Social Partnership – Chicken Soup or Gravy Train?

15 Dec

So now we have the outrageous statement from Minister for Finance Lenihan that “Social partnership caused enormous damage to the Irish financial system“. Unlike the banks, the developers and his own behaviour, which, of course, have been exemplars of rectitude.  “Partnership” was a disaster, but for exactly the opposite reasons espoused by  corpulent Tooth Fairy Lenihan – it led to modest cost-of-living increases for ordinary workers, while lining the pockets of union officials and massaging the inflated egos of union bosses.

Indeed, there were those who benefited from partnership, some enormously. The battalions of management consultants who were parachuted in all over the country to run partnership seminars, partnership weekends, partnership conferences etc. etc. found the whole exercise extraordinarily lucrative. For some trade union officials, many of whom are still amongst us, their career prospects, sinecures on state boards and familiarity with foreign climes were improved immensely by jumping on the partnership bandwagon.

The anti-trade union ideologues of the right are now also able to have it both ways. They can revel in the current complete passivity of the unions brought about by their corrupting allegiance to partnership, while portraying the whole partnership process as some form of capitulation of the government to the unions!

The HSNPF in happier days

In an earlier post we looked at the corrupting effect of Partnership on the trade union hierarchy, as exposed by the SIPTU health services partnership scandal. Now another damning report is doing the rounds – this time it is about the Health Service National Partnership Forum. What with €41 million of state funding swallowed by the Forum over the last decade, €1 million of which was funneled directly to trade unions through SIPTU, expensive trips abroad by government and union officials and breaches of financial procedures, it bears uncanny similarities to the SIPTU SKILLS fund scandal. What’s more, many of the same people are involved in one way or another.

To make matters worse, there’s the report that local authorities, under the aegis of the Local Authority National Partnership Advisory Board blew €90,000 on foreign trips for county council and union officials. It leads one to question, what the hell was going on under the rubric of “partnership” over the last decade?

Building Paper Towers in Bunratty Castle

Coming to a Partnership Committee near you soon

Back in the early part of the decade our union, along with the others in our workplace, was dragged into “partnership” with the management. Decreed by national agreement between ICTU, business representatives and the government, it was the new, touchy-feely way to improve workplace relations and bring us all into the twenty-first century. Besides, it was the “only game in town” and unless you wanted to be whipped like dogs (as ASTI was finding out) you played along.

And there was plenty of money being thrown at it. Endless amounts, in fact. The buildings officer from a nearby public institution was seconded to a newly created position of Partnership Facilitator, packed off to partnership boot-camp and sent around the various workplaces, including our own, to spread the partnership gospel.

Having voted down numerous national agreements (only to have them imposed by ICTU majority), our branch engagement in the whole partnership sham was minimal. We were determined that under no circumstances would the partnership sideshow be allowed to supplant any of the industrial relations mechanisms that we used. Some of the other unions might feel better sitting around once a month being “listened to” on perfectly meaningless issues, but we were too busy with serious breaches of agreements, individual grievances and the like to want to waste our time on flim-flam.

"Should we send in the Partnership shock-troops now?"

The branch officers however couldn’t avoid giving up the odd weekend to build paper towers with management in Bunratty Castle in a misguided attempt to develop a more partnership approach to life. The whole process was summarized by an inane discussion that went on for hours at one of the monthly Partnership Committee meetings.

In an effort to stress that we didn’t all have to agree with each other, our Partnership Facilitator got lost in analogy: “It’s like if we all go to the canteen and you say ‘I’d like chicken soup’ and I say ‘Oh no, I hate chicken soup’. It doesn’t mean that, just because you like chicken soup, we all have to like chicken soup. I mean you could order the chicken soup and I could order the, you know something else, like potato soup or whatever else is on the menu. It doesn’t have to be chicken soup.”  As we all sat there in silent despair, our Facilitator, worried that he was being misinterpreted, continued “now don’t get me wrong – I love chicken soup” at which point our will to live vanished.

It is funny how, looking back on it now, it is clear that while we were getting the partnership chicken soup treatment, others were well and truly on the partnership gravy train. For the money dumped into what can only be described as a failed ideology greased more than a few palms during the boom years.

