I was a supporter of social partnership before its latest manifestation in 1987 and in terms of the understanding of a wider social wage and contributing to our social and economic progress, it has been an important development in Irish industrial relations.
The cement of social partnership has been pay restraint. In today's environment after almost a decade of economic growth, this cement is no longer adequate. This does not mean that social partnership ought to be abandoned. Rather it means that what is encompassed by social partnership and expressed in social pacts must be refined and expanded. Performance and reward must become key factors. Investment in training and upskilling, in manpower planning and human resource development and child care provision must be given higher priority.
Tax changes, in combination with pay increases, may help resolve living standards but do not address relative differences in a dynamic society. It is right that modern Irish workers have higher aspirations than their progenitors but, if these aspirations are to be met, productivity increases and change must be faced up to, and not just in certain sectors of the economy. Social investment must continue to have the highest priority. Housing need alone is probably a key driver of unrest in the modern industrial workforce.
If social partnership is to survive, it requires careful management and guidance. It has largely been abandoned by the Government, other than in times of high tension. There has been no functioning Minister for Labour during the lifetime of this Government. Access by the social partners in times of conflict is directly to the office of the Taoiseach or to the Taoiseach himself. There is no adequate nurturing of the process, nobody with hands-on political responsibility, nobody looking around corners for problems coming down the track, nobody anticipating difficulties that might easily have been foreseen, nobody involving the main players in developing the concept of social partnership. There are grave dan gers if the perception is allowed to develop that social partnership is only for the lead players and is of lesser relevance to the daily needs of the workplace.
The strains and stresses now manifesting themselves in the social partnership process are hardly surprising, against a background of neglect of that process and in the context of a period of the most dramatic and unprecedented change. We have become a net importer of labour. The workforce has expanded rapidly, there have been enormous improvements in productivity and we have had almost a decade of unprecedented growth. All those have produced their own peculiar pressures and tensions. Huge infrastructural deficits have been exposed but less remarked on are the deficits in human resource management and practices. The old one-company loyalty has gone out the window and workers are functioning in an environment of increasing materialism and individualism. If trade union members were to emulate some of the practices being exposed on the part of their employers, this economy would not function at its current rate. Meanwhile there is enormous pressure on a public service still unable to shake off the archaic practices of a more hierarchical era. There is still a refusal to invest sufficiently in human resource development. The public sector and much of the private sector still fail to recognise that people-quality is a key factor in maintaining social and economic progress.
The fact is that, generally speaking, we have over recent years had fewer demarcation disputes than used to be the pattern. There generally has been commonsense respect for the congress procedures. Too much significance can be attached to a couple of high profile disputes that have developed a definite inter-union dimension. These are very probably a symptom of deeper problems in the sectors affected. If Government pleads inability to become involved, there is no bar to their becoming involved belatedly in the underlying endemic problems neglected for so many years. Some of the other disputes adverted to in this debate highlight the need for renovation of social partnership.
I have heard and seen foolish and presumably mischievous comment on the broadcasting media about the supposed comparison that can be drawn between anti-competitive practices in business and anti-competitive practices in trade unions, meaning that competition, that is, several unions in a single employment, is a good thing. This is utter nonsense and betrays no understanding of the origins, practices or purpose of the trade union movement. Workers have no vested interest in representative fragmentation and most certainly managements have no desire to have to do business with several unions for the same category of worker.
As someone who has supported and continues to support the need to remunerate teachers, commensurate with their critical contribution to society, I have been puzzled at the apparent unwillingness to face up to necessary change as the quid pro quo for decent salaries. Therefore I supported the benchmarking process at the outset as a rational method to bring both necessary change and appropriate reward to different categories of employee throughout the public sector. However, I now worry that the process of benchmarking has been undermined and devalued by some of the public comment, including by Cabinet Ministers, and that there is a danger that it has been relegated now to the status of yet another dispute-resolution mechanism.
The reputation of the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, during his term as Minister for Labour is justified, even if I recall that his ability for timely intervention when others had done the spadework was his hallmark. Regrettably the Government has been trading on that reputation while withdrawing from the current industrial relations environment. The chickens are now in danger of coming home to roost and unless there is a change of approach, the next Government will inherit a legacy of neglect, alienation and unrest that will threaten social and economic progress.
My central point is that the process of social partnership requires nurturing, leadership and development. There has to be a Minister with political hands-on responsibility for the industrial relations portfolio. There has been no Minister for labour functioning during the lifetime of this Government. As a result, the present manifestation of an outbreak of problems in different areas threatens the very continuation of social partnership.
Of course, social partnership is also threatened by the present inflationary environment. Workers who signed off for what looked like a reasonably good agreement, when taken in the context of tax reform as well as moderate pay increases, now find themselves in an ongoing inflationary spiral. The Minister for Finance and his Department told us that this was a temporary blip which would not continue throughout the lifetime of the PPF It now looks like continuing. In the context of our living in one of the highest priced economies in the European Union, it is easy to see why so many workers in so many different employments are concerned about current developments. Having regard to the inability of young people in reasonable employment to put a roof over their heads, it is not at all surprising that we have the unrest which is now emerging in the public sector.
The occasional, nowadays infrequent, inter-union dispute ought not to be taken as the norm. Provided there is hands-on political direction and leadership, social partnership can be renovated in such a fashion that, whatever the hue of the next Government, it can be continued as the cornerstone of economic policy but not at the rate that it is rapidly going downhill at the moment.