THE owners and managers of small- to medium-sized enterprises have been sceptical for some time now about the benefits of Social Partnership. .
This is because they are excluded from it and their interests are not represented by the employers' body IBEC. Similarly, the men and women who work in the private sector have felt disenfranchised for some years now, by virtue of the fact that the ICTU has ceased to be an effective representational force on their behalf
They have seen trade union leaders retreat in the face of hardline owners and managers, contenting themselves with taking on the much softer option of the Government. ICTU has become a collective of public service unions and, as a result, the lot of the public servant has improved in direct proportion to the disimprovement of the private-sector workers' pay and conditions. Where the worker in the private sector has seen his or her pension halved in some instances, the State worker has a guaranteed pension publicly financed from a €20bn fund of taxpayers' money set up by Charlie McCreevy -- and added to since. Where the private-sector worker has suffered pay cuts, redundancy and eviction as well as negative equity and emigration, the public-sector workers have seen their numbers actually grow. They have been given a new agreement guaranteeing present wage levels and job security and even a promise of a pay rise, conditions permitting.
Thus Irish society has been divided, not on class lines as heretofore, but between those who work in the public service and those who do not. That has been the societal price of buying off the trade union movement ostensibly in the interests of industrial harmony.
Last week we saw a far more tangible price put on this cosy arrangement when some of the financial details of the scandalous deal involving SIPTU and various government agencies were disclosed to the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee.
Millions of euro went into a SIPTU account -- now described by SIPTU as not a SIPTU account -- and were administered by, among others, a SIPTU official. Some of this was overseen by one of the doyens of the trade union movement, Bill Attley, who was allowed a fee of €1,000 for each of the supervisory meetings he attended (half that for half-day meetings). The idea of an upskilling fund originally came from the Labour Court and was eagerly embraced by the government led by Bertie Ahern and implemented by some of his ministers. There were grants to SIPTU, there was a "partnership fund" and what exactly the money was meant to be used for is unclear. Nor is it exactly clear what it was all actually spent on. But we do know there were numerous trips abroad to destinations as diverse as New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Australia and Hong Kong.
Prominent on these junkets were trade union leaders, including Matt Merrigan of SIPTU, who was in charge of the fund, Peter McLoone, the ICTU Public Services Committee chief, Peter Bunting, ICTU assistant general secretary, and Kevin Callinan deputy general secretary of IMPACT, as well as assorted wives.
Jim O'Keeffe, the Fine Gael TD, told the Oireachtas Committee: "This was a slush fund that was being used for expenditure of public monies for improper purposes." It is impossible to disagree with him.
This is the unacceptable face of Social Partnership.