24 November 2005 Edition

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Trade Union leaders debate at Sinn Féin conference

Left to right: Mick O'Reilly, Daithí Dollan and Jack O'Connor

Left to right: Mick O'Reilly, Daithí Dollan and Jack O'Connor

Social Partnership - Is another model possible?

A key Sinn Féin conference on the issue of Social Partnership was addressed by leading trade unionists last Saturday in Dublin.

The conference was opened by the party's Workers' Rights spokesperson Arthur Morgan TD, who said this was a crucial period for trade unions and those concerned with upholding workers' rights. "We need to stand together and oppose the actions of employers such as those at Irish Ferries and Doyle Concrete. We also need to strongly oppose the direction of the Fianna Fáil/PD Coalition Government."

Morgan called for an urgent fightback against exploitation and for the advancement of workers' rights. "Labour affairs are at a crossroads with workers' rights in this state under greater threat now than they have been for a generation. There are those who want to bring us further down the road of outsourcing and social dumping. Nearly 20 years into the Social Partnership process it's future is increasingly uncertain with serious questions being raised about it's value."

The conference featured a debate on Social Partnership between SIPTU President Jack O'Connor and Mick O'Reilly of the ATGWU. The debate was chaired by Sinn Féin Dublin City Councillor Daithí Doolan.

Jack O'Connor pointed out that it was the first time he was asked to address a Sinn Féin meeting and that he was very glad to be there. He took the opportunity to convey to Sinn Féin on behalf of National Executive Council of SIPTU "our compliments to the Republican Movement on the decisions that have recently been taken in relation to the arms question". He also acknowledged "the support of Sinn Féin activists in a number of fairly significant campaigns over the last few years".

During the course of his remarks O'Connor said the conference was taking place against a background of the most sustained assault on gains made by working people and the opening of the borders to migrant workers from EU accession countries which he said was the result of a policy designed to cheapen labour costs.

O'Connor slammed the proposed services directive which he said would effectively legitimise what the notorious GAMMA company had been recently doing in Ireland.

In relation to the Social Partnership process O'Connor pointed out that it had been characterised by "the most significant enhancement of the living standards of working people in the history of the state. The current Agreement, Sustaining Progress, had delivered a minimum of 13.5% increase in pay as against an inflation rate of 7%." This compared favourably to statistics from Britain where there was a strong Trade Union Movement but no social partnership process. O'Connor said these realities could not be ignored. However, substantial sections of the Irish labour force are losing out in pay terms. This, he said, was due to the availability of cheap labour to the Irish business class: "What we have is an effective rollover where workers on agreed conditions of employment who are covered by national norms are being displaced by vulnerable workers from Eastern Europe and elsewhere."

The key issues according to O'Connor were exploitation, displacement and protection of employment standards. He also said that if we do not build strong Trade Union Movement everything would be taken away.

Concluding, he said : "The issue is whether or not we are prepared to adopt to the reality that we have to organise workers in this country." He did not believe that "we should pass up on the opportunity to bring to bear the pressure of 600,000 trade union members in one negotiation on our government which is faced with an election in only one-and-a half years."

Mick O'Reilly said the issue for those on the Left is one of independence. The choice was whether we confront neo-liberalism head-on with a different set of strategies or whether to hitch a ride and try to ameliorate some of its worst excesses. This was something faced the Left across Europe, O'Reilly said, adding that the strategies on the Left in Ireland down through the years have been to enter coalitions and to prop up right-wing governments. Those strategies had failed.

O'Reilly pointed out that it was under Social Partnership that the policies now being fought by trade unionists had come about. The dominant policy of most parties in the Dáil was a low tax, low spend and a low level of services: "The Irish Trade Union Movement had supported a tax cutting strategy. No Trade Union Movement in the world has ever done that." Under Partnership the Trade Union Movement had restrained workers but did not restrain anyone else. Although workers did not have free collective bargaining it did not stop the employers making claims for longer hours, different shifts and better ways to make money for themselves.

A return to free collective bargaining would free up the Trade Union Movement as a campaigning organisation and to work with parties of the Left. "The debate is not really about whether we should have social partnership but about who we should have Social Partnership with. Propping up right-wing governments has not producing anything for us."

He criticised Pat Rabbitte and the Labour Party for once again giving life to an ailing Fine Gael and said trade union leaders should provide space for people in Sinn Féin, Independents and Labour to talk about what a Left programme might be like.

The debate was followed a by a Q&A session where Sinn Féin activists raised questions regarding the current state of the Trade Union Movement.

Wexford Sinn Féin Councillor and trade unionist John Dwyer kicked off the second part of the conference by introducing a discussion document which questioned whether is was possible to develop alternative model of Social Partnership that is consciously constructed to help deliver Sinn Féin's social vision based on the creation of an Ireland of Equals. The discussion was lively and wide ranging with many people contributing.

Sinn Féin General Secretary Mitchel McLoughlin closed the conference.

Speaking afterwards Arthur Morgan TD said: "Sinn Féin activists from across Ireland come together here to discuss the Social Partnership process. Today's discussion is not about whether or not Sinn Féin accepts the current model of Social Partnership. Our criticisms of the current model are unambiguous. We believe that the current process is not in the interest of workers and it was not designed to deliver for the disadvantaged and the low paid.

"Today's discussion was about whether another model of Social Partnership is possible. It is about asking how should Sinn Féin approach this issue if in government. Would we seek to abolish Social Partnership altogether or retain it in an altered form? Is it possible to develop a new Social Partnership underpinned by a different ideology and driven by a different social vision. And critically how can a genuine process involving trade unions, employers and the community and voluntary sector can be used to further a vision based on the redistribution of wealth?"

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