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Big unions push through Croke Park agreement 

JM Thorn

18 June 2010

The Public Services Committee of ICTU has formally ratified the Croke Park agreement on public on public service pay and reform.  It was carried by a margin of almost two to one when the committee met to consider the deal.  The result was 1,899 votes in favour and 986 against, out of a total 2,885 votes.  This result was arrived at through a “card vote” in which each union represented was allocated votes on the basis of their numerical strength.  While the members of nine unions rejected the agreement in ballots they were outvoted on the committee by the ten unions which had accepted the deal. 

The weight of the big unions, Impact and SIPTU, proved decisive in getting the agreement through.   Members of SIPTU in the public service voted in favour of the Croke Park proposals by almost a two-to-one majority, while members of Impact supported the deal by a margin of 77 to 23 per cent.  These votes followed a thoroughly dishonest campaign by the respective leaderships of these unions.  Indeed, the executive of Impact had initially rejected the agreement, before changing its position in early May and arguing for acceptance.  This u-turn was in response to a number of “clarifications” of the deal, including on the so-called “get out clause” on unforeseen budgetary deterioration.  Impact accepted that it was “expressed intention and expectation” of the government that there would be no further pay cuts after 2014.  This minor alternation of the text of the Croke Park agreement, along with a delay in the review of public sector pensions, was enough for Impact’s general secretary designate, Shay Cody, to proclaim his “trust in the Government’s intentions”.  He assured his members that the dramatic changes in working conditions outlined in the agreement, such as compulsory redeployments, would be operated “in a reasonable manner”. 

The votes on the Croke Park agreement were deliberately stretched out over a long period to dissipate the initial anger at the proposals, and to allow to the trade union leadership to push the argument, supported by the media and politicians, that there was no alternative and that this was the best deal on offer.  In this it resembled the votes on previous partnership agreements and also the reruns of the European treaty referendums.  There are never any substantive changes to what’s on offer, only clarifications and assurances which create the impression that it won’t be as bad as first thought.  The approach of trade union leaders is epitomised by SIPTU president Jack O’Connor.  Initially not publically committing himself either way, he gradually built up the arguments for acceptance, until he and the SPITU executive made a formal endorsement of Croke Park, and then became its most enthusiastic supporters. 

Jack O’Connor made a series of firebrand speeches at public events denouncing the Government’s economic policies, yet at the same time urging support for them.  The more trade union leaders capitulated and accommodated to the demands of the Government and employers the more militant they sounded.  Unfortunately many on the left are oblivious to such contradictions and dishonesty; they have built up the credentials of the likes of O’Connor and even now continue to invite them onto public platforms.  Of course the capitalist class aren’t so easily fooled; they understand perfectly well the role that the trade union leaders are playing in the efforts to make workers pay the price of the economic and financial crisis.  Jack O’Connor being named “Person of the Month” by Business and Finance magazine gives some indirection of the importance they attach to him.   As in previous agreements the supposedly reluctant endorsement of Croke Park by trade union leaders quickly turns to enthusiastic support. Soon after the formal ratification we have Jack O’Connor demanding that implementation of the reform programme move ahead as quickly as possible, and Impact’s Peter McLoone calling for the early appointment of the independent chairman of the new implementation body and warning that it was “now time to start quickly delivering” on transformation. 

While half of the unions represented in the Public Services Committee voted against the Croke Park agreement, there is little sign that they will continue their opposition. The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) has said it will accept the verdict of the committee.  Some unions such as the TUI and IFUT have said they will not be bound by a majority vote at the Public Services Committee. The TUI believes it is inappropriate for a deal covering conditions of service to be decided by a majority vote of unions.  However, none have indicated that what they will do if there is an attempt to alter the teaching contract.   What we can safely assume is that any “dissenting” unions would have the full weight of the Government and other trade unions ranged against them. 

We got a hint of this from the furious response to claims by Dave Hughes, the deputy general secretary of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, that thousands of jobs in the health service were under threat, and that the agreement required “the silencing of those who dare to defend their service, job or community”.  In a letter to the Irish Times Louise O’Reilly, SIPTU’s national nursing officer and one of the agreement’s negotiators, insisted that Croke Park gave “certainty in uncertain times” and that it was the “best possible outcome”.    She also made clear SIPTU’s hostility to any campaign based on mobilising the working class. “Very few spell out the reality that a massive escalation of industrial action will be the only way of stopping the Government from introducing further cuts, egged on by private vested interests”.  Here she was actually telling the truth, but it was presented as a negative. For to have accepted it would have placed demands on the trade union leadership, including those who were critical of the Croke Park agreement, that they could not contemplate. 

The acceptance of the Croke Park demonstrates that social partnership still holds sway over the trade union movement.   While there was opposition to the historic betrayal it did not amount to a challenge to the existing leadership.  In the absence of an organised current the initial negative sentiment towards the agreement dissipated.  Workers either reluctantly accepted the argument that this was the best on offer or lacked confidence in their officials to lead the type of campaign required to defeat it. 

Even before the agreement is implemented we already know that its rationale, that the worst of the economic crisis is over and sacrifices will aid a recovery, is fraudulent.  The Irish economy is continuing to contract and the costs of the financial bailout are escalating.   Morgan Kelly, an economics professor with University College Dublin, has make clear that Ireland’s budgetary situation is, in fact, set to decay rapidly. According Kelly, who is credited with having predicted the collapse of the Irish housing bubble, “It is no longer a question of whether Ireland will go bust, but when”.  It is inevitable that there will be more demands for scarifices from the working class.  These will continue for so long as we have a trade union leadership that is prepared to facilitate them.   If this process is to be halted workers need to break with their current leaders and reject the idea that we have to make sacrifices for some illusory “national interest”. 


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