The result - a drop in the SIPTU 'no' vote from 43% against the P2000 to 31% against the PPF - can only be described as disappointing, and especially so when there were several factors making for a rejection or close call in SIPTU and ICTU generally.
In a contest in which there was real hope in the 'no' camp that the vote against the deal would significantly increase in SIPTU and might even overturn the deal, not only did the 'no' vote decrease but, in the triumphant words of Newsline (27th March), "the majority of 69% in favour in the ballot was the largest of any of the [four] Programmes negotiated since the Union came into existence in 1990".
However, the factors making for rejection were outweighed by factors - some peculiar to this campaign - pressing for acceptance. By no reasonable judgement could it be maintained that the PPF was accepted by trade unionists on its objective merits. The battle for the PPF was fought out between forces and factors bearing down on the minds of voters, rather than the logic of voters bearing down on the PPF.There seems to be some confusion about the number of votes cast. A SIPTU Press Release (21st March) says117,157 voted (representing a 62% poll), whereas Newsline (27th March) says the total poll was 117,938 with a total valid poll of 117,419. We'll work off Newsline's figures (for the PPF vote).
In 1997 115,029 voted on P2000. [Newsline (March 27) says 114,00 voted] The number voting for the PPF was 80,989 . The number against was 36,428. Three thousand more voted in the ballot than in1997, but 15,238 more voted for the deal than in 1997 or 12,850 less voted against. [If the poll was 114,000, then 15,837 more voted for the PPF than for P2000.]
However, the core opposition to partnership deals in SIPTU remains at one third of the membership. The 'no' vote against P2000 in 1997 was in fact a step up from the PESP opposition of 37% (1991), the PCW opposition of 33% (1993) and this year's of 31%. At least that one third is still these. This core is not in the least 'at least'. On this respectable and persistent minority we stake our claim to a franchise in the Union; the right of both sides to access Union resources to put their case on the deals; a right once again denied in this vote.
This imbalance is a major factor in the results, though it is not new. This year opponents of the deal made a direct request to the union leadership and to Newsline for a level playing field. We didn't get the benefit of a reply but some of our points were met especially the dropping of the NEC's recommendation from the ballot paper.
Lets look at the field on which contest this time was played. The single biggest factor infusing the contest (and, indeed, supporting the 'no' side) was that the industrial situation this time was and is one of upturn; workers are more confident, there's the mother of all booms. P2000 was in danger of becoming an irrelevancy as workers got more and free collective bargaining blossomed from the manure of social partnership. New groups, busworkers, doctors, paramedics, teachers, were joining the queue to get more, to breach a new agreement, never mind the one already limiting them.
The Celtic Tiger may have had a paw clawing against wage restraint but it also had a more powerful one stroking the rebellious cubs. Social partnership is so valuable to the employers and the government as a means of chloroforming the unions that they endeavoured to (and because of the swollen state coffers they could) make this deal look the most attractive possible. Large tax concessions (our money back, as Charlie McCreevy would say) substituted for pay rises and the government could throw £3 billion at the deal to keep it upright (£1.5 billion in tax breaks and £1.5 million for "social inclusion').
No doubt many members getting more with little tussle felt that the 15.75% of the PPF would do nicely, thank you, on top of the 20% or whatever they'd just got! Also, many of those who had to push against P2000, nurses for instances, did not make the connection between the shackles of P2000 and the general shackles of social partnership. These disputes were accommodated, with creative use of English, within 'the parameters of partnership', or managed, as when the bus strike was deferred until after the ballot with a £15 per week bonus.
There were other crises managements. When new inflation figures traumatised the deal our Research Department, and other economists, immediately analysed them as a temporary 'blip'. When the results coming into the INTO showed the deal might go down, Joe O'Toole went to Bertie Aherne and got 1500 new teachers, conditional on acceptance. And, of course, there was the coitus interuptus after the Budget when executive action (without the National Executives of ICTU or SIPTU) pulled SIPTU out of the talks. Another 'blip': unspecific assurances brought us back in.
One journalist referred to the high profile in the media of the opponents of the PPF. He must have been thinking of Mick O'Reilly of the ATGWU, because the organised across-union campaign this time, the Campaign Against a Partnership Deal (CAPD), barely got a mention if you take out the teachers group affiliated to it. On the other hand some newspapers this time surpassed simple bias and ran a straight campaign for the PPF that jettisoned any journalistic ethics of impartiality and objectivity. Some stooped to find reds under the bed.
Politicians, even Bertie, and some trade union leaders like Peter McLoone, stepped out in front to bat for the deal; these combined with the media, and a third paw of the Tiger, to drum out the mythology of partnership: 'social partnership created the boom; end it and we're back to the "bad old days" of the 80s'.
The danger to the deal was real as a movement of the low paid and teachers arose in the unions against the PPF. But the wave that went through Mandate (90% against) the CPSU (a swing to 46% against), the TUI(55% against), the INTO (a swing to 49% against and BATU (7 to 1 against) travelled the other way in SIPTU. Ironically and much to our annoyance the wave did pass through some Branches which traditionally backed the deals (Local Authorities, Construction and Dublin Bus), while the 'SIPTU swing' reached Branches which usually reject them (Electronics and Engineering - majority of five for - and Waterford).
A factor auguring for a good 'no' vote was the stream of scandals involving our 'partners'. Another was that the campaign against the PPF was the most substantial campaign since that against the PESP. While nationally it lacked centralised coordination and (excepting Michael O'Reilly and the teachers) media assertiveness, there was this time a healthy spontaneity (e.g. the travelling Tullamore SIPTU stewards; teachers on the internet) and a leafleting coverage of workplaces that was probably wider than ever before. For the first time there was a specifically SIPTU campaign (SIPTU Members Against A Partnership Deal).
So what happened? Firstly SIPTU members are not isolated from the media. On the contrary, SIPTU leaders wisely lowered their media profile, but very wisely positioned it: Des Geraghty's page in the Sunday World was, in timing and placing, a coup. Secondly the leadership's campaign was largely within the Union and, again, low-key.
The new leadership carries a certain authority and had already done much of the 'educational' preparation for partnership. The propaganda was softened ("The Decision Is Yours") but there was quiet and efficient use of 'the machine': the work was done on the ground by the officials. They went out with the boxes in a comprehensive way and, in some cases held briefing meetings on the job. Some results show a pattern of big 'yes' votes in new inexperienced workplaces.
For several reasons we have attempted to identify, there was a particular swing in SIPTU towards the deal this time. This was topped up, especially in Branches traditionally against the deals, by the officials' energy on the ground.
However the PPF is so shaky that at times its acceptance in the ballot seems beside the point. The continued promotion (cf. Report, Spring 2000) of a deal already won, underlines this. Returning to our 1916 analogy, the turn then took several months. With the PPF the ink was still wet when the CIE workers struck with, as all saw, a direct challenge to the deal. The ASTI are no longer alone against the 'early settlers' terms. Inflation has wiped out the first phase of the PPF. House prices still soar. Legitimate questions about the figures providing 10% in tax concessions have not been answered.
So nil desperandum. The supporters of social partnership have a lot of defending to do. Union activists should now work for solidarity and official recognition for those seeking claims for their piece of the boom.