chapter  5
40 Pages

Irish Unions: Testing the Limits of Social Partnership

Entering the new millennium, Irish unions occupy a pivotal role in Irish economic and political governance, having engaged in thirteen years of centralized tripartite bargaining with employers and the state. The Irish economy is the envy of the European Union, registering annual levels of economic growth and job creation which outstrip the major European economies. Progressive though modest wage rises have been negotiated during the 1990s, combined with a gradual easing of the tax burden on employees. Foreign direct investment is flowing briskly into Ireland, creating sizeable numbers of new jobs in high technology electronics and pharmaceutical companies and in a range of service industries. Under the current tripartite national agreement, unions are seeking to extend macrolevel social partnership to enterprises and workplaces, through instituting voluntary mutual gains arrangements in dialogue with employers. The 'Irish model' of economic management and governance is attracting growing international attention. These developments in many ways reflect the highwater mark of trade union influence in Irish society. Unions had engaged in national-level and tripartite bargaining at various times in the past. The 1970s and early 1980s, in particular, had witnessed nine successive national pay agreements. What is different about tripartism since 1987 is a general conviction that the model had worked well, supporting first recovery from the acute economic crisis of the late 1980s and subsequently a rapid acceleration of economic growth and transition to European economic and monetary union.