The Origins of Partnership

According to Shane Ross & Nick Webb in their book “Wasters”, Irish social partnership has its origins in Charles Haughey’s overtures to the trade unions in the late 1980’s. Labour was in government and the unions were unhappy with their treatment and so jumping ship to Fianna Fail seemed like a good idea at the time. Conversely, it was seen as quite a coup for Fianna Fail to pull the unions away from the Labour Party under the German model of social partnership.

Peter Cassells - the Karl Marx of Partnership

Whatever the truth of this, the establishment of the National Centre for Partnership and Performance in 2001 represented a consolidation of the partnership ideology within the Irish state apparatus. Headed by David Begg’s predecessor as general secretary of ICTU, Peter Cassells, it commanded lavish resources to preach the new gospel. And, of course with a salary of £76,580 – about £10,000 more than his ICTU post – Cassells was on the up-and-up.

With national pay deals to be brokered between the social partners, keynote addresses at partnership conferences, the training of partnership activists and the establishment of a plethora of partnership fora, committees and boards, it must have been hard for Cassells to find time to run his own private consultancy firm, specialising in “mediation and change.” But find it he did.

At the core of partnership is a management ideology which attempts to ignore the dichotomy between employer and employee. As such, it is doomed to failure. For this fundamental dichotomy is the whole basis of the capitalist enterprise system and determines the power relations within any organisation. Any management system that sets out to elide this dialectic cannot reasonably aspire to be more than window-dressing: nice ideas that can certainly make people feel better, but no more than that.

But no, this simple fact was studiously ignored as the state threw money at propagating a failed ideology. Soon there were too many people of power and influence benefiting from the sham for it to be reigned it. It became the only game in town. Besides, it “bought” industrial peace.

The Partnership Pandemic

Before long it was everywhere in the public service. Every department, organisation and institution had multiple partnership bodies. There was the Local Authority National Partnership Advisory Board, the Health Service National Partnership Forum, the Vocational Education Committee National Partnership Forum… complete with whizz-bang websites, glossy annual reports, booklets and massive conferences.

Management buzzwords – “gain-sharing”, “participatory leadership”, “change management” were sloshed around exuberantly by well-paid consultants at conferences and workshops. By 2008, however, the wheels were coming off the wagon. The tone at the NCPP’s final conference in June 2008 appears to have been a morbid affair, despite attempts to make it seem like business-as-usual. IMPACT boss Peter McLoone, two months in doomed negotiations seeking a new national deal, gave a reserved presentation. The partnership facade  was finally cracking under the weight of the economic crisis.

Michael McLoone: addicted to consultants

At the same conference, Peter McLoone’s brother Michael, Donegal County Manager, gave a presentation entitled “Leadership in the public service”. In this he sources his knowledge from “the test bed of practical experience and applied research with specialist help“. While the former no doubt refers to his long stint as County Manager, could the latter have anything to do with the consultants around which a scandal erupted in May of this year? Once again we have taxpayers money – €2.5 million this time – lavished on expensive wine, plush hotels and business class flights.

In a bizarre presentation to the County Council the consultants involved, Stephen Cang and David Stroll of One Sigma Ltd, explained how they weren’t really doing consultancy at all, but carrying out “research” on a whole new management method – “Whole System of Work” – and that Donegal County Council had been the lab rats for this experiment.  While One Sigma regarded the intellectual property that had come out of the research as its property, the company, in its beneficence, was allowing Donegal County Council to use all the IPR developed at no charge. Needless to say, Councillors were left scratching their heads as to what all of this meant and how so much money had been spent on a project over 15 years without them knowing anything about it.

The Social Partnership Wreckage

So now the partnership bandwagon has finally hit the skids. The NCPP, established on a statutory basis as recently as 2007, has been disbanded and integrated into the National Economic and Social Council – although Peter Cassells has managed to hang in there as chair of a non-existent body. The VEC’s have been subjected to the most brutal of cullings, so where exactly the room for “partnership” is, is not clear. And of course, the government has torn up every national agreement in existence in a frenzied effort to protect the state’s bankers and developers from their own greed.

"Ve have vays of making you sign-up"

And yet, ICTU’s David Begg, in response to Lenihan’s ridiculous assertion, can only whine about the joys of partnership. It is not hard to see Begg’s game: carp and moan, but take no action. Wait it out. When Labour get into power, it’ll be back around the table and the partnership party can continue. After fifteen years of partnership, our union leaders have been reduced to one-trick ponies – and emasculated ones at that.

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