Searching for answers in wake of collapsed partnership

Mon, Jan 25, 2010, 00:00

INSIDE THE TRADE UNIONS: ANALYSIS:With trade unions at a crossroads, this two-part series looks at the movement’s future

IT WAS just after 8am in Government Buildings on Friday, December 4th, and bleary-eyed unions leaders were convinced they finally had a deal. “We even read the text back to them just to make sure,” says one union leader. “The secretary generals of the government departments of health, education and the rest were okay with it. Their Ministers seemed to be on board. The deal was done, as far as we were concerned.”

For the unions, the draft agreement would have paved the way for transformation of the public service, significant exchequer savings and industrial peace. But within hours, more than two decades of carefully built social partnership had come crashing down. Radio phone-in shows crackled with anger. Fianna Fáil backbenchers baulked at it. Opposition parties howled with indignation.

The 12-days leave proposal became a lightning rod for public anger that the public sector workers were, once again, getting off lightly. Trade unions, the argument went, were out of touch with reality. The notion that cossetted public sector workers would have their pensions, permanent jobs and pay-scales protected, while the private sector slid into oblivion, wouldn’t wash.

After initially signalling it could do business with the plan, the Government reversed its position. Twenty-one years of partnership, which helped pave the foundation for the most sustained period of economic growth in the country’s history, had finally buckled under the strain of the recession.

The collapse of partnership is a key moment for trade union movement which now find itself at a major crossroads. Once serious political players, they are frozen out of the corridors of power for the first time in 21 years. Worse, still, they are facing into the chill wind of public opinion which has no appetite for strikes or a winter of discontent.

Set against a background where union numbers are falling and existing members have had to swallow pay cuts, pay freezes or job losses, some are beginning to question what, if anything, can unions achieve for them?

There are also unsettling questions and there are internal tensions over the future direction of the union movement. Freed of the shackles of partnership, does it now go down the more militant road of a major campaign of industrial unrest? Or does it try to maintain its reputation as a pragmatic coalition which is a able to do business with government and employers?

There may also be opportunities in the teeth of a recession. Workers fearful of redundancy or further pay cuts could feasibly seek the protection of unions. The movement could also begin to reassert its voice in support of long-standing core issues like social justice and equality. Ultimately, these are questions which, in the longer term, go the heart of the union movement’s very existence. The unions, it seems, are still searching for answers.

ON THE FACE of it, these should be good times for trade unions. With more than 800,000 members on both sides of the Border, unions form the largest civil society organisation on the island of Ireland.

Union numbers increased as the workforce grew dramatically during the boom years, until unions represented more people than at any time in their history.

But that’s just part of the picture. The density of unions – or the proportion of employees in a union – is the best indicator of unions’ power in the labour market. These figures show it is long-term decline. Latest Central Statistics Office figures show union density stood at 31 per cent in 2007, down from a high of 62 per cent in the 1980s (see panel).

“Unions are really where they were in the 1940s and 1950s,” says Dr Tim Hastings, who has edited a comprehensive study on the position of trade unions in Ireland.

“The situation they find themselves in is unprecedented,” adds Prof Bill Roche of UCD. “Unions have never suffered a declining market share in a buoyant economy . . . Now that we’re in a period of deep recession, deflation, unemployment and declining wages, it will be exceptionally difficult to recruit members.”

New figures are not yet available, but the sheer scale of job losses over the past two years has almost certainly dented union membership even further. The construction sector, which was the focus of union recruitment drives in recent years, has been hit hardest of all.

IF THERE IS a public face of the union movement, it is David Begg, head of the 840,000-strong Irish Congress of Trade Unions for almost a decade. In recent months he has had the gloomy air of an undertaker, warning on the nightly news that partnership was on a life-line or that Government actions would end up sending the economy into a deflationary spiral.

Today, though, he is in defiant mood. Sitting in his high-ceilinged office at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions headquarters on Dublin’s Parnell Square, and surrounded by pictures of former union leaders, he insists the movement is far from finished.

