The Ideology of “social partnership” and its negative impacts on the working class

Ali Ruckert, President of the Communist Party of Luxembourg (KPL)

The attempts by the capital of having an ideological influence to the working people and their organisations are an integral part of the history of capitalism. These attempts are aiming at preventing the workers from class struggle and from establishing a basic change of the existing power relations and the property situation, and finally from abolishing the exploitation of man by man.

This strategy of the capital has been carried out successfully with respect of large parts of the trade union movement, the targets of which initially had been limited on social improvements within the capitalist system and later on the defence of the achieved.

Together with the goal setting also the methods have been changed. In case of interest conflicts, the trade unions began to largely give up to mobilize the working class for mass actions of the unions and strikes, which would help to enforce demands of the workers and to strengthen the class consciousness. The trade union leaders instead came together with the representatives of the capital as “social partners with equal rights” with the aim to reach compromises with them “in consensus between the organisations of employers and employees”. In German speaking countries they even introduced a new vocabulary. Instead of “workers” and “capitalists” they are speaking of “jobtakers” and “jobgivers”.

The “social partnership” was in Luxembourg never limited to the “social partners”. Indeed the bourgeois state established the basic conditions for the institutionalisation of the form of “social dialogue”. This was the precondition and the reason for the successful establishment of the “social partnership”. The legal conditions have been developed in such a way that the communist trade union, which acted on the basis of class struggle between 1945 and 1965, was permanently discriminated, sidelined and excluded from wage negotiations. At the same time, the capital and the government undertook everything possible to support and to strengthen the social-democratic as well as the Christian trade union movements, which followed the line of “social partnership”, and to increase their influence on the working class in our country. But with a view to the existence of the socialist countries and the international contest of the two social systems, the capital was forced to compromises and social concessions, which were also possible due to the fact that during 30 years of booming economy after the Second World War the financial basis for such a policy had been existing.

The “social partnership” reached a new quality of development, when in 1975 the capitalist crisis of the steel industry embraced Luxembourg. A new body of “social partnership” has been created, called “Tripartite”, which included the government, the entrepreneurs associations and finally the representatives of the three largest trade unions. The parliament even adopted a “Tripartite Act”, which stated that this body had to decide on all necessary measures that should lead “to the stimulation of economic growth and to the preservation of full employment”.

The coordinating committee of the “Tripartite” discussed and decided behind closed doors upon measures for settling the consequences of the crisis, while the large majority of the trade union members and the elected bodies of the unions have been excluded from the decision making. At the same time the parliament was deprived from its right to control and was downgraded to become an executor for decisions of an institution which was not foreseen in the constitution of the country.

It was the task of the “Tripartite” to cope with the consequences of the structural crisis in the steel industry and to ensure the worldwide expansion and the profit interests of the steel concern “ARBED” (today “ArcelorMittal”), which dominated the entire economy of Luxembourg. The “Tripartite” furthermore had to obstruct larger resistance from the side of the workers and to ensure the stability of the existing system.

Within almost ten years, in the period between 1975 and 1985, 15,000 of the 27,000 working places in the steel industry have been abolished. The workers were either forced to agree with early retirement or with disability pensions, and many of them were organised in an “Anti crisis division”, which was subsidised by the state with public financial means and was deployed for public emergency tasks. At the same time the employees in the steel industry were forced to accept reductions of wages, and the adaptation of wages and salaries to the development of prices was timely suspended.

The success of this strategy was to a large extent one of the “merits” of the trade union leaderships. The followed the tactics to present every closing of a factory, every new stage of job cuts as a “victory” and to publicly declare that in the “Tripartite” they had prevented even worse steps, that they had “saved” thousands of working places and avoided mass dismissals.

Evaluating those developments, it is not excluded that all this was a put-up job. The steel bosses announced dismissals in a larger extend than actually foreseen, and the trade union representatives in the “Tripartite” could save their faces, when they declared that the actual extend of dismissals had been less than initially declared. Another aspect for the success was that the state took over 30 per cent of the capital shares, and it thus pumped fresh money into the steel concern without interfering into the strategic decisions of the steel bosses.

The Communist Party of Luxembourg (KPL) undertook attempts to mobilize the workers of the steel industry against the demolition of working places, but did not succeed. The main reason for the failure was the negative position of the social-democratic lead trade union OGBL towards the communist proposals. From June until September 1981, communist militants collected 12,000 signatures from steel workers for the nationalisation of the steel industry and gained acceptance of the Steel Syndicate of the OGBL, the largest trade union of the country. But the leadership of OGBL objected categorically any nationalisation, did not take into account the decision of the Steel Syndicate and continued the policy of “social partnership” with the steel bosses.

