If someone were to stand up at a trade union meeting and start on about the ‘class war’ most people would just turn away and stare at their fingernails. We don’t do that kind of rhetoric anymore. It has gone the way of ‘class consciousness’ and ‘historical inevitability’ and the ‘wheels of capitalism are greased by the blood of the workers’. It’s not only the vocabulary; we don’t construct our worldviews on the ideas inherent in those words. No, the days of ‘class war’ are truly over.
Shame someone didn’t tell the employers.
The employers are on a roll. First, they eviscerate what little trade union recognition there was in industrial law. The 2001 and 2004 Industrial Relations Acts were always a fragile thing. In an attempt to square the circle of trade unions wanting the right of recognition in the workplace and the employers refusal to accept this (i.e. refusing to accept one of the partners in ‘social partnership’ as a partner), a backdoor mechanism was developed which would allow union members in non-union workplaces to be represented in the Labour Court by their trade union representative. It wasn’t much but it was something.
Then came Ryanair, like Godzilla in a puppy shop, challenging the law in the Supreme Court. And, boy, did they hit the jackpot. Not only were union members not automatically entitled to go to the Labour Court, not only were ‘company unions’ given almost constitutional status (even in the US these discredited organisations are outlawed) - a Justice declared, in a gratuitous remark, that even if there was a law entitling workers to trade union recognition, it would be unconstitutional (and that issue wasn’t even up for discussion – talk about icing).
Now the vultures are circling the Joint Labour Committees (JLCs). JLCs are the Cinderella of our industrial relations machinery. Created in 1946 to provide a modicum of protection for workers in low-paid, low-skill industries, they set pay rates and conditions (Employment Regulation Orders, or ERO), backed up by Labour Court sanction. Again, the employers went on the offensive.
Hotel owner Michael Vaughan and the Irish Hotels Federation went to the High Court, claiming that the Labour Court made procedural errors in setting the ERO for the hotel sector. But, more importantly, they challenged the constitutionality of the Labour Court’s power to set minimum wages and conditions in JLC sectors.
To say that trade unions were nervous is an understatement. JLCs cover nearly 250,000 low-paid workers, mostly in the service and agricultural sectors. These are some of the most vulnerable workers in the economy. If the High Court ruled in favour of the hoteliers, the entire edifice of workplace protection for low-paid workers would come tumbling down, fueling a ‘race-to-the-bottom’ in sectors which are already at the bottom.
Fearing a negative outcome, the Labour Court beat the hastiest of retreats. They ceded the technical issue of ‘correct procedures’, settled out of court, and even paid the hoteliers’ court costs – anything to prevent the wider constitutional issue from being adjudicated on. But, in truth, they’re just buying time. Eventually, there will be some other challenge from some other employer on the ‘constitutional’ issue, and one more piece of workplace protection will be under the gun.
What was at stake economically? For the employers, feck all. Counsel for the hoteliers accepted that the ‘wage’ difference in the Labour Court’s ruling was, on average, 22 cents an hour for a trained cook. 22 cents. €1.70 for an eight-hour day. A little over €8 per week. Hoteliers went to a lot of trouble and expense just to do low-paid workers out of 22 cents.
By no means do JLCs provide a ‘living wage’. In many cases, they do not exceed the national minimum wage as this small sampling shows. At least where JLC rates do not exceed the minimum wage, there are certain conditions laid down: increased pay with experience, minimum commission for hairdressers, specified deductions for food and lodging, minimum piece-work rates, etc. The employers' attack on the JLCs is not just about wages, but about a whole range of specified working conditions.
Where is social partnership in all this? Nowhere. The employers aren’t interested. IBEC believes that JLCs are redundant. The Taoiseach may have expressed his surprise at this legal move by the hoteliers, but no one else in the land is surprised. This is part and parcel of a general approach to ‘partnership’ which denies the existence of the other partner while ripping the guts out of minimum workplace protection measures. If there are trade unions who still believe in ‘partnership’ (and they’re getting fewer and fewer in the private sector), then they must be getting pretty lonely.
This is the greatest challenge facing trade unions – to accept that, while the shell of partnership exists, the reality on the ground is far, far different. This is not a prescription for just ‘walking away from the table’ (though an extended stroll might do a world of good in bringing employers and the Government to their senses). But it is a call for a reality check.
What is imperative is that trade unions work out their own ‘vision’ of social partnership (which is not the same as national wage agreements which are merely industrial relations tools). This is part and parcel of challenging the conservative economic consensus upon which social partnership has been built – low-taxes, low-spend, low-regulations – with a new consensus that refuses to allow the employers and the Right a monopoly over the debates on wealth generation, enterprise development and competitiveness.
Further posts will explore new departures for social partnership - and there are many - but suffice it to say it all starts with facing up to a simple fact: that employers manipulate ‘partnership’ to their ends, employing it when it suits them, and trashing it when it doesn't - which is most of the time.
IBEC & Co. are engaging in their own version of ‘class war’ but they’re not content to merely snipe from behind the lines. They’re bringing out heavy artillery, and the shells are falling all around us.
To recognise this would, by mere force of circumstance, force trade unions to begin thinking anew. That would, in and of itself, be an advance, one from which all the Left would benefit.
And all it takes is for trade unionists to say:
‘Hey, brothers and sisters, you know that stuff that’s falling from the sky and making those big explosions all around us? It ain’t doughnuts.’