Garda breach Government/ICTU deal But no reversal of pay cuts, two-tier pay
In 2016 the Irish economy staged a recovery. Unemployment fell, wages inched up in some sectors and the public sector unions, working through the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) negotiated a deal, the Lansdowne Road agreement (LRA), which was presented as a route to pay restoration, even though it contained no such commitment. There were however a number of problems. One was that a major teaching union, the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) was outside the deal as were also associations representing the Garda.
Faced with a police strike, the government caved in, using the supposedly independent Labour Court to make a deal with the Guards. The result was a settlement that drove a coach and horses through the LRA. ASTI were shunted into a negotiation that involved sitting with INTO and TUI, teaching unions that had already accepted Lansdowne Road. In the end they were offered nothing. ICTU and affiliated unions demanded that the LRA be renegotiated and pay restoration speeded up. Jack O’Connor of SIPTU announced a ballot for strike action if the government did not agree.
It seemed that the good old days of confrontation between capital and labour had returned.
Well, not quite.
There is an economic recovery, but it does not extend to the vast majority of the working class. In fact it is the increase in profitability based on the reduction of labour costs that enables the recovery, capitalist expansion and the vast increase in the wealth of the middle and upper classes. The same mechanism means that there is no intention of returning pay to pre-crisis levels.
The upper levels of the trade union bureaucracy helped manage the austerity in partnership with Irish capital and now conspire to hold wages at an “affordable” level. However the breaching of the LRA left them exposed. If the Garda can achieve substantial wage increases outside the agreement, where does their policy of collaboration now stand?
The claim is that the LRA is a highway to pay restoration. But that is not what it is. It allows for modest payments in 2017 and 2018. Whatever comes after will also have to be affordable. It retains extra unpaid hours, allowance cuts and the removal of senior posts so that many tasks are carried out on an unpaid basis in order to keep public services functioning.
Shamefully the LRA has at its heart lower pay scales for new entrants to public services negotiated by ICTU. The bureaucrats headed off revolt by existing members by piling austerity on future workers. It is claimed that the LRA will resolve this but, as time goes on, the number of older workers will fall and the number of low paid workers rise. In the private sector Tesco brought in austerity pay by excluded existing workers. It has now resolved the issue by pensioning off the remaining older workers and putting everyone on the low scale. It seems highly likely that a similar process will operate in the public sector.
Finally what exposes the true nature of the LRA is the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (FEMPI) Act. It allows the state to dock pay and allowances for workers who do not meet LRA requirements even when they and their unions have voted against the legislation. It is a scab law where the union bureaucracy agrees to join with the government of crush any opposition.
From this point of view the actions of ASTI were heroic. Their members went on strike for one of the most basic elements of trade unionism – equal pay for work of equal value.
The response of Brendan Barbour of the IMPACT union, mouthpiece for ICTU, is illuminating. He attacked Teachers and Garda;
The large and silent majority of public servants under-stand that income recovery can’t happen overnight….. just as in the private sector, their employer has to be able to bear the cost of pay increases …. the Government…needs to broaden its approach to shore up support for the agreement among the majority of public servants who are keeping their side of the bargain, but increasingly wondering if they’re going to be taken for granted.Following the Garda deal the ICTU public service committee, supported by Jack O’Connor of SIPTU, gave the government two weeks to enter into talks or face strike action. However this was not a strike against austerity but a shuffling among conspirators to deflect union members from targeting them. Along-side their decision to give the government a deadline the ICTU committee reiterated their support for collective negotiation. Brendan Barbour has explained what that is – solidarity with government and bosses against those who step out of line.
The preferred mechanism for a deal is the Pay Review Commission, a quango chaired by Kevin Duffy. Duffy’s career is that of the bureaucrat’s bureaucrat; a Bricklayer’s union official, ICTU, the Labour Court and now the Pay Review Commission. His most recent post was the water review report, leaving the way open to secure a water charge. Unfortunately Duffy called the Garda “mutineers” for threatening strike action, putting his role as honest broke under question.
So what is the field of battle?
The government’s position is that the Lansdowne Road agreement must be honoured. If the Garda payment is above what is allowed then it must come out of the existing funds. The union position is that their members must not see those outside the LRA doing better than those inside. The government view is that the budget cannot be undone and that if they are forced to increase the wages bill then they will cut the limited investment in public services to balance the books.
At this point we are in familiar territory. The government argue that the fiscal space of the budget must be maintained. They may pay more to Paul, but only by robbing Peter. The unions argue that the fiscal space can be easily inflated by taxing the rich. The government of capital does not agree and mostly the rich engage in open daylight robbery and pay no taxes. This never leads to the union bureaucracy breaking with them and neither side mention the forces that constrain the fiscal space – the enormous burden of debt repayment overseen by the Troika and in place until 2054.
The result was another shameful deal between ICTU and the government in January. Payment of €1000 to public sector workers earning under €65,000 is to be brought forward to the 1st April rather than paid in September. The hope is that the fact that the Garda, outside LRA, have obtained conditions much better than those inside will be forgotten and the whole issue pushed into the long grass of the Pay Review Commission. The €90 million cost is to come from the existing public sector budget. ICTU claim that this will mean no cuts in public services – they claimed this all the way through the austerity as services collapsed around them – a collapse that continues apace. As with the original LRA, there is a no-strike clause. As with the original LRA, there is no commitment to a return to equal pay. As with the original LRA, there is the scab element of emergency financial powers to dock the pay of those such as ASTI who refuse to collaborate.
It’s the fiscal space stupid!
Both government and unions argue that the way to pay parity is through remaining in the fiscal space, however defined, allowed by imperialism. However that strategy has required the cudgel of emergency economic powers to deal with those who stand outside the tent. The Garda have breached Lansdowne Road and, as the economy expands, other special groups will also breach the agreement. The pressure for pay restoration will be fed by an absolutely catastrophic housing bubble that has left thousands homeless and a mass firesale of property to vulture funds.
The strength of the bureaucracy lies in the fact that popular opinion accepts that we must bow the knee to imperialist rule. A majority supported a government decision to appeal the award of almost €13 billion in back taxes from Apple on the grounds that it might offend international capital. Over 2,000 demonstrators from the town of Athenry in Galway demanded that planning authorities rush through an Apple centre with 150 permanent jobs.
Socialists must demand immediate pay restoration and point to the thieves all around feeding off Irish workers. They should focus in on the call for equal pay for equal work and call for the end of extra unpaid hours in the public sector. These are fundamental democratic and trade union rights and should not await the time far in the future when capital may feel secure enough to grant our rights. We should admit openly that these demands involve repudiating the endless calls to pay for the bankers and speculators and confrontation with Irish capital and the state which serves them.