The activity of the trade union in the steel works led to contradicting consequences. Not least because of the initiative of communist representatives in the factory committees it was possible to achieve wage guaranties for those workers who had to work for less salaries at other working places in other factories or in the “Anti crisis division”. This was, of course, a good result, but on the other hand, it led to the fact that most of the workers did not resist the demolishing of working places in the steel works. Many workers were of the opinion that the problem was solved as soon as it was solved for them personally.

Contrary to the situation in the steel industry in the southern part of Luxembourg, almost all steel works in neighbouring French region Lorraine (Lothringen) have been closed in the same time – despite of the struggles of trade unions and personnel. This was helping to policy of the supporters of “social partnership” in Luxembourg, since they were able to construct the “proof” that “Tripartite talks” with capitalists and the government would be better for the workers than class struggle and confrontation with the capital.

The workers were confronted every single day by the trade unions and the mass media with the ideology of “social partnership”, which finally led to a rapid destruction of the class consciousness, which had prevailed among parts of the steel workers still in the sixties. Consequently the readiness of the workers to struggle actively and in the spirit of solidarity had decreased.

As a consequence of the defeat in the steel industry, many steel workers turned away from the communists, and the Communist Party lost its influence in the steel works and later on was also weakened in the national and communal parliaments – with all negative results from this development. Furthermore the KPL did not in time recognize the necessity to increase its influence among the employees in public services, in the craftsmanship and in the financial institutions, who normally did not have any class consciousness – and later on the party did not have enough power to undertake initiative in the direction.

After the Soviet Union under Gorbachev unilaterally declared the end of the “cold war” and surrendered in front of capitalism, in Luxembourg initially there were no changes in the relations between capital and working class. The social-democratic union leaders, who partly were under strong anti-communist influence, counted themselves to be part of the “winners of history”.

But after the system changes of 1989/1990 the capital did not see any necessity to have regards to an alternative social system and began step by step to question and to withdraw the earlier social concessions.

Not only the wages and the social achievements came under attack of the capital, but also the legal improvements, the working class had been fighting for during the previous decades. The Act on Working Hours was worsened to the disadvantage of the workers, the working conditions were flexibilized in favour of the capital, mainly by the introduction of subcontracted labour and temporary employment, and the minimum wages, as defined by law, have been damped. Parallel to this development, the taxes on capital and the non-wage labour costs were further reduced, and the redistribution of public means in favour of the capital was increased. Nevertheless, the trade unions continued to hold firm to the policy of “social partnership”.

In 2006 the government followed the demands of the capital and decided to systematically slow down the adjustment of the wages and salaries to the inflation, so that every wage earner until 2009 lost about half of one monthly salary. The trade unions in the “Tripartite” gave their agreement to this measure, and the “social partnership” got scratched for the first time. Almost one third of the members of the national leadership of the largest trade union in the private sector refused to ratify the decision of the “Tripartite”. This had no direct political consequences, but it was a sign that the policy of redistribution in favour of the capital, which was adopted by the trade union leaders in the “Tripartite” was adopted by the trade union leaders in the “tripartite” again and again, was refused by more and more workers.

In the capitalist financial and economic crisis, the contradictions intensified. The Luxembourg government saved to of the biggest banks of the country from bankruptcy and thus continued the redistribution in favour of the capital. This led to growing discontent among wage earners.

This discontent became large expression during a manifestation of the trade unions on 16th of May, 2009 under the slogan “We do not want to pay for your crisis!”. But nevertheless the leaderships of the large trade unions continued to come together with the government and the capital in the frame of “tripartite” - instead of mobilising the workers of the private sector and of the public services and to orientate them towards a general strike to prevent further austerity and social destructions.

But contrary to previous “Tripartite”-sessions, this time it was not possible to reach an agreement. The government announced for the 1st of January, 2011 massive tax increases and social destructions, among them the increase of the cots the people have to pay for medical treatments and for medicine. A reduction of initial salaries in the public service was also taken into consideration. The official justification for these measures was the alleged bad competitiveness of the Luxembourg enterprises, the deficit in the national budget and the increasing indebtedness of the state.

Additionally, the capital urged the government to suspend or at least to restrict the mechanism of the Index, i.e. the adjustment of wages to the increase of prices. The governing parties, the Christian Social Peoples Party (CSV) and the Luxembourg Socialist Workers Party (LSAP) agreed in principal on such a restriction, but as a result of the pressure by the social democratic oriented trade unions, the LSAP was forced to make a retreat.

