What they said then… The private sector and social partnership April 28, 2011Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Irish Politics, The Left.
For some time, given the now almost monolithic consensus on the economic right that social partnership was a bad thing (and this is distinct entirely from the critiques from parts of the left), I’ve been intrigued as to what was said at the time.
My memory was hazy, but I thought that generally there was a different consensus during the period of the mid to late 1990s and early to mid 2000s that social partnership was a positive for the economy, a consensus that was shared by most, if not all.
Apologies, some of the links below are behind pay walls. Still, the quotes will give a flavour of the times…
In 1996 IBEC released a report entitled Social Policy in a Competitive Economy which accepted fully the broad parameters of social partnership. As Padraig Yeates wrote in the Irish Times at the time:
SOCIAL Policy in a Competitive Economy is the most political document ever produced by the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation. After decades of unsuccessfully trying to stem the tide of social legislation in Ireland, employers are saying, that they are prepared to embrace the “social market”.
If they cannot beat the powerful array of interest groups that have made issues like equality, social exclusion and unemployment central to Government policy, then the employers intend joining it; in the hope that by doing so they will have a more effective say in how those issues are addressed in the future than they have ever had in the past.
In fairness to IBEC, which was only founded in 1990 out of an amalgamation of the old Federation of Irish Employers and the Confederation of Irish Industry, it has been showing an increased awareness of social issues in recent years – especially through its contributions to the National Economic and Social Forum. NESF, which was expected to be little more than a talking shop, has helped nurture the practice, as well as the theory, of social partnership.
In 1997 Partnership 2000 was introduced.
There’s no direct quotes that I can find from ICTU or IBEC on the matter, but plenty of indications that it was accepted from the time the social partners agreed it in November 1996. Indeed as Mark Brennock noted as early as April 1997 the Government was quick to ‘implement’ non-pay elements on foot of a meeting with both ICTU and IBEC.
From March 2000 and the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness . Padraig Yeates noted:
The Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation has accepted the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. The new agreement was accepted without being put to a vote yesterday afternoon, after business leaders heard the outcome of the ICTU special delegate conference.
Even the Progressive Democrats were in on the act.
Meanwhile the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, and the Tanaiste, Ms Harney, have welcomed acceptance. Mr Ahern said it would allow further progress on a wide spectrum of issues. Ms Harney said our success must not induce complacency over the many new challenges to be addressed “in the context of partnership”.
And what of IBEC’s feelings on the matter?
Yesterday’s meeting of IBEC’s general council was not open to the media but it is understood that some representatives of labour-intensive sectors expressed concern about their ability to absorb costs.
IBEC’s director-general, Mr John Dunne, said later that the PPF held out “the promise for all of us that we can plan into the medium term, as individual businesses and as an economy”. Clearly, he said, “if we are to benefit from this `certainty’ it is of paramount importance that the terms of the new agreement be fully adhered to in both the public and private sectors.
“Ultimately, increases in living standards are only sustainable through increases in productivity. The new agreement clearly recognises this reality.”
And the Small Firms Association?
The Small Firms’ Association, which is affiliated to IBEC, has also accepted the PPF. Its chairman, Mr Kieran Crowley, said the decision was “the right choice for everybody”. Irish business and workers could move forward and face the challenge together.
Indeed in this love-fest there was only one dissenting voice:
However, the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises’ Association said “the universal championing of consensus and the political drift towards the centre are stifling individualism and innovation”.
Sustaining Progress was introduced in 2003. What was the consensus about it and social partnership in general? John Downes wrote in the Irish Times in 2003 that:
The Irish Business and Employers Confederation also believes that partnership has generally been good for the economy, although it does have concerns.
“Social partnership has served the country well,” says Mr Brendan McGinty, director of human resources with the organisation.
“It has provided a road map as to how the economy should be managed through a consensual approach. From a business point of view, it has worked well on balance. But a central issue is competitiveness, so that policies don’t undermine jobs.”
Now, none of this is to pretend that IBEC wasn’t critical of aspects of the agreements. For example in the early 2000s they were strongly critical of bench-marking.
For instance in relation to Sustaining Progress consider this:
IBEC, the employers’ body, also ratified the deal by a “majority vote” – it declined to give a breakdown – at a meeting of its national council, following consultations with members throughout the State.
It said members had become disillusioned with the previous partnership deal, the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, and that Sustaining Progress offered “a new beginning”.
But the same is true of ICTU in relation to an array of issues during the same period too. At their vote on the agreement the following occurred:
Union delegates voted by 195 votes to 147 to endorse the agreement, Sustaining Progress, at a special conference of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in Dublin.
The result was closer than expected because about 35 delegates mandated to vote “yes” had, apparently, left the meeting before the show-of-hands vote was taken.
In other words both elements of this supposed partnership had their own difficulties with it, both conceptually and in practice – and reading that particular report it would seem the unions were much much less entranced with the process than employers.
That they overcame these difficulties or marginalised dissent is a different – and intriguing – issue.
This is, of course, a superficial scan. There’s much more to be done, as for instance examining the press releases from IBEC, SFA and the prodigal son of the employers – ISME.
But the current rhetoric would make one think that the private sector were near unwilling participants in a process which they saw as uniquely flawed when the truth was, if one takes public statements as indicative, if anything quite the opposite.
They might have been critical of aspects of it, but engage they did and time after time.