Some lessons from the 'Campaign Against A New Partnership Deal' 2000


THE WORKERS Solidarity Movement have, since their inception with the Programme for National Recovery in 1987, identified 'social partnership' agreements as a major problem. Not only do they hold down wages while placing no limits on prices or profits; they also massively reduce ordinary members' participation in their unions, erode internal union democracy, and encourage a denial of independent working class interests.

Partnership is based on the fiction that we share common interests and can somehow have a relatively equal relationship with the people who have the power to fire us! Whatever honeyed words may be used to sell these deals, the bosses know that we have conflicting interests. When did an employer ever leave his staff (his 'partners') in charge of setting wage rates?

The reality is that during the period of 'social partnership' the share of national income going to wages has reduced by 10% while the share going to profits, rents and dividends has risen by 10%. This figure comes from the Central Statistics Office's survey of National Income and Expenditure.

Just to press home this point, company directors have been taking time out from telling us not to be "greedy" to give themselves huge pay hikes. The six directors of the Jefferson Smurfit Group gave themselves £530,000 each plus 'bonuses' and 'incentives'. At Cement Roadstone (from whose head office Des Traynor ran his illegal offshore banking operation) the five executive directors upped their salaries by 17% to an average of £321,000 each.

The six executive directors at Waterford Wedgewood gave themselves an average of £230,000 each plus 'fees' and 'bonuses'. At Bank of Ireland they gave themselves a 12% increase to bring their salaries up to £251,000 each. Much play has been made of the promised tax cuts that will add 10% to the pay of workers over the next three years. However tax cuts also benefit the rich, who never had to accept any 'restraint' on their pay.

And that's what 'partnership' is all about. We hold down our pay rises, give more productivity and 'flexibility' while the rich laugh all the way to their Cayman Islands banks.

Was it an opportunity missed?

With Partnership 2000 due to expire at the end of March - and with escalating house prices/rents, high profits and low pay rises - it was generally felt that a strong campaign might be able to win a majority 'no' vote when the new deal was put to ballot in the unions. Three years ago, P2000 was voted through SIPTU 58%-42%.

This meant that winning an extra few thousand to the 'no' side could tip the balance within SIPTU. Within the ICTU, SIPTU joining MANDATE, ATGWU, etc in rejecting a deal would almost certainly have meant a majority 'no' vote at the ICTU Special Conference.

Last May the Socialist Workers Party (in the name of their 'rank & file solidarity network') organised a conference to launch a Campaign Against A New Partnership Deal. Knowing that it was an SWP front, many union activists were not enthusiastic and did not attend.

The SWP could have had an overall majority on the committee elected at the conference but, upon discovering that an SWP majority would mean most others walking away, they withdrew some of their candidates. The committee then elected had a bare majority of non-SWP but many of these would never attend a single meeting. The use of a known SWP address as the public address of the campaign made it clear who had effective control.

Not wanting the confusion that might result from the creation of a second campaign group, many activists reluctantly got involved. Meetings were held in Limerick, Waterford, Dundalk, and Galway. An independent campaign was established in Cork. Literature outlining how bad the proposed Programme for Prosperity and Fairness was went into workplaces around the country.

A meeting of teachers in Dublin attracted over 150. The threat of Performance Related Pay is seen as such an attack on teachers that the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland actually resigned from the ICTU in protest. Groupings were also formed in SIPTU and the CPSU. A genuinely broad campaign could have attracted many more.

The experience of this writer was that the SWP arrived along to meetings with lists of things they wanted people to do, there was sod all discussion about whether we wanted to do those particular things, or how we wanted to do them. The meetings were seen as little more than occasions for giving people work to do, the major decisions having been taken elsewhere. (Probably based on the way SWP branches are run).

It's not that we should have been sitting around yapping at each other. The job was to get the alternative viewpoint heard in the unions, and a lot of good work was done. Branch special meetings were addressed and tens of thousands of leaflets distributed. Where the case against the PPF was heard it nearly always won majority support.

Unfortunately, none of the mass circulation leaflets made any reference to 'social partnership'. Instead they said that the alternative to the deal was that each individual union could put in its own claim or that "the ICTU could go back to the bosses and the government and negotiate a better deal". Talk about depoliticising the issue, not even as much as a statement that the bosses are not our partners.

And there was no mechanism for correcting this. If there had been a bit more discussion this could probably have been dealt with. Instead we were left with the alternative to a social partnership deal being... a different social partnership deal. People may have been eager to maximise the 'no' vote but is this the way to defeat the idea of 'partnership'? Is it?

Until the concept is defeated there is nothing to stop slightly amended versions of the same deal being forward in a new ballot if the first one is rejected. There is nothing to stop the growth of 'partnership forums' at workplace level. There is nothing to help us promote the idea of independent working class interests.

The fiction of social partnership can be defeated. But our workmates will have to hear arguments for rejecting it. And they will have to hear arguments for the alternative: struggle against the greedy rich and active solidarity with those in the frontline.

Alan MacSimóin

From Workers Solidarity 59, Spring 2000