an end with the recession in the US in 2001.

The subsequent deals, 'Programme for Prosperity and Fairness’ and 'Sustaining Progress', came against a background of sharply rising unemployment. This reflected the shift towards investment in fictional financial 'products', the development of Ireland as a full blown tax haven for global corporations and an accelerated inflation of the global bubble of fictional capital which ultimately burst. The final episode of the formal trade union sell out to capital, Towards 2016, suffered an ignominious end in 2009 as IBEC formally withdrew stating their preference for confronting the trade unions at “enterprise level bargaining in unionised employments”.

The capitalist crisis

The secular decline in global capitalism, the inflation of a bubble of fictional capital and its eruption in to a full blown crisis with the banking collapse has accelerated the attack on the working class. The fiscal conditions imposed by Maastricht were applied all the harder because of the collapse but the interests of those insisting on their application went far beyond the EU. Irish public debt in the imperialist age is at the mercy of international lenders and financial institutions which buy Government bonds and which have first call on repayment. Ireland's credit rating depends on the international bond market and that rating determines whether they can borrow or not.

Government debt as a percent of GDP is used by investors as a measure a country's ability to repay and this immediately affects the country's borrowing costs and government bond yields. The mantra from Leinster House during the banking collapse was that “The bond holders must be paid”, and the people that had to pay them were the working masses. Naturally the trade union leadership agreed with the needs of imperialist capital, seeing no alternative to their decades old strategy and stood idly by as the bank's debt was heaped on the shoulders of the working masses. Their role had not changed, it remained one of marshalling the Irish working class in the interests of capital except that now the sacrifices were much greater.

The capitalist crash has been stabilised but the essential contradictions at its heart have not been resolved. The method used in that stabilisation was to transfer the burden of debt to the working class and to bleed it white with the repayments. They increased the rate of surplus value, in other words the rate of exploitation of the working class, cut wages, savaged conditions and contracts and robbed pensioners. This medicine has already been swallowed by the Irish working class, but they must swallow more, wages must be pushed down further and kept down, while speculative capital inflates another housing bubble that prices working class people out of a home and on to the street as another recession falls due. Knowing full well the austere requirements of crisis ridden capitalism the bureaucracy must continue to convince the workers to take this pain.

Business as Usual for ICTU – Keeping within the 'narrow confines'.

Continuing with their 'defence' of the working class by contriving in the attack on them the ICTU leadership proceeded with business as usual. Almost immediately following the collapse of ‘Towards 2016’ the Croke Park agreement delivered the austerity the state and troika needed at the expense of 28'000 laid off workers. In March 2010, describing it as social 'dialogue', rather than 'partnership', ICTU civil service unions negotiated a three year pay freeze and a series of 'efficiencies', increased 'flexibility' and degraded working conditions including an agreement to transfer workers up to 45km from their home, 7000 workers were ultimately 'redeployed'. Privatization was at the heart of the deal with 'value for money' and 'outsourcing' being central considerations. Much of the detail of the deal's betrayal is strikingly similar to the Bus Eireann deal, revealing how the employers’ agenda has remained unchanged.

A pretence at resistance was maintained but industrial action was limited to a minor token strike while people were diverted towards protest marches. Their slogan of 'A Better Fairer Way' was revealing. It expressed the attempt to convince working people that they should continue to repay the bankers debt, albeit a little slower, while by the same measure trying to show the state that their 'responsible' attitude proved them indispensable in solving the crisis. Indeed Jack O'Connor had aired his 'profound' belief that trade unions are “essential to the survival of capitalism” at the Siptu biennial conference in 2011.(5) 

Arguing that the banking debt repayments should be alleviated rather than repudiated they accepted the legitimacy of imperialist capital's fiscal parameters and demands for austerity. The 'Better Fairer Way' campaign was designed simply to maintain a modicum of credibility among the working class but also to prove that their cynical clique was indispensable to the state in achieving agreed austerity targets, and the working class were repeatedly led out on demonstrations towards that end.

