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ICTU calls off strike, agrees to public sector pay cuts 

JM Thorn

2 December 2009

The leaders of the trade union movement in Ireland have demonstrated their utterly treacherous character yet again which the cancellation of this Thursday’s (3rd) public sector strike, and their acceptance of pay reductions and cuts in services.This announcement followed the latest round of talks between trade union and Government officials over plans to reduce the public sector wage bill by €1.3bn. 

When we consider that the mandated position of trade movement was to oppose pay reductions and cuts in services, the decision to suspend the strike and effectuality endorse the proposals of the Government can only be seen as a capitulation.However, it should hardly come as a surprise.It follows a long series of compromises and capitulations by trade unions throughout the period of social partnership.Despite adopting an official position of opposing cuts and engaging some rhetorical sabre rattling, the trade union leadership had no intention of mounting a defence of their members or the broader working class.They had implicitly accepted the Government cost cutting agenda from the outset - the only question was how it was to be implemented, and what face saving measures could be employed to sell it to the membership as representing some kind of necessary compromise.

On the issue of reducing the pay bill, the unions pushed for unpaid leave as an alternative to pay cuts.However, the distinction between unpaid leave and pay cuts is really a false one.The rates of pay may remain the same, but the reduction in working days still results in a wage cut.This concentration on pay rates has long been a feature of the trade union approach to negotiations, as working conditions and jobs are sacrificed to preserve headline pay. As long as the pay rate is preserved trade union leaders can claim a success.Of course this success is totally illusory as it inevitably results in job losses and deteriorating conditions for the workers who remain.The prime example is Aer Lingus where trade union leaders argued that privatisation would provide a windfall for workers in the form of shares.

The draft agreement reached on the reduction of the public sector bears all the hallmarks of this approach. The most immediate consequence is the introduction on a twelve an a half days unpaid leave scheme which will produce savings next year.This is the equivalent of a seven per cent pay cut for the average worker,which is coming on top of the effective 7.5 per cent cut in take-home pay after the government unilaterally introduced a pension levy in February, and the suspension of the 2.5 increase due under the national pay accord in October.How can trade union leaders say this is not a pay cut?

But there is even worse to come.The second element of the agreement reached with the government promotes an overall transformation for the public sector commencing from 2011.This “reform strand”, which will be subject offorthcoming talks, is be based on a recently published Government document which envisages a much smaller public sector in the years ahead.The underlying principal of this document is that public services, which are already underfunded, will have to have to do more with fewer resources. It indicates that the number of staff on the state payroll will fall substantially, and that the current moratorium on recruitment in the public service will remain until 2014.It also proposes what sounds like a voluntary redundancy scheme, and the further casualisation of employment with the abolition of shift and overtime premiums and compulsory redeployments. These elements are particularly alarming to those workers in the emergency services who have a substantial part of their wages made up of premium payments.This proved to be a divisive issue between and within trade unions as disagreements emerged between the so-called “frontline” workers and the rest in the public sector.Workers in the emergency services even formed their own lobby group.

The approach of the trade union leaders, with their concentration on headline pay over everything else, made divisions inevitable, not just within the public sector but between public and private sector workers.In made it easier for the Government and the media to portray unions as protecting their members at the expense of those who use pubic services.In this context the union proposal for unpaid leave, which would impact most heavily on the delivery of public services (particularly in health and education), was the one that would be most damaging to working class unity.It was trade unionism at its most sectional and reactionary.

What will be particularly disappointing about the suspension of the strike and the capitulation by the trade union leadership is that it follows on from a relatively successful (in terms of participation at least) one day public sector strike last month. On November 24, much of the public sector was shut down as nurses, teachers, firefighters and other employees protested against Government plans to cut pay.As well as strike action there was number of lively demonstrations, such as the march by primary school teachers to the Department of Education headquarters in Dublin.

However, the spirit displayed by pickets and demonstrators was not reflected in the trade union leadership.The trade union negotiating team was desperate to avoid strike action.For them strike action was not a means of challenging the Government but of showing the value of continuing with social partnership.They were desperate for an agreement, and over the course of the period between the first strike day and the scheduled second of strike day became more explicit in their willingness to accept the Government’s proposals. Speaking as 250,000 workers effectively closed down the entire public service for 24 hours, ICTU’s lead negotiator Peter McLoone said it would be "necessary" to agree "temporary measures" to cut the payroll next year.He also said a Government document on transforming public services could form the basis of negotiations, and that it would be “possible to agree an alternative that will achieve the savings the Government requires”.This was followed up by a speech by Jack O’Connor of SIPTU in which he called for consideration to be given to adjusting pay levels, arguing that the “boom has disproportionately increased pay and pay costs here as against competitor countries”.While such statements fly in the face of the reality of wages as a percentage of GDP actually failing over the period of the boom, they do serve to illustrate the complete identification of trade union leaders with the agenda Government and employers.This is the class collaboration that is at the heart of social partnership.

Undoubtedly the latest capitulation of trade union leaders will serve to disorientate workers, particularly on the eve of a national strike.However, there are indications that a section of workers, for example the motions passed by TUI branches calling for McLoone’s resignation, are waking up to the treachery of the trade union leaders.The numbers of these discontents is likely to grow as the attacks on the working class intensity and the complicity of the trade union leadership becomes ever more obvious.The task of socialist and trade union activists is to help organise these workers into a movement that can mount a challenge to the current rotten leadership and restore trade unions as independent organisations of the working class.


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