“The implications of the collapse of partnership aren’t necessarily so severe,” he says. “It’s not the first time we’ve been in that space. One of my predecessors in this job, Donal Nevin, never saw a centralised agreement. We’ll just have to conduct our business with employers and Government in

the same way as other trade unions in Europe do it.”

As the largest civil society organisation in the country, he says the trade union movement can’t be simply ignored. “Employers and Government can’t avoid dealing with us. We can’t easily be ignored. I wouldn’t have collapsed social partnership myself, but we can live without it.”

While life might be harder in some respects without partnership, he maintains the union is also liberated to campaign for its core values of equality and a just society.

“Partnership was better at solving problems than changing society,” he says. “If we had that much influence, we wouldn’t have the enduring level of inequality we have. It did manage – through sustained economic expansion – to help end emigration. That was its great achievement.

“It amuses me when I read this stuff about the kind of power we had, but as for domestic social policy, it’s hard to point to any great achievement. Partnership gave us access, but not a lot of influence,” he says.

Yet, by any objective measure, it’s hardly business as usual. The union movement finds itself in a country which is changed utterly. Public hostility towards unions – particularly public sector unions during the “day of action” in November, was unprecedented and took many senior leaders by surprise.

Peter McLoone, head of the Impact trade union and chair of Ictu’s public services committee, is widely seen as a key strategic thinker within the union movement. He says the wedge being driven between public and private sector workers underscores the failure of the union movement to communicate its message effectively.

“There are huge numbers of people in the public sector on relatively low salaries, but that wasn’t widely understood,” says McLoone. “Even in the worst days of the North, we were able to hold the union together as a single force. It was possible because there was never a challenge to its motives. This was the first time we had to deal with this. Part of the problem was that a private sector view of people working in the public sector was mostly from people who weren’t in unions.”

It is vital, he says, for the union movement to communicate its message more effectively.

“We need to get together like the Irish scrum, so there is no divide in the trade union family. The only way to tackle this is to go out and talk to people at work who are not in unions, So they understand better where were coming from.”

Begg, though, bristles with anger over how the “establishment”, aided and abetted by a compliant media, deliberately targeted and demonised public sector workers.

“If you were a Martian and arrived in Ireland, you’d think public sector workers were the cause of our economic problems, based on any reading of newspapers or listening to the media. You certainly wouldn’t have thought it was the bankers,” he says.

“Something similar happened in the early 1980s in the US when Regan ran a campaign against welfare recipients – which was based on fallacy. It happened in Britain when Thatcher convinced the public that unions were the enemy within. It’s a very effective tool of neo-liberals.”

He says the trade union movement in Ireland did not have enough economists to challenge the right-wing proponents of the “neo-liberal orthodoxy” underpinning the budget. His language was even more blunt at a private think-in among senior Ictu members last week, reported in The Irish Times. In a paper, Begg wrote: “Parts of our organisation are shambolic. The mere fact that 56 unions try to act without co-ordination or optimisation of resources is a serious challenge. Our resources are wholly inadequate and to come degree mis-deployed and duplicated.”

THERE IS seething anger among the unions, that much is clear. But how are far are they prepared to go to protest at what they see as unjust pay cuts?

Just last week the travel plans of 20,000 people were disrupted when air traffic controllers embarked on industrial action. This week, a wave of industrial unrest begins across the health service and the wider public service.

Is this the beginning of a winter of discontent and a fundamental break with the pragmatism of the union movement to date?

Jack O’Connor, president of Siptu, the largest union in the State with both private and public sector members, has certainly turned up the fighting rhetoric.

He insists the Government needs to be faced with the “inevitability of immense industrial action” if it is to re-visit public sector pay cuts and a new deal.

While the campaign is starting off with a work-to-rule and a withdrawal of co-operation from plans to reform and modernise public services, this is just the beginning.

“The steps agreed so far represent a beginning. Much more resolute action will be required,” he wrote in Siptu’s latest newsletter to members.

David Begg, in contrast, strikes a more measured tone. He anticipates there will be pragmatic and “civilised engagement” between private sector unions and employers. He also makes the point that wages in most parts of the private sector haven’t been reduced, though over-time and bonuses have.

