David Begg: Luas dispute could be resolved using old methods
We should dust down the Employer-Labour Conference to deal with current situation
Sixth-class pupils on the Luas. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw
People who depend on public transport are unlikely to be in a reflective mood about the current Luas dispute and the historical parallels with events leading up to the 1916 Rising.
Nevertheless, it is an interesting coincidence that the Citizen Army which charged the GPO under James Connolly, had its origin in the 1913 Lockout which was precipitated by a strike in the Dublin Tramway Company commenced in August of that year.
It is to be celebrated that 100 years later we enjoy the freedom to withdraw our labour without fear of the awesome consequences visited upon the men and women of the period we are commemorating.
But the leaders of the Labour movement - especially Connolly and Larkin - only ever saw strikes as a means to an end, not an end in itself.
Modern European democracies equip themselves with sophisticated institutions to facilitate distributional settlements which blend the greatest degree of social justice with the requirement for the economy to function effectively.
We have some deficits in Ireland in that respect.
Nearly ten years of recession, and before that twenty two years of social partnership, have dulled our collective memory of how intractable industrial disputes can become.
Who now remembers the postal strike of 1979 which went on for nineteen weeks?
The problem is that they only get to intervene in crisis situations. Particular industrial disputes are apt to be compounded by acute mistrust between the sides before they get near the Workplace Commission.
Moreover, as we also know, the various Trotskyist factions are making themselves available to every situation of social conflict in order to make things worse, in pursuit of their goal of revolution. For these people, a strike is an end in itself.
In the Netherlands there are two key institutions for managing distributional issues, The Social and Economic Council (SER) and the Labour Foundation (STAR).
The former is the Dutch equivalent of our NESC but we have nothing to match the latter.
The Dutch Labour Foundation is the forum in which employers and unions agree broad approaches to issues relating to the labour market.
In the 1970s and 1980s we did have a similar institution called the Employer-Labour Conference until it was subsumed into social partnership.
My suggestion is that this body should be reinstated to try to create some understanding and agreement on current and pending labour market issues.
Apart from industrial disputes, there are many issues which employers and unions need to discuss such as: Pensions, Industrial Policy, Brexit and ultimately transition to a low carbon economy.
Let me be clear, I do not see the recreation of the Employer Labour Conference as the ultimate solution to all our problems.
In my view, social partnership should not have been allowed to dissolve. It was a unique forum for reconciling the claims of a wide variety of competing interests in society.
It facilitated the kind of distributional settlement that allowed governments freedom to get on with running the economy.
It is unlikely, for example, that the extraordinary tensions associated with water charges would have got to the state they have under social partnership.
For countries such as Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands, social partnership is central. My own view is that there is no other way to run a small open economy and that will become ever more the case in the event of deepening European integration.
If there is one clear lesson from the 2008 financial crisis, it is that a monetary union cannot function effectively without a banking and fiscal union as well.
This implies deeper Eurozone integration and more economic coordination. Coordination of wage bargaining will only be possible in the context of social policies which deal with peoples’ needs for housing, health care, education and the public goods that underpin a threshold of decent living in society.
However, it is clear that Irish politics is not yet in a position to delve into these questions. So let’s park the question of social partnership for the time being.
It makes sense in the interim to reach back beyond the partnership era and dust down the Employer-Labour Conference, an effective, if limited, institution which could do the country some service again.
David Begg is a former General Secretary of ICTU and author of a recent book on European Integration and its effect on small open economies.