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ICTU launches “low intensity” industrial action 
JM Thorn 
1 February 2010

This week saw the launch of a campaign of action against the imposition of public sector pay cuts in the last budget.  The strategy behind this campaign was set out last month in a document published by ICTU's Public Services Committee.  It centres on public sector workrers engaging in a form of low intensity industrial struggle with the Governement.   The campaign will include non-co-operation with management reforms such as redeployment.  Services in all sectors including schools, colleges, hospitals, and public offices will be the subject of action involving all unions.  Alongside an immediate work to rule, the strategy document set a number of other tactics.  These included - selective strike action to be used intermittently; the possiblity of one-day nantional strike at a “strategic point” in the campoiagn; the refusal to engage with the Government's plan to "transform" the public sector; demonstrations and protests; industrial action where there is the threat of compulsory redundancies or disciplinary action due to non-co-operation; political lobbying and possible legal action over pay cuts or changes to pensions. 

While the strategy for the campaign outlines a range of options, up to including a national strike, it is clear that union leaders want to keep action at the most minimal level possible.  This reflects the need for them to be seen to be doing something in response to the attack on their members while at the same dampening down anything that could escalate and risk a real clash between workers and the Government.  So at the same time at ITCU was launching its campaign, officials were offering assurances to employers on how limited it would be.  One unnamed official was quoted as saying that among the leadership that there was “no sense that there will be any escalation, part from work-to-rules”.   They were taking the view that is was “a long term campaign” and there would be “no knee-jerk actions.” What really exposes the lack of seriousness of the campaign is the policy of non-cooperation with the Government’s reform programme.  It is only last November that unions were offering a blank cheque on public sector reform (essentially a complete overhaul of pay working conditions) as part of the aborted deal on unpaid leave. 

The approach of the trade union leaders is summed up in SIPTU president Jack O’Connor’s claim that:  “In order to make peace we have to prepare for war.”   On the face of it such statements sound quite militant, but in reality they are the same old empty sabre rattling that trade union leaders have engaged in for years.  There has not been a shift within the trade unions after the collapse of formal partnership arrangements last December.   There is no sense that the trade union leadership are preparing for class war.   The most they are contemplating are a few minor skirmishes ahead of a hoped for restoration of some form of partnership. 

Indeed, the current campaign is framed in terms of securing a new agreement.   In this it very much resembles the two anti-cuts campaigns ICTU ran last year, one of which ended with the cancellation of a proposed day of action, and the other the debacle of the aborted deal and subsequent pay cuts.   Workers are being marshalled on the basis of opposing cuts but this is just a means to get the trade union leaders back into social partnership.  That is why alongside the bellicose rhetoric we have Jack O’Connor holding out the prospect of a deal allowing for the transformation of public services.  He has stated explicitly that the aim of the industrial action campaign is to persuade the Government to negotiate an alternative to the Towards 2016 transitional agreement which has been reneged upon.

There have already been some moves towards the restoration of partnership. The Government has signalled that it would consider reversing some element of the public service pay cuts in next year’s budget, or at least not make further cuts, provided the savings can be secured in major reform and efficiencies.  Also, the chief executive of the Labour Relations Commission (LRC) Kieran Mulvey has met with government officials and will soon decide if there is a basis for employers and unions to restart negotiations.  The conciliatory noises from Government have been leapt upon by trade unions.  Impact general secretary Peter McLoone said that “if the government was opening the door for negotiations on the basis of reforms it would be a positive step.” As well as continuing to look to Fianna Fail, trade union leaders have also held talks with Labour and Fine Gael on the possibility of partnership being restored under an alternative Government formation.   Labour leader Eamonn Gilmore has already declared his support for a partnership process, though without committing his party to any reversal or halting of cuts.   Alongside promises of improvements threats are also being used to encourage unions towards partnership.   The limited industrial action in the public has provoked a fierce response from Government.  On the back of the action by air traffic controllers and the work to rule, ministers have threatened to ban strikes in some areas, suspend workers who refuse extra duties and impede the collection of union dues.   However, given the desire of trade union leaders for partnership, they hardly need the stick. 

In practice partnership, while coming to a formal end, is very much alive.   This is evidenced in SIPTU’s support for a “cost-recovery programme” at the Dublin Authority (DAA).  At the same time at Jack O’Connor was engaging in “class war” rhetoric his officials were pushing an agreement for DAA workers which included 400 redundancies, a pay freeze and the creation of a two tier workforce.  The agreement also included an employee “recovery-investment contribution” scheme under which workers return a percentage of their wages to the company as an alternative to pay cuts. 

The actions and words of trade union leaders display their determination to stick with partnership.  They know nothing else and find it impossible to envision the trade union movement playing an independent role.  Undoubtedly, the treachery of the trade union leaders, with their half-hearted campaigns and subsequent capitulations, have served to demoralise many workers.  Some workers may also have bought into the idea that the worst is over and that the demands for sacrifices will ease.  This is certainly what the trade union leaders are hoping for.  But the reality is that the assault on workers living standards will constitute.  The Government and employers have made wage reduction a key element of their plan for Ireland’s economic revival.  The costs of the financial bailout, the other element of that plan, are also escalating rapidly.  Any partnership constructed at this time will have the objective of making the working class pay the cost of the crisis. 



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