Trade unions must become a force for change

Michael Hall casts a critical eye over the settlement to the recent Irish Ferries dispute and takes a look at current talks towards a new Social Partnership deal in Ireland

THE 'RESOLUTION' agreed by Siptu, Irish Ferries and the Labour Relations Commission in Dublin just after Christmas was far from perfect.

In the end Irish Ferries restructuring plans, involving the displacement of its existing workforce with foreign labour, was modified after a huge display of public disapproval in Dublin. But did Spitu, Ireland's biggest trade union, push the company far enough and what are we to expect from talks towards a Partnership deal now taking place between unions, the government and employers?

The company will now proceed with its plan to outsource crews on its Irish Sea vessels. The company will "reflag" its vessels to another state, Cyprus. The firm will achieve savings of €11.5 million a year, rather than the €15 million expected under the initial outsourcing plan. And industrial peace is guaranteed for at least three years, with any issues in dispute going to binding arbitration, i.e. the deal includes a 'no strike' clause.

In return the company's new Latvian seafarers will be paid at least the Irish minimum wage - about twice what had been proposed (originally €3.60 per hour). Crews will also have more time off than initially planned. Pay and conditions of seafarers will be underpinned by a binding agreement grounded in Irish law. Existing ships officers and ratings who wish to remain with the company will have pay and conditions protected. And all personnel, on returning to work, will be treated "as if this dispute had never happened".

Going into talks with management, Siptu officials, lead by the union's president Jack O'Connor, where only too aware of heated exchanged between Spitu members and members of the smaller, conservative Seafarers' Union aboard the three Ferries, over fears of losing their redundancy money.

Mr O'Connor knew a deal had to be cut, particularly after taoiseach Bertie Ahern signaled his unwillingness to intervene. The deal was expedient - a painfully short-term solution to an immediate and long-term problem - and based on a need to resolve immediate issues of Siptu's members. However, labour displacement in Ireland continues unabated. Spitu officials in the west of Ireland are reporting that construction sub-contractors are exploiting tens of thousands foreign workers daily, with little or no concern shown by local council authorities.

Elsewhere, displacement of local workforces, in factories, farms and other markets, continues at an alarming rate.

Mr O'Connor's challenge is now imense. He was the only union leader to make it clear he would not enter Partnership talks on pay and conditions only if the issue of labour displacemet was dealt with separately. After meeting with Mr Ahern at the beginning of January, at which assurances where given, he approached his executive committee and a decision to enter talks was subsequently taken.

That decision was ratified at the union's special delegate conference. It effectvely mandated the Irish Congress of Trade unions to negotiate a successor deal to Social Progress. The ICTU officially accepted talks on 1 February. Within the next five weeks, we shall see what exactly Mr Ahern's assurances amount to and whether the Siptu leader was correctin his decision. Mr O'Connor, an astute but cautious figure, may now determine whether trade unions in Ireland can effectively harness public anger against current trends of exploitation and grow in strength, or whether they will be dragged down into further public irrelevance by another Partnership deal which fails to tackle substantive issues of economic justice.

A view that Partnership lacks the necessary dimension to tackle fundamental problems facing worker's representatives was forcible artulated recently by Mick O'Reilly, regional secretary of the ATGWU. Last month he told an audience of Labour Youth members in Dublin that it did not operate according to a principle of redistribution or act as an effective mechanism against neo-liberal reforms. Calling the process a "rotten fish," Mr O'Reilly said:

"It is about pretending that they are doing something. I know because I have been at the farce. They do not talk about the redistribution of wealth or laws dealing with workers and trade union members. We do not deal with any of those things. You can't change neo-liberal politics, the distribution of wealth, looking after issues of poverty and stopping privatisation by negotiating like this.

"There has been a huge transfer of wealth to capital during this boom period in Ireland. Usually in a boom labour is able to exert power through its trade unions to get a higher percentage. But under the agreements it has gone the other way."

If Partnership cannot be reformed to look after people's interests, then the alternative is roots and branch reform of the union movement, initiating a process of empowering its trade unionists and ordinary workers, he said.

"The unions do not use their power. We will get an agreement of course and guess who will benefit most from it politically? Fianna Fail. Sadly, leaders of the trade union movement share the same lack of ambition and belief as the leaders of the Labour Party."

He continued:

"But trade unions are independent organisations there to protectworkers' interests or they are nothing. If you go back and look at speeches by the leaders of the ICTU over the years they will say we 'have to have an agreement or there will be chaos. Just think about that for a moment'.

"That is a smear on the ordinary trade union members, every shop steward in this country, because what they are really saying is that the trade union members will wreck the place. We have to start organising workers again and build self-sustaining organisations. What I mean by self-sustaining is stop spoon feeding shop stewards, start empowering them with education and resources. When the trade union movement moves from the bottom up, it is an immensely powerful force for change."

Social Partnership, the process where employers, unions and government have sat down for the past18 years to avoid industrial unrest- is now on trial. Can it be reconstituted to accommodate industrial democracy and deal with vital issues likeprivatisation, labour displacement and falling social spending?

And will the leader of the biggest union in Ireland shake up Mr Begg and his colleagues in the ICTU safezone by going his own way if it cannot? Will he have the social vision to walk away from talks if government guarantees fail to live up to people's expectations?

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2006-02-14 13:25:09.
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