Paper sets scene for trade union debate on partnership

Failure to reach agreement on a new centralised pay agreement should not mean a "return to the trenches", according to a paper drawn up by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and presented to delegates at its two-yearly conference in July 1999. Entitled Challenges facing unions and Irish society in the new millennium, it calls on the unions themselves to give "courageous leadership" and to challenge some of their own "traditional attitudes and stereotypes."

A new paper from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), which maps out "new ways" for trade unions to deal with challenges posed by the new millennium, suggests that even if the social partners fail to agree a centralised agreement to replace the current three-year Partnership 2000 (P2000) national agreement (IE9702103F), "partnership" remains a viable alternative to adversarialism. The paper, entitled Challenges facing unions and Irish society in the new millennium, was unveiled at the ICTU's two-yearly conference which took place in Killarney on 6-8 July 1999 (IE9907285N).

In suggesting that it may be difficult to reach a centralised pay agreement to succeed P2000, the paper says that this should not mean the end the partnership process per se. Failure to agree such a pay deal, the paper says, "should not cause us to forget what we have learned together over more than a decade of problem solving ... it would be unwise to return to the trenches ... The benefits of the process remain - not just for workers and unions, but also for the economy and for society."

The question of what the alternative approaches to the partnership process are is directly posed in the ICTU document, which says that it is possible to go back to resolving conflicts "though the use of raw power and muscle". Both sides retain the capacity "to hurt each other". The paper notes that, ironically, this does not apply to employers who are anti-union but only to those who negotiate with the trade unions. "If we opt for a return to confrontation, we are accepting that muscle is more effective than reason. This would be a step backwards at a time when brains have replaced brawn as the most important competitive factor in the global economy."

Power-sharing

The paper says that "returning to the trenches" would be a mistake for two reasons: "Firstly, it will mean that the process that gave us unprecedented growth will cease with a high risk that the economy and society will suffer. In this scenario, the people we represent would also suffer. Secondly, the objective of sharing real power and influence with employers and owners will be more difficult to achieve. By real power we mean workers becoming stakeholders in their organisations. Even successful battles based on confrontation leave workers without any power when it comes to the really important decisions about their company eg decisions on profit allocation, closure, employment, expansion, investment, training etc."

The paper argues that a new process of partnership is more likely to lead to actual power-sharing than the old pattern of confrontation and conflict. It suggests that if political parties with conflicting ideologies can share power to mutual advantage and to the advantage of society, surely unions and employers can share power to the advantage of both. This is not seen as a "soft option", but as a "more radical form of union activity".

Courageous leadership is called for to challenge traditional attitudes and stereotypes, "particularly when some of these exist on 'our own side'". However, the paper also says that a strong trade union makes a more effective social partner than a weak one. "A strong open hand is more effective than a weak clenched fist," it concludes.

New ways

It is argued in the paper that new terminology is required because some of the language used by trade unions is dated and "means little or nothing to many modern workers". For example, asks the document, outside a small circle what does the term "shop steward" convey? Use of the term "local rep" is advised instead. Furthermore, use of the adjective "trade" before the word "union" is also seen as being past its "sell-by date": "With the greatest of respect to the trades, less than 10% of the unions affiliated to Congress retain the word trade in their title. Most of the unions representing people with trades do not consider it necessary to include the 'trade' word. Why then do we feel the need to include this adjective every time we use the word union."

While trade union meetings are seen as an indispensable part of union procedure, the paper asks if they have do be "so frequent and so boring". Various suggestions are made, such as allowing debates or inviting "outside" speakers. Conferences are also criticised as tedious, involving a small minority of speakers, turning the rest into "passive observers". The paper wonders whether it would be better to circulate two or concise discussion documents and make use of parallel discussion groups and workshops in order to facilitate participation by a greater number of delegates.

Commentary

The ICTU paper essentially maps out a future in which partnership between employers and trade unions at enterprise level would mirror the current national-level partnership process. While it insists that the process could survive without a centralised pay agreement, most commentators would agree that national pay deals are the "glue" which has underpinned all of the three-year national programmes negotiated since the current process commenced in 1987.

The paper reflects the reality in most workplaces that employees have taken on board the imperative of sustaining and enhancing competitiveness in the face of unprecedented global competition. To some extent, a shared identity of interests at national level between the social partners has been reflected at local level between management and employee representatives. There are exceptions to this, particularly in the public service, where traditional industrial relations hold sway due to the fact that there are few external pressures acting to force change.

The experience of the trade union leadership over the past 12 years has served to convince a majority of them that partnership pays dividends in terms of obtaining a considerable degree of influence over key policy issues such as taxation, welfare and spending priorities within a market economy. Phenomenal economic and job growth continues, real incomes continue to rise and the tax burden on ordinary taxpayers diminishes - all in an era of low inflation and low interest rates.

Finally, a new national agreement is likely when P2000 expires in 2000, despite the seeming pessimism expressed in the ICTU paper in this regard. (Brian Sheehan, IRN)

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