Making our unions 'employer friendly'

The ICTU's Partnership Guidelines

The ICTU has produced a booklet called 'Partnership in the Workplace - Guidelines for Unions'. The production was funded, not by the unions, but by the ADAPT Community Initiative of the European Social Fund.

The booklet looks very good, with easy to read sections and clear definitions of concepts and requirements, and recommendations for achieving Union objectives. While the reader might be forgiven at times for thinking the booklet had been produced by IBEC, in terms of the language used and the agenda it describes. Perhaps that is the fault of this reader, who couldn't help relating some of the Guidelines to actual events in workplaces around the country. After all, one of the terms of Partnership 2000 was joint training of union and employer representatives, so why wouldn't they start to sound alike?

On the first page, we find a definition of partnership as the ICTU sees it. The question What constitutes partnership? is answered:

"The following characterises a partnership approach;

Even dyed-in-the-wool opponents of social partnership might agree with some of these characteristics, which, if implemented in a genuine way, could improve conditions for workers. The problem is that unlike real partnership, this is a very one-sided arrangement. Where is the management's acceptance of change?

How do we reconcile the concept of worker involvement in decision making with the situation in TEAM-Aer Lingus, for example, where workers are faced with the threat of privatisation of the company and where union activities have had to be carried on in an atmosphere of vicious management hostility? What about the major employers, like INTEL, who simply refuse to recognise union representation for their employees?

All right, so we don't live in an ideal world and ICTU has to work at achieving better conditions for us in the future. The question is how do they propose to go about this work? The Guidelines for Unions set out the plan of action for individual companies and unions:

The key recommendation for union action is the establishment of the partnership process in a majority of the workplaces in which there is union representation, in keeping with the principles of Managing Change, Congress's 1996 document on how unions can make themselves more 'employer friendly'. It is expected that this process will take about three years.

Even if the discussions and institutionalising of the arrangements were to be entirely successful, and experience has shown this to be unlikely, the negotiations to set up partnership structures would be so time-consuming there would be no time, or energy, left over for discussion of issues like attacks on pay and conditions, to say nothing of dealing with the sort of situation facing the workers of the Avonmore/Waterford Group at the moment.

Topics for discussion at management/union level are suggested, following recommendations made in Partnership 2000, on appropriate issues. These are outlined in the form of a Suggested Agenda, which is lined up with a list of Possible Outcomes. The first section concerns Employee involvement for competitiveness:

Suggested Agenda - Possible Outcomes - Information disclosure to all employees - Staff Briefings - Information to Union reps

Participative Training for Reps - Consultation arrangements

Joint Problem Solving Taskforces - Structures for representative participation - Enterprise Council - Autonomous team working

Self Directed Team Working

I am sure not all of ICTU's (and the Union's) efforts in the future will be focused on setting up these arrangements, or I hope they won't. Apart from the point made above that too many managements are attempting to implement changes which undermine worker's rights while others are attacking them outright, most of the issues referred to in the Guidelines are time-bombs in themselves.

Take the heading Training, Personal Development and Support - which covers the P2000 recommendation on enhancing competence, flexibility and innovation through skills development, professional training and assistance. This surely contains an internal contradiction, with the emphasis on the benefit to the enterprise, suggesting that if the worker benefits, well and good, but it is not the priority.

Other issues are dealt with in the same way - including such vital areas as equality of opportunities; representational arrangements; financial involvement; occupational health and safety and work environment; composition of the workforce; co-operation with change including new forms of work organisation; problem solving and conflict avoidance (ICTU are particularly good at the latter); and adaptability, flexibility and innovation.

To be fair to the ICTU authors of this document, some of the Suggested Agendas do recognise current problems for workers, such as the failure to provide facilities for union involvement or the need to provide improved packages for so-called 'atypical' workers, but they are all based on 'reasonable' discussion of the issues which does not take into account the reluctance of our 'social partners' to relinquish any of their power.

The ICTU document Partnership in the Workplace, Guidelines for Unions is a very frightening document for any worker because it underlines how far the ICTU has moved from any appreciation of the real situation in many workplaces. The impetus of this effort is focused entirely on the alignment of union interests within the framework of partnership with management and government, without recognition of the fact that their agendas are based on the achievement of profit and the protection of power for a small minority.

The ICTU's role in many recent disputes has been highly questionable and they have been so eager to ally themselves with the forces of business and wealth in this country that they are in danger of doing IBEC's job for them.

Perhaps they should be reminded of the story of the frog who agreed to take a scorpion on his back across a river, after the scorpion had faithfully promised not to sting him (partnership in action). They were almost at the far bank of the river when the scorpion raised his tail and stung the frog. "What did you do that for?", asked the frog, with his dying breath, "now we'll both go down". "I couldn't help it," said the scorpion, "it's just my nature".

Mary Muldowney

Correspondence to SIPTU Fightback, 22 Melrose Avenue, Dublin 3

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