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The new pay deal – aren’t unions supposed to protect their members?

Joe Craig

23 September 2008

Inflation is currently running at 4.3 per cent with food and energy prices soaring.  Workers on the other hand have had pay increases below the rate of price increases for the last couple of years.  Yet the leadership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions have just negotiated a new pay deal which involves a three month pay pause in the private sector and an 11 month pay pause in the public sector.  Since the cost of living is rising faster for those on lower incomes the new deal will involve a substantial wage cut for everyone, and all the greater the less one is paid.  Over 21 months wages are set to rise by only 6 per cent, in tranches of 3.5 per cent and 2.5 per cent, with a final 1/2 per cent at the end for the lowest paid.

The union leaders walked out of the last set of talks the previous month claiming they wouldn’t accept what was on offer and were especially concerned to protect the low paid.  Yet the deal they walked away from represented a pay rise of only 1 per cent less and a pay pause in the private sector of only three months longer than they have now accepted.  Could anyone seriously believe an extra half a per cent at the end of nearly two years will protect the low paid?  What an insult!  The union leaders didn’t get a shorter period over which the pay ‘increases’ would apply and didn’t get a cash amount added for the low paid, both of which they had demanded.

In the last round of negotiations the union leaders also claimed that the employers were making too much of their right to avoid even these meager pay increases through claiming an inability to pay.  But walking out of these latest talks their representative, Turlough O’Sullivan, said that ‘the architecture of the agreement is capable of responding to whatever needs an organisation has in terms of their commercial and economic circumstances.”  In other words they have got their ‘inability to pay’ rights strengthened while no countervailing workers’ ‘inability to afford’ right was ever recognised for discussion.

Other aspects of the deal include the introduction of a statutory prohibition on the victimisation of employees based on their membership or non-membership or activity on behalf of a trade union, and on incentivising non-membership of trade unions.  The first has been routinely ignored in the past and there seems little reason to believe this will not continue in the future while the latter will be more or less impossible to prove.  Both these aspects of the deal can be expected to be as valuable as previous legislation enacted under social partnership to support workers seeking union recognition which has been exposed as worthless when Ryanair took it to court.

Provision will also apparently be made for pensions under the EU's Transfer of Undertakings directive, where an employee is legally transferred from one employer to another.  This also appears to be of similar worth since David Begg of ICTU lamented to the papers that he ‘was personally very disappointed that the pensions agenda was not moved forward.’

Finally we have got a promise from Taoiseach Brian Cowen that the Government will introduce a new framework to prevent the use of temporary agency workers to break strikes and lockouts.  Once again we are entitled to ask if this too will be as useless as their chocolate fire-guard of an act supporting union recognition.

So to sum up: a significant wage cut which employers can renege on and promises that look as beneficial as the last legislation supposedly guaranteeing workers some measure of protection. None of this evaluation can be claimed to be jaundiced – workers will suffer a significant cut in living standards, of this there can be no doubt, and promises to protect them in other respects can hardly be believed from people who delivered these wage cuts and whose previous promises haven’t been worth the paper they’re written on. 

The Best

So what is going on?  The trade union leaders have said that they got the best they could.  ‘If we were to stay there until next Christmas we couldn’t achieve more by negotiation so it’s open to democracy now to decide,” said David Begg.
Is this true?

Well, this is a very hard argument to follow.  The unions are stronger, much stronger, in the State sector than in the private sector yet the deal is worse in the public sector.  Why is this?  Why, if they did their best, were the trade union leaders not able to do better in the public sector?  This is, after all, the argument repeatedly put (in order to divide workers) – that the unions routinely sacrifice private sector workers’ interests to their membership in the State sector.

The only explanation that comes to mind is that perhaps membership of a union is not such a great protection as is claimed by union leaders.  Perhaps the example of Aer Lingus, in the news for wanting to make £100m of cuts right smack in the middle of the negotiations, is proof of this since this is a very heavily unionised company but one that has recently set the pace for reversing workers’ gains.  Rather than protecting workers it looks very much as if unions are the instrument to ensure that government policy is implemented, and this policy is to make workers pay for mounting economic problems.

