Employers lay down markers ahead of any new deal

In March 2002, the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) strongly criticised trade union behaviour during the term of Ireland's current national agreement, the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness (PPF), an indication that the negotiation of a new deal between the social partners will be more difficult when the PPF expires at the end of 2002.

A confidential report commissioned by the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) indicates that Irish employers are determined not to repeat what they regard as the failures of the current national agreement, the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness (PPF) (IE0003149F) when it expires at the end of 2002, according to the independent publication, Industrial Relations News (IRN). However, the report also shows that a majority of IBEC members would still like to see the concept of partnership continue, subject to improvements. Only a minority favour a full return to local-level pay negotiations.

IBEC's director general, Turlough O'Sullivan, in a briefing with journalists on 27 March 2002, described the PPF as 'a woeful experience for employers'. Member companies would contemplate another agreement only if low single-figure pay increases in line with trends in other EU countries could be agreed.

Feedback from IBEC members formed the backdrop to the confidential report, which noted that the 'general view' of employers was one of disappointment with the experience of the PPF. There was a feeling that, in retrospect, the pay increases (15% over 33 months, revised upwards by 3% in December 2000 - IE0012161F) were too high, and that trade unions hindered 'normal, ongoing change'.

With regard to current industrial relations procedures, many IBEC members believe that trade unions reject the recommendations of the Labour Relations Commission and the Labour Court if their particular case is not supported. They also believe that the industrial relations model should have a definite end, 'such as an enforceable arbitration on matters concerning application of interpretation of the national agreements'.

Some multinational companies operating in Ireland found the level of increase associated with the PPF difficult to justify to their parent organisations, the report observes. There was also 'an absolute rejection of any movement on the issue of trade union recognition [IE0201260F] should it be raised.'

The confidential report observes that in non-union firms, 'there is almost universal acceptance of the need to respond rapidly and flexibly to changes in the business environment and cooperation with change'. Non-union companies are also likely to approach any new national agreement 'as they have done in past by seeing the terms as a guide and doing what they feel is appropriate in their circumstances'.

Suggesting that IBEC keep an 'open mind' on the issue of national pay bargaining, the report concludes that unless trade unions commit themselves to adhering to the terms of any new agreement, 'it is difficult to see what benefits would accrue to business and employers from more of the same.'

IBEC has already decided to run internal courses in negotiating skills for managers and says that experienced IBEC negotiators are ready to act on behalf of members. However, under Ireland's largely voluntarist system of industrial relations, neither IBEC nor the government can impose pay discipline on private sector companies.

Meanwhile, Jack O'Connor, vice-president of the country's largest union, the Services Industrial and Professional Trade Union (SIPTU), suggested that employers should reflect on the successes of 15 years of social partnership before 'leaping into the abyss'.

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