While they ostensibly campaigned against 'austerity' the trade union bureaucracy resolutely maintained their commitment to comply with the troika's rules. This was spelled out explicitly in a notorious speech at an anti-austerity rally when the ICTU leadership openly pledged their determination to work within the “narrow confines of the Troika programme”, the very programme that had been put in place to boost capitalist profitability at the expense of the working class.

Young socialist protesters who chanted slogans for a general strike on the day were later disgracefully labelled by Jack O'Connor as 'fascists' in the press. It was a perfect expose of the bureaucracy's role. Here was the leader of Irish trade unionism attacking people that he had called out on a protest rally because they dared to call for industrial action. It was also a blatant example of their arrogant attempts to delegitimize any protest outside of their control or contrary to their policies, their latest shameful attack being led by Joan Burton of the Irish Labour party, which has  O'Connor now as it's Secretary and which if successful will see the Jobstown protesters sent to prison.

Water Charges and the bureaucracy

Against a background of increasing austerity and the recapitalisation of the banks to the tune of €31 billion the Croke Park II deal which stripped another €1 billion out of public sector pay was agreed by ICTU. As part of their strategy they had as usual mobilised for a demonstration this time begging the perpetrators in government for mercy with the pathos laden slogan “Lift the Burden". Designed to simultaneously present themselves as protectors of the workers while continuing their alliance with the government a problem arose when the deal was agreed so quickly that the scheduled protest march hadn't taken place. At this march it was simply impossible to present the extension of the debt to 2054 as a victory for the working class.

Their compliance with the terms of austerity had became more evident and with the emergence of the anti water charges campaign they feared a repeat of the heckling Jack O'Connor had received outside the GPO in 2011. Aware that they could be accused of a sell out the protest was organised in such a way as to prevent any display of public opposition and the result was pure farce. At the demonstration outside Leinster House the speakers platform didn't face the main body of the crowd and march organisers had conspired with the Guards to 'kettle" the anti water charges contingents on the protest, diverting them into a side street. The main speaker, David Begg, began and ended his speech while the first protesters were still entering the square and the overwhelming body of the demonstration arrived to hear a comedian mock Angela Merkel followed by a full volume performance by a rock musician. Any potential hecklers didn't stand a chance and in order to make their position clear David Begg appeared almost immediately on national television to publically wash ICTU's hands of the water charges campaign. It had became evident that there was a real decline in ICTU's ability to exercise control over the mass protests they called.(6)

The Left Bureaucrats

 It was following this that the 'left radical' section of the ICTU bureaucracy emerged and oriented towards the spontaneously growing anti water charges protests, but they still remained resolutely within the parameters of 'acceptable' protest. No attempt was made to broaden the water charges issue to include other aspects of austerity even thought the link was obvious and they never countenanced industrial action even though it was the obvious thing for trade union leaders to do. The whole protest movement was diverted into an electoral front with Sinn Fein, an austerity party in the north, which failed to make any impact and has allowed the prospect of water charges to be maintained on the back burner until the state decides to have another try at its introduction.

At a point when the spontaneously erupting water charges protest committees were emerging the logical thing to do was to organise a democratic congress that could decide policy, send elected representatives from every local branch and elect a national leadership body. The dishonest excuse given by the union bureaucrats for not doing so was that they didn't want to impose a cover charge and they had “limited resources” and couldn't afford a large enough venue. Just one of the unions involved, Unite, takes in hundreds of thousands per week in members dues in the Irish region alone. Not credible for a moment, and the bureaucrats real intention was soon apparent. Instead the “non aligned community activists” that really were the backbone of the protest movement were allocated only one third of the places at a conference where the new stars of the 'left' bureaucracy aired their stale strategy accompanied by speakers from Syriza and Podemos.

The 'left radical' bureaucrats who now decisively controlled the anti water charges campaign did not oppose austerity but produced a fiscal framework document which allowed them to operate within the same “narrow confines” as Jack O'Connor and the rest of the bureaucracy. On the basis of a draught report they hastily declared victory, Ogle gave one last condescending speech before sending everyone home, the movement was demobilised and crucially, Irish Water had survived.

