SIPTU welcomes new pact, but others have reservations


SIPTU sees the Partnership 2 900 deal as the best way of maximising the benefits of economic growth for its 200,000 members, especially those in low paid, private sector jobs.

That is why the national executive of the State's largest union is recommending acceptance of the terms when they go out to ballot on January 6th.

For some negotiators in the "social pillar", such as Father Sean Healy SMA of the Conference of Religious of Ireland (CORI), they represent a missed opportunity to eliminate poverty and unemployment.

For the general secretary of the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed (INOU), Mr Mike Allen, the terms were so poor that his executive were recommending rejection until the Government agreed at the last minute to bring welfare payments into line with recommended minimum levels.

SIPTU's stance is, of course, pivotal to the whole process. It has 40 per cent of the State's trade unionists and, where they lead, others must follow. But the union is not presenting P2000 as a giveaway.

It says it will mobilise shop stewards and other union activists to maximise benefits in the workplace through profit and gain sharing schemes, as well as local pay bargaining. However, it can feel reasonably satisfied at winning tax relief for workers affected by sickness and seasonal lay offs, as well as improvements in negotiating structures that should ensure that low paid workers get their full entitlements.

SIPTU leaders can claim some of the credit for ensuring public service pay will keep pace with the private sector during P2000. Their biggest reservation about the new deal will be on union recognition. There is to be a high level review group on this thorny issue, which will be monitoring it closely.

The feeling in SIPTU, and the trade union movement generally is that if the British Labour Party leader, Mr Tony Blair, wins the next election and honours promises to rescind anti trade union legislation, then opposition from some state agencies and employer bodies to greater safeguards for unions here will wilt.

For its part, the Irish Business and Employers' Confederation has welcomed P2000 in comparatively effusive terms. But the director general of the Construction Industry Federation, Mr Liam Kelleher, is more cautious.

He says investment can only take place if the Government keeps on track for EMU. While he accepts that workers' expectations have risen, he also says that civil engineering remains sluggish and that other sectors only began to improve in 1994.

The director general of ICOS, Mr John Tyrrell, says that the Government must show more discipline in controlling expenditure than in the past.

Privately, many trade union, business and Government leaders believe that groups like CORI and, the INOU were unrealistically ambitious in their expectations from, the talks. It was their first involvement in negotiations on a national agreement, and there was a feeling that they should be happy with the £525 million made available to promote social inclusion.

However, Father Healy's concern that P2000 is a missed opportunity reflects a widespread feeling in the voluntary and community sectors. He believes unemployed people and large numbers of low paid workers will not benefit much from the record growth levels.

He estimates that a couple living on long term unemployment will see a net increase of £13.20p a week during the life of the agreement. Someone on a salary of £20,000 a year will receive an extra £50 a week.

"People with jobs benefit from tax cuts, from pay rises and from increments on their salaries," Father Healy says. "Unemployed people only benefit from their social welfare increases, which are negligible in this programme.

The new programme contains no initiatives "on the scale required if unemployment is to be radically reduced", he says, despite proposals at the talks from groups like CORI.

While Father Healy welcomes the development of the social partnership process to include the d'voluntary and community sectors, he says it is still unacceptable to have a situation where "only the crumbs which fell from the table of the powerful were available for distribution among those who are poor, unemployed or excluded".

Yet two of the largest organisations in the social pillar have been satisfied with commitments in their own areas. These are the National Women's Council of Ireland and the National Youth Council of Ireland.

The chairwoman of the NWCI, Ms Noreen Byrne, has described the involvement of women's organisations in the negotiations as a breakthrough "for every woman in the country". She expresses particular support for the commitments to develop a national childcare framework and to remove barriers to women signing on the live register.

The president of the NYCI, Ms Jillian Hassett, has welcomed the new emphasis on the needs of young people, including young unemployed members of the labour force. Like the NWCI, the youth council will have representation on the review body that will monitor progress towards the objectives contained in P2000.

Extra resources to tackle drug abuse and to help early school leavers, through expanding schemes like Youth Reach and VTOS (second chance education), have been particularly welcomed by Ms Hassett.

With so many positive aspects' to the agreement, it is surprising that the Government did not make more of its success in securing it. The biggest threat to such programmes is that they will be taken for granted.