Union chief urges establishment of new social dialogue system

Fórsa leader says Government must change industrial relations legislation

Kevin Callinan, general secretary of Fórsa, said the Government must change industrial relations legislation ‘to ensure not just the right to organise but the right to bargain effectively’.

Kevin Callinan, general secretary of Fórsa, said the Government must change industrial relations legislation ‘to ensure not just the right to organise but the right to bargain effectively’.

 

The head of the country’s largest public service trade union has called for the re-establishment of social dialogue which would bring together the Government, the labour movement and employers.

Fórsa general secretary Kevin Callinan said such a process could resolve or improve issues where the Government had failed, including childcare, education and housing.

Mr Callinan also argued that the Government must change industrial relations legislation “to ensure not just the right to organise but the right to bargain effectively”.

“Otherwise it will have no credibility and little acceptance.”

Mr Callinan said the ability of the trade union movement to influence policy and events has been compromised, in part due to the failure to replace the old system of social partnership with an effective alternative strategy.

The 20-year-old system of social partnership, which saw government, unions and employer representatives negotiate agreements not just on pay but on whole swathes of other issues across the economy and society, collapsed in 2009 following the economic crash after ministers decided to implement pay cuts for staff in the public service.

Genuine social dialogue

In an address to biennial conference of trade union Siptu in Cork on Wednesday, Mr Callinan said: “Whatever its failings, and there were many, social partnership provided a mechanism to engage in genuine social dialogue with the aim of crafting policy solutions to national problems.”

“What eventually replaced it, in the form of the Labour Employer Economic Forum, is more about meeting the obligations under the revised EU governance arrangements than genuine collaboration.”

Mr Callinan said in the early years of social partnership the 1990 Industrial Relations Act became law and this had lead to a huge reduction in strike days.

He said to an extent the apparatus of social partnership helped “to fill the void and to provide stability to the changed conditions”.

“The legislation tilted the balance towards employers but the existence of the institution of social partnership provided a measure of redress to unions and their members. The collapse of social partnership when the crisis hit removed this balance.”

“I am not saying social partnership was a panacea – I have been critical of its deficits and the missed opportunities on the union side – but I think that this point about the delicate balance that prevailed for almost 20 years is an important one from the point of view of plotting the way forward.”

Mr Callinan said unions were “starting to hear calls for the repeal of the Industrial Relations Act”.

“Little wonder then that this is the case when many employers adopt employment practices that stretch the limits of what the law permits. And some have no compunction in using their ample resources to run to the courts to impede unions and workers from invoking the right to strike in what effectively becomes a test of the respective financial position of both parties – one that no union can win.

“When the latter scenario becomes reality it is time for decisive action to restore fairness to the relationship between capital and labour.”

Devastating critique

Mr Callinan said at a recent conference that Danny McCoy, the chief executive of employers’ group Ibec, had delivered a devastating critique of Irish infrastructural capacity while making the case for genuine social dialogue.

“Albeit couched in a concern for long-term national competitiveness, he highlighted a range of failings including the decline in the standing of our universities, the exorbitant cost of childcare, the excessive commutes for so many and the absence of effective solutions to the housing crisis.”

Mr Callinan said: “I put it to you that real social dialogue just might resolve, or at least improve, these issues where government has failed.”