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Public sector workers struggle against the bonds of social partnership

James North

27 April 2007

Just months after the adoption of the ten year ‘Towards 2016’ partnership deals the whole edifice has come under attack from public sector workers.  The most dramatic example has been the nurse’s strike, but there have been sharp attacks on the deal from all the teaching conferences and, in the background, a glaring example of the reality behind the Celtic tiger, with scandals around the safety of water supplies.

Tensions in the primary teachers union, INTO, had hung over from last years congress.  Then the union leadership had discarded a resolution calling for them to oppose productivity deals in exchange for cost of living pay increases – the central mechanism of social partnership.  The executive had ignored this direction and this Easter received a sharp censure, with a direction to bring further deals back to the members.  The executive tried to use the benefits of partnership as a defence, but their own reports to the Easter conference contradicted that defence. 

Perhaps the greatest scandal was that of school budgets.  A survey by the union concluded that a staggering 30% of running costs had to be provided by parents. One third of principals were considering resigning their posts and it was becoming more common for advertisements for principals not to attract applicants.

When we consider that this state of affairs is the responsibility of the Unions ‘partners’ in government it is hardly surprising that the pay component of the current deal also came under threat, with INTO delegates complaining that the union had accepted new productivity conditions for what was, in an environment where inflation was running at over 5%, essentially a pay cut. It was a sentiment echoed at ASTI and TUI conferences, with the Association of Secondary teachers calling for renegotiation of the ‘towards 2016’ deal.

What did not feature largely at the conferences was the Nurses industrial action.  Dissatisfaction at social partnership is not yet willingness to step outside the framework.  Attempts to do so in the last social partnership agreement led to ASTI being isolated by ICTU and then hung out to dry. One union militant at the INTO conference said that they did not put a resolution supporting the Nurses for fear it would be defeated in favour of a counter-resolution supporting social partnership.  (Inside the deal the ‘benchmarking’ process is supposed to deliver pay increases through importing rationalisation mechanisms from the private sector. They are largely zero cost, with pay increases paid for by job reductions.) 

The Nurses continue their action inside a zone of silence, lacking any support from the unions and receiving only the most perfunctory statements of support from the small socialist movement. An indication of the hostility of the union bureaucracy was given by SIPTU.  They put in a comparative claim for hours reduction by hospital ancillary staff without taking strike action or suggesting support for the nurses.  The effect of the claim is to weaken the nurse’s action, enabling the bosses to argue the unaffordability of the overall claim while pointing out that SIPTU had taken the ‘benchmarking’ route within partnership – a route that, if seriously followed, would exchange hours for massive job losses. 

The position of ICTU was summed up by spokesman David Begg. If inflation continued to rise he might be ‘forced’ by rank and file pressure to call for renegotiation of the pay component of partnership.  Note that there is no suggestion that he would represent the workers interests unless forced to! In fact Begg, in his role as member of the National Implementation body which acts as the enforcement mechanism for the Towards 2016 agreement, is now closing in for the kill, arranging a settlement with the nurses leadership that will tie them inside the benchmarking process.

There are close ties between the discontent of public service workers and the endemic crisis of public services in the 26 counties. Hospital services are on the point of collapse and the defeat of the nurses would tremendously accelerate the government solution of full-scale privatisation. A large part of the money crisis in schools is the imposition of large water charges – the service is also being lined up for privatisation, while years of neglect mean that stocks across the country are so heavily contaminated as to be unfit for human consumption.  Even when the service breaks down, as it has in Galway, the government are unable and unwilling to react.  As one local wag put it; “it’s new planet Fianna Fail – it promises fresh water, but its twenty light years away!”

Minister Mary Hanafin, speaking to INTO delegates, offered a solution to the education crisis.  The government would double the budget to reach the European average.

Few believed her.  The Dublin government is totally dependent on the transnational companies and applies only nominal taxation to their activities.  Despite heavy taxation of the workers it is unable to generate the revenue that would produce a modern economic infrastructure.  A way out for the bosses and government, a disaster for the workers, is the wholesale privatisation of public services that is now being considered, 

It is the shadow of that threat that hangs across debate in the public sector unions today.


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