In the public sector, he says wages are down by at least 7 per cent following the budget.

“If the Government doesn’t feel a chill wind, they will regard the public sector as a soft target. But they should try to engage practically with the Government on a day-to-day basis,” he says.

In general, union leaders agree that partnership, as we know it, is dead. There is still the possibility, though, of a much narrower public sector deal which would allow for the transformation of public services and the reversal of controversial pay cuts.

It won’t be easy.

Most union leaders insist that the last-minute decision by the Government to back out of an agreement has left a bitter legacy of distrust.

McLoone says the plan they presented to the Government – an 8am to 8pm health service working day; redeployment of employees across the health sector; integrating or closing some services – represented an unprecedented opportunity for fundamental reform.

“This was the first time ourselves and the Government had a plan not just to solve our immediate needs in 2010, but meet the agenda of doing more with less over the coming years,” he says.

“We had created the conditions in which there was a real possibility we could persuade a workforce in excess of 300,000 to come along with us.”

One union leader, who declines to be named, says angrily: “The Taoiseach had been talking about transformation of public services as his priority. And here we were, with everyone on the same page, agreeing to it. But the way it fell apart was farcical. It was a big breach of trust – I don’t see that being recovered.”

In the meantime, with little sign of economic recovery on the horizon, Begg believes the divide between public and private sector workers can be bridged – and the unions will be stronger for it.

“That divide won’t last. We’re all in the same boat. The consequence of all this will begin to dissipate over time,” he says.

The key, as he wrote for Ictu’s think-in, is that unions must act in collaboration and solidarity: all disputes and rivalries should be cast aside so members and employers know the movement is acting as one.

He concedes that unions have been on the back foot for the past 18 months – but warns not to underestimate their ability to re-organise. “You can’t knock us back and say we’ll disappear, because we won’t,” he says. And, with just a glint of a smile, he adds: “We won’t learn manners.”

Who's who: some of the trade union leaders

David Begg:general secretary of Irish Congress of Trade Unions, an all-island coalition of 55 unions with a combined total membership of around 840,000. As head of Ictu since 2001, he has continued its pragmatic stance of engaging with employers and the Government over the course of several successful partnership agreements.

Jack O'Connor:general president of the Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union (Siptu). It is the largest union in Ireland with more than 200,000 members and represents workers across a variety of areas in the private and public sector. As president of the Ictu executive council, he has played a key role in successive partnership deals.

Peter McLoone:head of Impact, the largest public sector union in the State. As general secretary of Impact and head of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions public services committee, he was a central figure in negotiations involving reform of public services in the recent partnership talks. He is due to stand down later this year.

John White:general secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, which represents 17,000 teachers. It broke from Ictu in 2000 to pursue pay increases on its own, later rejoining. The executive has discussed a possible ban on extracurricular activities, including school games, as part of its campaign of industrial action.

Peter McMenamin:general secretary of the Teachers' Union of Ireland, which represents over 14,500 members at second- and third-level in the education system. He also sits on Ictu's executive council. The union has advised its members not to make up for lost classes outside regular working hours.

John Carr:general secretary of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation, which represents primary teachers. It says it is the largest teachers' union in the country. Carr is due to step down later this year. In a recent directive to its 25,000 members, the union has recommended that schools review their practices of voluntary activities after school time.

Liam Doran:
general secretary of the renamed Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation. The union has a membership well in excess of 40,000 and has flexed its muscle with two major nurses' strikes over the past decade. The union has been among the most critical of the Government's decision to pull out of the recent partnership talks.

Blair Horan:general secretary of the Civil and Public Services Union, which represents lower-paid civil servants. The union has been fiercely critical of pay cuts and pension levies. It has already been involved in industrial action for the last several days and it likely to step up its campaign over the coming weeks.

Jimmy Kelly:regional secretary of Unite, formed following a merger between the Transport and General Workers' Union and Amicus. It has been among the most sceptical of the large unions towards partnership in recent years.

Carl O’Brien is Chief Reporter 

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