Monday 21 October 2019

Union chief calls for social partnership replacement to tackle housing and childcare crises

Kevin Callinan. Picture: Steve Humphreys
Kevin Callinan. Picture: Steve Humphreys

Anne-Marie Walsh

A union chief wants a new forum to replace social partnership that would tackle issues “where government has failed” like childcare, education and housing.

Fórsa general secretary Kevin Callinan joined employer calls for a similar structure made up of government officials, unions and employer groups.

However, he made no mention that pay would be on the table as was the case with the old social partnership agreements.

Wage hikes were traded for industrial peace and reforms under the old partnership deals that applied to the entire private and public sector workforce typically over a three year timeframe.

But partnership collapsed when the economic crisis hit after employers and the government backed out of the final agreement.

“One of the most significant interventions that I have heard in a long time came a few weeks ago from an unlikely source,” said Mr Callinan, addressing Siptu’s biennial conference in Cork today.

He said Ibec CEO Danny McCoy delivered a “devastating critique” of the country’s infrastructure while making the case for genuine social dialogue.

“Albeit couched in a concern for long-term national competitiveness, he highlighted a range of failings including the decline in the standing of our universities, the exorbitant cost of childcare, the excessive commutes for so many and the absence of effective solutions to the housing crisis,” he said.

“I put it to you that real social dialogue just might resolve, or at least improve, these issues where government has failed.”

Mr Callinan said unions’ ability to influence policy and events has been compromised since social partnership collapsed ten years ago.

“Compromised in part, due to the failure to replace the collapse of social partnership in 2009 with an effective alternative strategy,” he said.

“Whatever its failings, and there were many, social partnership provided a mechanism to engage in genuine social dialogue with the aim of crafting policy solutions to national problems.”

He said a Labour Employer Economic Forum that eventually replaced social partnership is more about meeting EU obligations than genuine collaboration.

The union chief said the industrial relations acts had tilted the balance towards employers but social partnership provide unions with a “measure of redress”.

“The collapse of social partnership when the crisis hit removed this balance,” he said.

“I am not saying social partnership was a panacea – I have been critical of its deficits and the missed opportunities on the union side – but I think that this point about the delicate balance that prevailed for almost twenty years is an important one from the point of view of plotting the way forward.”

He said that there have been calls for the repeal of the industrial relations act and said there was little wonder when “many employers adopt employment practices that stretch the limits of what the law permits”.

“And some have no compunction in using their ample resources to run to the courts to impede unions and workers from invoking the right to strike in what effectively becomes a test of the respective financial position of both parties – one that no union can win,” he said.

Although he did not refer to it, Ryanair was recently granted an injunction to block a strike by the pilots’ branch of Fórsa recently.

He said the law must be changed to ensure not just the right to organise but the right to bargain effectively.

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