Throughout the period of economic collapse and the systematic lowering of working class living standards the entire bureaucracy, 'left' and right, have accepted the strictures of austerity and have worked to ensure they are adhered to. Even when faced by protest action as with the anti water charges campaign or strike action as with Bus Eireann workers they have intervened and demobilised every attempt at resistance.

Relationship with imperialism

It is the crisis of capitalist profitability that drives the push towards privatisation and austerity. It is their acceptance that the workers must make sacrifices to return capitalism to profitability that causes the trade union bureaucracy to cling to repeated deals with the Irish state all the way up to Lansdowne Rd and Haddington Rd where they hope the strength of one will not expose the weakness of the other and it is the overarching relationship with imperialism that, as Trotsky put it; “constitutes the basis for the dependence of reformist unions upon the state.”(6) Opposition to imperialism is so far beyond the imagination of the bureaucracy it seems outlandish to them, yet while they freely accept the necessity of complying with the strictures of global capital they cannot, or dare not, imagine the power of the global working class. Workers all across Europe face the same problem of leadership, the ETUC meeting in Rome in May had only Keynesian platitudes for their 45 million members and polite requests for “workers and citizens to be taken into account to a greater extent” by the state and employers. This problem of leadership must be resolved.

The enormity of what the working class faces is obvious but for a split second in Dublin the fragility of the imperialist's agenda became obvious too. If the Bus Eireann strike had been successful it would have stalled the progress of the very privatisation of public assets that the bureaucracy had quietly signed up to in repeated partnership deals, a position even their 'left' version fights to maintain. If as in Larkin's time “neither wheel nor hand turned” in Dublin and solidarity began to spread, and the pent up frustration is there to make it feasible, a victory would have been possible using the flying pickets and solidarity action that was briefly on display. That which was condemned by the union leadership would have acted as a lesson and an inspiration for other groups of workers throughout Ireland and far beyond, but this is precisely what the bureaucratic misleaders of the working class fear most, an expose of their irrelevance when it comes to actual working class struggle, and it is in the real struggles that are still to come that the antidote to bureaucratic betrayals will be found.

Break the policy of appeasement!

Austerity isn't going away and the terms of the latest sell out deal still have to be imposed, thousands of jobs in public transport, health and education are under threat. Every job must be fought for, every pay cut and closure opposed.  A measly redundancy package is no consolation. The leadership of the unions cannot be trusted, they have negotiated away thousands of jobs and billions of Euro in wages as part of their partnership with capitalism, their history shows they have not opposed austerity and accept fully the parameters set by imperialism and within which they are committed to working. The duty of opposition to this betrayal falls to rank and file trade union members.  That membership must demand;

A break with the policy of appeasement towards austerity, a rejection of 'the narrow confines of the troika programme' and a complete break with the state. No more sell-out deals.

These demands can only arise from self-organisation and express themselves practically in struggle and the first step in that direction takes the form of self-defence. In this trade unionists must learn from the growth and spontaneity of the early anti water charges campaign. That self-defence means not waiting for the bureaucrats, in the same way as the water protesters prevented the practical work of meter installation the workers must prevent the practical introduction of cutbacks, each situation is different but methods can be found. Organising against the cuts at rank and file level and opposing them with the effective class struggle methods of the flying pickets and wildcat strikes that we glimpsed during the bus strike disrupts their plans and is effective. Such a struggle must spread and the call must go out to all union members that are in struggle throughout Europe and are facing the same betrayals by their own leadership. There is a mountain to climb but the first step in the ascent must be taken.  Workers democracy must be re born in the 45 million strong trade union movement to carry out that campaign. Staying as we are means more defeat!


(1) Trade Unions in the Period of Capitalist Decay. Leon Trotsky. (Paraphrasing)
(2) Ireland's Credit Crunch. Keating, Morrison, Corrigan. 2010.
(3) See; 'Ireland: The Promise of Socialism.'
(4) Ibid; p., 26.
(5) Jack O'Connor. SIPTU Biennial Conference 2011.
(6) Leon Trotsky. Trade unions in the epoch of capitalist decay.

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