Even so the government and the trade union leaderships came to a “compromise” and on 29th of September 2010 they signed an agreement on a manipulation of the Index. The cut of the milage allowance by 50 per cent, which was envisaged in the austerity programme of the government, was cancelled, but “in exchange” they agreed to slow down the adjustment of the wages to the price development. Independently from the real developments the next adjustment was to be paid only on 1st of October 2011, this means one week before the municipal elections in Luxembourg.

With regard to the real development of inflation in our country, the adjustment was due to be paid already on 1st of May. This means that every wage earner has lost between May and October 2.5 per cent of his salary and thus was defrauded of 12.5 per cent of a monthly salary. Together with the tax increases this resulted in a further cut of the purchasing power of the people.

Additionally the government again followed the pressure of the capital and announced a “reform” of the public pension system to be carried out in 2013. This will indirectly lead to a prolongation of the working lifetime. Who in future wants or can only work for 40 years will have to accept a cut of 15 per cent of his pension compared to the today’s pension system. If someone would like to receive the same pension as guaranteed by the today’s system, he will have to work four years longer. The trade unions have announced resistance against such a worsening of the public pension system, and the government agreed to discuss with the “social partners” - after the municipal elections of the 9th of October, 2011.

The “social partnership” today is confronted with a serious challenge. The big industrial and the financial capital are striving to take possession of a largely greater part of the productivity profits, and they demand an accelerated redistribution of the public finances in their favour. The result will be an even bigger indebtedness of the bourgeois state and a higher burden for all wage receivers. Finally, when they arrive at a limit of acceptance, a growing part of the workers will have to learn that they will have no choice but to fight the class struggle. On the other hand, the workers have lost the experiences of class struggle during the decades of the “social partnership”, so that a difficult learning process will be indispensable.

As a result of the experiences of the crisis, the ideology of the “social partnership” and of the “national solidarity” has got chapped, but still it is positioned in the minds not only of the union leaders, but also of the great majority of the trade unionists and the wage earners. This is because they do not see an alternative to the capitalism of today and they think about returning to the so-called “market economy”, where they think that the “social partnership” had been functioning almost without problems and brought them social achievements. But they do not yet recognize that those times have gone since there is no alternative anymore to the social system of capitalism. In reality it was the existence of the system of socialist societies which forced the capital to make compromises in front of the working class.

Under these conditions the union activity of the communists in Luxembourg is rather difficult, since they are organised mainly in the social-democratic trade union with its orientation towards “social partnership”.

But facing the ongoing destruction of the steel industry there are first signs of resistance. Together with their colleagues from Belgium, Germany and France the steelworkers organised a 24 hours strike on 7th December 2011 – this was the first strike in Luxembourg since the year 1982.

Together with the Workers Party of Belgium (PTB) the KPL has published a statement on the recent developments in the steel industry, and hold a press conference one day before the strike where KPL and PTB have reiterated their position that the expropriation of the Indian billionaire Lakshmi Mittal and the nationalisation of the steel factories is the only possible solution to prevent the complete breakdown of the industry and to save the working places in both countries.

It needs a great abundance of revolutionary patience to appeal to the consciousness of the union members and also of the wage earners who are not organised in the unions. The working class of Luxembourg is more and more consisting of people from several nationalities, border crossers and immigrants, they are speaking different languages and have very different cultural backgrounds. Workers of Luxembourg origin are in the minority.

Most of all the Marxist formation of the communists is needed, so that they will be in the position to explain their colleagues how capitalist exploitation is functioning, who is receiving the benefits from the increase of productivity. The communists must be able to explain why the holding on the thinking and acting in the spirit of “social partnership” and the dispensation with the class struggle from below against the class struggle from above is limiting the possibilities of the unions to gain success. And they have to make clear why capitalism is not able to solve the problems the workers are confronted with.

This ideological work is the precondition for the development of class consciousness, since only by class struggle it will be possible to prevent that all the previous achievements will be destructed one by one and that the wage earners, who are pushed into defensive by the thinking of “social partnership”, will be again and again losing in the conflict with the capital.

The main enemy of the wage earners remains to be the great industrial and financial capital. Its economic and political power can be overcome only when bigger parts of the working class and of the trade union movement will come to the awareness that “social partnership” is weakening the workers and subordinates them under the interests for profit of the capital as well as under the existing mechanisms of exploitation. The workers must learn that “social partnership” is limiting their opportunities to fight for the change of the existing property situation and to create the preconditions for economic, social and political changes in the interest of the working people.