Posted tagged ‘ICTU’

Universities and the social partners

September 23, 2009

Over the past two decades, Ireland’s economic growth and social stability has been built on the framework of social partnership. Regular negotiations between the government, the employers, the trade unions and some other interest groups have produced agreements that have regulated pay but also secured developments and changes in social and economic policy. These agreements have over an extended period maintained industrial peace – the days when Ireland could have over a million working days lost in a year due to industrial action are long gone – while also producing a huge increase in national productivity, secured largely through extending the economically active workforce to sections of the population previously outside it.

Whether this framework remains fit for purpose is something we shall discover over the next while, but for now it has also placed at the heart of national development the two main bodies representing employers and trade unions: the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU). And this week this blog has carried interviews with the two leading officers of both, Danny McCoy (IBEC) and David Begg (ICTU). Both men are, as I hope the interviews show, thoughtful and imaginative leaders, and both also have significant experience outside the bodies they now lead. Danny McCoy was both an academic and a much respected economist in the Economic and Social Research Institute; while David Begg was chief executive of Concern, the major international aid agency.

In the interviews, both men have raised an issue that perhaps needs to be discussed more actively: the relationship of the universities with these two organisations. The universities are members of IBEC, but perhaps not prominently so; they often have to deal with trade unions in a bargaining context, but on the other hand many of the social objectives trade unions pursue are also priorities of the higher education institutions.

So where therefore, in the overall social partnership scheme of things, do the universities fit it? Are they just organisations that, in some not always definable way, are represented at national talks without ever being prominently featured? Or could they be more active participants in their own right, setting out and defending the major educational and knowledge-based objectives that must now be part of national planning? Is it time to see the universities as active participants in this national dialogue, rather than just bystanders? Is it time that the universities themselves become much more deliberately active?

Interview with David Begg

September 23, 2009

What follows is an interview I conducted recently with David Begg, General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU).

What is your view of the current economic environment – are you optimistic or pessimistic for Ireland? Is there light at the end of the tunnel, or can we make any such judgement at the moment?

I think it’s the latter. I think that circumstances are very fraught at the present time. Ireland being a small open economy, we depend hugely on trade, and the international trade situation remains very bad. I saw recently that Japanese exports have reduced by 47.8 per cent, which is extraordinary and illustrates the problems we face globally. In a way we have done better than might have been expected; the last Economic and Social Research Institute commentary had revised the prospects of our own export performance upwards a little bit, which in the circumstances of the world trade environment is really very good. And regardless of what people say, our competitive position really can’t be all that bad if we are still able to achieve outcomes of that kind. But nevertheless, if you associate that with the kind of restructuring that has taken place within the economy with the virtual collapse of the construction industry and serious problems in the financial sector, it is not easy to take huge consolation from that.

There will really have to be a reconfiguration of the Irish economy. How to do that right now, with global trade so depressed, is the question we have to address. We can see stock markets rising a little, and mergers and acquisitions beginning again; but when the government stimulus packages that have been introduced really everywhere except here come to an end, will that emerging recovery end as well? There is also the question of the re-balancing of the trading relationship between China and the rest of the world, but that is also complex because we will be asking the wage slaves of the world to become the consumers of the world, and that cannot happen overnight, not least because their currency will have to strengthen, which will hit their exports.

Some commentators are suggesting now that once all these issues have been resolved we will be able to get back to where we were before, but that is not realistic.

In some ways you might wonder whether we would want to get back to where we were.

I agree, because where we were just wasn’t sustainable. But it took us a long time to realise that. We followed a public policy of growth almost for its own sake, regardless of whether it was ultimately sustainable. I always felt that we should have taken a more deliberate position of optimising the growth that we wanted to achieve, and wondered whether if we had done that we would now be much better off.

How is all this affecting the trade union movement right now? Are you concerned about the future?

We are, in the sense that every factory closure means a loss of trade union membership. Strangely enough, though, our density [the proportion of the labour force organised in trade unions] will probably increase. For the last ten years we were always told that while there might be growth in trade union membership, density was decreasing. Paradoxically, on the way down trade union density probably won’t decrease, so we’ll have increased density but a lower number of members. But you won’t see any headlines in the papers that union density has increased.

Looking at education from the perspective of the trade union movement, do you believe that as a country we have sufficiently prioritised it?

I think the answer to that question requires us to look back to about 1992. At that time the National Economic and Social Council commissioned Professor Lars Mjøset from Norway to have a look at Ireland and consider why we were not doing as well as the Nordic countries, the Netherlands and Switzerland, and one of his main conclusions was that Ireland lacked a national system of innovation, and part of that, I suppose, is a failure to focus properly on education. His report probably never quite got the attention it deserved, perhaps partly because shortly afterwards the economy began to take off, so people thought that our model was actually working and nothing needed to be done. Apart from some start-ups in the ICT sector, we are really hopelessly dependent on international investment, and if we are ever to be really sustainable we need to address that; the mobility of investment is such that our policy of simply offering low taxes won’t do any more. It means we don’t have adequate resources to put into health and education.

So it seems to me that if we want to promote indigenous industry we will need to invest properly in those areas that allow this to happen, one of which must be education. There’s a lot of talk about the knowledge economy, and that’s fine, but in practice we are not delivering that. So for me investment in education is a crucial part of our future which we neglect at our peril.

In some ways we haven’t done too badly, in that our third level graduate output is comparable to the best in Europe, though maybe deficient in terms of PhD numbers. But our class sizes across education are the largest in Europe, and pre-school education doesn’t really exist.

When we consider investment in higher education, the question is now asked as to who should be making that investment: just the state, or also the students. Do you have a view on this?

It is quite a difficult question. If the student makes a contribution, the real fear is that there would be a deterrent for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds getting into higher education, more than the burden that might be placed on graduates later on. Personally, I believe in a model of society, which is in fact close to the Nordic model, in which everyone has an equal opportunity through the education system, and this should be paid from taxation. I believe that there is equity in funding education through a progressive tax system. But we are very polarised about these questions in Ireland, in part because social democracy has never taken hold here.

If we look at the way in which the higher education system might develop, should there be more interaction (beyond industrial relations issues) between universities and the trade union movement?

Probably there should be more than there is. We do have some links. For example, we collaborate on a Bachelor of Business Studies degree in UCD, we have collaborated with DCU in relation to Finance courses, and so on. But these links are not very structured. Perhaps over the past ten years or so there has been this evolution where the relationship between business and the universities has been pursued and developed and people in trade unions have always been a little concerned about that, because we feared it might compromise Newman’s vision of a university as requiring independence of thought. Maybe our side has not actively pursued a relationship, but then again maybe the universities were not particularly interested either.

I would say that we could be in changed circumstances now, because of the changing nature of our society and the growth of unemployment. We need to help people back into earning a living through second chance education. This need not just be through technical courses, but could be through courses in the humanities. I would love to see the universities reaching out to us to see if we can work together in this. This would also be very beneficial for the universities themselves.

Blog news

September 18, 2009

Over the coming week, this blog will carry two interviews: one with Danny McCoy, Director General of the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC), and the other with David Begg, General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Both men are asked to comment on Ireland’s economic prospects, and on the relationships that exist between their organisations and the country’s universities. Danny McCoy expresses a guarded welcome of NAMA, while David Begg suggests we might look more closely at the Nordic countries in planning our future economic and social policies.

Over the following period, the blog will also feature interviews with Don Thornhill, Chair of the National Competitiveness Council and former Chair of the HEA, and Batt O’Keeffe TD, Minister for Education. In addition, the blog will feature a guest post by Tom Boland, Chief Executive of the Higher Education Authority.


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