This explanation also fits the fact that union strength is disproportionately sited in the State sector.  It now appears that the real base of the trade union leaders is not just their membership but the State that facilitates their organisation in the public sector, allows their leaders participation in multiple quangos from which comes status, prestige and money, and gives them the trappings of ‘influence’ through social partnership.  High levels of unionisation are the means to ensure high membership subscriptions that pays their relatively high salaries. 

There are three more reasons to doubt the ICTU leaders’ story.  Firstly, it is claimed that the union leaders at no time put forward their own pay claim.  At no time did they quantify the cut in living standards recently suffered which required reversing; future inflation levels from which workers were to be protected or even economic growth from which workers should gain.  Maybe they did, but if they did then why didn’t we hear what this was?  Why weren’t claims that they had no real demands of their own not robustly and convincingly refuted by putting forward exactly what they were demanding?  In fact, come to think of it, how could anyone place their faith in leaders who wouldn’t tell their membership just what exactly they were fighting for on their behalf?

Maybe however this is naive.  After all didn’t they say when the last talks collapsed in August that they would accept a wage cut as long as the lowest paid received some protection?  In which case how can anyone believe they did their best?  What sort of negotiating position is this?

If this doesn’t convince what about a second reason?  ‘They claim that the deal was the best they could get but this has not been followed by any attempt to organise workers to get more.  In fact behind the cant about the decision now being handed over to the membership it is clear the union leaders are supporting and trying to implement this deal.  ‘The Irish Times.’ quoted. Begg saying ‘he was confident his members would accept the deal.’

A third reason is that union leaders accepted wholesale the story that the current worsening economic climate meant that expectations had to be lowered.  This has, for example, meant that the Government has decided to bring the Budget for 2009 forward to October 14th, which means that more cuts in workers’ living standards are on the way.  Yet again a question arises.  Why didn’t the union leaders wait to see just what these amounted to so that they could take them into account when setting out their own position?

Perhaps by now however the answer to these questions is becoming clearer.

The employers, government and union leaders, joined by a media chorus, have claimed that current worsening economic difficulties means that workers must accept less.  But why is this?  Have the union leaders not noticed that in these crisis circumstances fiscal prudence has gone out the window and that governments across the world have found literally millions to bail out bankers and CEOs with not a whisper about how this can be afforded?  Have they not noticed the US government promise, perhaps £1 trillion (perhaps more!) for greedy bankers, to compensate them for their voracious greed and stupidity.  Do they not believe workers should be at least as equally protected as the super-rich?  Or do they also believe that the mega-rich are a breed apart who deserve special consideration, in which case why are they leading workers’ organisations?

Perhaps they believe the Irish State is somehow different; that the government here would not bail out big bankers like their US or British counterparts.  But what on earth would lead them – or anyone – to believe such a patently wrong idea?  The government has repeatedly said the opposite and already promised increased support for bank deposits.  Credit analysts have also factored government support for Irish banks into their valuations of these institutions, and these people don’t make judgments on sentiment.

It begins to look impossible to believe that unions and their leaders are doing what they are supposed to do – protect their members.

If this is so then the panacea of these union leaders for the difficulties workers face– and their apologists on the left affirm – that what we need are bigger unions with more members – looks to be completely wrong.  As we have noted unions have many more members in the State sector than in the private sector but workers there are getting a longer pay freeze?  Just how would recruitment solve this?


The problem is clearly not one of union size or lack of membership.  The problem is that unions have no demands of their own.  They have accepted the worldview and economic and political programme of the employers and State and have engaged in a process which has hidden this from their members.  The problem is a union movement with leaders that have done this for decades through claiming that the bosses and government are workers’ partners with a similar ‘national interest’ which doesn’t in reality exist.  The growing impact of significant wage cuts may lead more and more workers to realise this.

Socialist can hasten this realisation and begin to organise it to achieve it if they break from alliances with the union leaders and fight for ordinary workers’ control of union organisation.  At the moment union leaders are partners with the bosses, and by refusing to break from these leaders socialists become partners with the bosses as well – at only one remove.  Socialists should reject the alibis of the union leaders that the real problem is simply not enough dues paying members to support the union bureaucracy.

Begg said about the IBEC position that he saw "squadrons of pigs flying by in the sky".  The pigs weren’t the bosses’ lies but the lies of the union leaders.  What’s that old saying; fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me?  Who wants to be a fool?


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