Bedding down with strange bedfellows

The banner of P2000 may be ripped and soiled from ever more breaches, welcome and unwelcome, but the machinery beneath it rolls relentlessly along, particularly the indoctrination of shop stewards and members into workplace partnership.

Our own Union's plans for shop stewards seminars (see Fightback No. 6) seem to have been put on ice, due perhaps to the less than full houses for the officials' seminars (bless them). Or maybe the seminar market was just saturated.

Peter Cassels gave as a reason for declining a Labour Party nomination for Europe that he was too involved at present consolidating partnership at national and local level. Bertie Ahern spoke on 25th June, on his way into an IBEC do, of the work of 'bedding-down' partnership (that means workplace partnership) and of strengthening the Four Pillars of Partnership. There's poetry as well as statistics in the new literature of partnership.

Speaking of which, John O'Dowd, former general secretary of the CPSU and now a director of the National Centre for Partnership, has just published a new book, 'Employee Partnership in Ireland: A Guide for Managers." The partnership approach must be extended form the top level down, it says.

On June 9th, the National Centre organised a Half-Day Seminar on 'Partnership at Enterprise Level' for a host of managers, shop stewards, union officials, IBEC officials and other industrial relations professionals. Many of the delegations comprised managers and stewards from the same firm.

The agenda included addresses from IBEC and IPC officials, a filmed interview by Tim Hastings (of the Indo) of John Dunne (IBEC) and Peter Cassels, a video featuring Burnside Engineering ('Adapting to Change'). Horror stories to our usual address please), and a panel discussion (IBEC, ICTU and our own Jack O'Connor, Regional Secretary). Then lunch.

The method of invitation seems to have been a bit selective. Some people are asking why they weren't asked when others in the same area or position were.

To scan the list of our partners present is enough to sink this sham. The Human Resources head of CIE (partner of the locomotive drivers); some hospital managers (partners of the nurses and the picketing craftworkers); RTE's Head of Employee Relations (partner to 270 redundant workers); HR Manager, Tara Mines (where large cuts were recently forced through under threat of closures, proposed by a partnership committee); Works Manager, Tinsley Wire (don't get us started);

The Financial Director of the Law Society of Ireland (they'd never make us a partner); HR Development Rep, Intel Ireland (no, it's on the list, just above two SIPTU lay officers and a SIPTU official and two MSF officials - one of the SIPTU officer's factory has just closed!); HR Director, Wellman International (Wellman, Wellman ... that rings a bell, man); Industrial Relations manager, Construction Industry Federation (nobody from BATU though).

It's the turn of Congress to host a Briefing Session on 'Partnership in the Workplace' in Dublin on 8th July, one of a series of regional sessions. IBEC have another go to address the assembly, plus two ICTU addresses and a case study, presented jointly by the ESB and the TEEU (those happy partners at state companies, local authorities and health boards).

The ICTU flyer says of the case study of the local agreement in the Poolbeg Generating Station: "This workplace had traditionally been considered a classic adversarial workplace." Read: if we can tame these beasts we can pacify any workplace.

Shop stewards and committee representatives opposed to partnership should take these events as opportunities to put forward an alternative, realistic view. Many good shop stewards are going along to these seminars as a day out and a free lunch.

Many are concluding local partnership deals as the only way to get a few bob over the P2000 pittance, without fussing about common-interest ideology. Nevertheless, the 'social partners' aren't organising these 'free lunches' for the good of their health and a "debate both within the trade unions and in this case with IBEC about the methods and limits of workplace partnership" (ICTU circular for 8th July) would not go astray.

Bertie Ahern's 'bedding-down' remark was a particularly perceptive term for the project, now intensifying, of planting workplace partnership: compacting-in the soil at ground level. This solidifying has a double purpose. To secure roots for the national programmes above, in the stony and shifting soil of the workplace, where partnership is daily unfrocked by the actions of employers.

To compress into the life of the workplace, into shop stewards and members, the seeds of consensus grown over a decade in the national canopy above, to lubricate change and to germinate there even if the National Programmes above should come toppling down in April 2000 or even before.

And here is the permanent significance of workplace partnership for the soul of the trade union movement. Beware, these people are determined to keep on pushing 'partnership' even if a fifth national programme is defeated or fails to materialise. Us people will be sown into local partnership agreements and mindsets to take us beyond the life and limits of the national deals.

The irony of all this talk of workplace fora and structure, of 'full involvement locally' is that 'partnership at enterprise level' is within a national framework., is legislated for in Chapter 9 of P2000, and directed from the top down. Real engagement at the workplace, real responsibility for stewards is called 'free collective bargaining'.

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