Academic journal article IBAR

Social Partnership in Ireland: A View from Below

Academic journal article IBAR

Social Partnership in Ireland: A View from Below

Article excerpt

Introduction

Since 1987, social partnership type agreements between trade unions, employers and government have been the dominant feature of collective bargaining in Ireland. Such agreements also occurred in an earlier period from 1970 to 1980 but were less comprehensive in scope and proved more unstable than present agreements (O'Brien, 1981; Hardiman, 1992). While the form of corporatist arrangements vary considerably across European countries a number of characteristic features of the model can be identified. First, the centralised agreements negotiated between the social partners goes beyond purely industrial relations matters to include broader socio-economic goals. Secondly, the agreement is a negotiated exchange between the parties. Trade unions agree to co-operate with the government and employers to restrict union members to agreed pay norms. In return, unions and employers may gain a measure of influence over public policy in areas of critical concern to their constituents, such as employment, social welfare and taxation (Maier, 1984; Roche, 1994).

According to Teague (1995), there is a widely held perception among Irish trade union officials that the centralised agreements negotiated since 1987 represent a new departure. These agreements are perceived as indicating a move towards the Swedish model of corporatism. Undoubtedly Swedish corporatism has produced many beneficial social and economic outcomes. However, it also had a number of unintended consequences that were to prove problematic for labour and trade unions. Firstly, a substantial concentration of wealth towards employers, and, secondly, a rank and file revolt of union members challenging the outcomes of centralised agreements. Swedish union members were not opposed in principle to centralised bargaining but to its apparent inability to redress the unequal distribution of wealth and union weakness at plant level.

Admittedly, the comparison of the Irish case with the Swedish model may appear overstated. On a cumulative scale of corporatism, the centralised wage negotiations in Sweden could be characterised as a strong model of corporatism while similar arrangements in Ireland, up to 1984 at any rate, would register as a medium model (Lehmbruch, 1984: 66). Since 1987, the revival and development of centralised bargaining in Ireland apparently represents a shift towards a stronger model of corporatism. Yet all corporatist arrangements have the common objective of establishing a virtuous circle of wage restraint, investment and growth (Maier, 1994: 57). The weakest link in this chain is generally considered to be the workers whose wages are to be regulated. Whatever the systemic benefits of regulated wages, the primary point of instability and breakdown is at the micro level, that is, in the willingness of workers to sacrifice shortterm wage gains in the pursuit of the general welfare (Large, 1984: 98). Indeed, it was a rank and file revolt of Swedish workers discontented with union weakness at plant level and increasing inequality in the distribution of wealth that forced the labour movement to adopt a programme of industrial and economic democracy. Once accepted by the social democrats, the embodiment of industrial democracy in labour legislation was remarkably rapid. The laws laid down in the previous 60 years governing relations in the labour market were almost entirely replaced between 1972 and 1978.1 While industrial democracy reforms may have been a solution for problems encountered at enterprise level, other difficulties confronted the labour movement on a macro level. How could centralised bargaining be maintained without exacerbating the unequal distribution of wealth and the concentration of economic power and how could employee influence be increased over the economic process (Meidner, 1978)? The proposed solution was that 20 per cent of pre-tax profits in certain firms would be transferred annually in the forms of shares to a central employee wage earner fund controlled and administered by the trade union movement. …

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