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Haddington Road: ICTU’s Most Moderate” demands

As the situation stands it seems likely that the Public Service Stability Agreement, the new Haddington Road deal, will go through. Not because it is good, which it certainly isn’t, but simply because the entire bureaucracy are unwilling to oppose it and the right wing actively support it. Despite the noises coming from some of the unions most effected by its most negative aspects no strategy exists for a campaign against the deal nor the premise upon which it is based, the restriction of union demands to within what is “realistic” within the fiscal space laid down by the government and the Troika. In fact the idea that the agreement was negotiated is an inflated claim. The unions twiddled their thumbs on secondary strands until the government finished number crunching and came up with a financial offer based on the fiscal space left over from further payments of sovereign debt. It took half an hour for the unions to accept and sign on the dotted line. 

The positive spin put on the deal by the bureaucrats and wildly exaggerated claims of pay restoration are intended to cover its declared objective of securing, industrial peace until 2020. While members unhappy with the content try to weigh up the chances of a victory in any envisaged dispute they do so in the shadow of the sell-out of the Bus Eireann dispute and the undoubted knowledge that there is no fight coming from their top table. The leadership plays the usual predictable game of maintaining an almost complete silence during the balloting period while using organisational structures to push their agenda. And as usual with no organised opposition the tactic seems to be working. 

The Deal 

The pay increases being trumpeted for different income groups would range from 6.2% to 7.4% over a period of 3 years, the last increase occurring in Oct 2020. Workers earning €30,000 or less gain 7.4% over the lifetime of the deal through increases to pay and adjustments to pension. Those earning between €50,000 and €55,000 will have increases worth 7% and those earning between €55,000 and €80,000 will get between 6.6% and 6.9%. The first increase of 1% is set to take effect from 1 January 2018. That penny in the Euro would already have been almost wiped out by inflation in April but for the fact that the Irish economy has slipped back into deflation at minus 0.4 in June. That is predicted to rise to plus 0.70% by the end of the year and to be at around 2.0 to 2.4% by 2020. Overall the figure amounts to an increase for some people, only just, from the present level but the problem is that the present level has been attained by the State imposing swinging cuts in pay. When the 2 to 2.4% is stripped out for the predicted inflation the increase could be as low as 3.8% to 6% over the three year period. So increase wise, it is better than another cut for the lowest paid, but virtually nothing is on offer to address what has been lost in the 11 years preceding 2020 when the deal concludes. 

By 2020 75% of public sector workers will still be subject to the FEMPI pensions levy. But this cut is being redefined. The existing pension related deduction (PRD) will be converted into a permanent contribution. This is being sweetened by what the government calls “modest increases in the threshold”. So the reason that many public sector workers exit from Emergency Measures is due to the fact that the measures are no longer regarded as Emergency and the increased deductions have become normalised. 

Pay Restoration 

The talk of pay restoration is wildly exaggerated when the level of loss the cuts have imposed is taken in to consideration. With this deal the union leadership present the case that 90% of their members will be out of FEMPI pay restraint by 2020 but what they are referring to is the ending of deductions and the partial restoration of 2009 levels of pay. With the extension of these measures to 2021 when new negotiations would start pay levels will be 12 years behind the curve and all monies taken by the State in the intervening period has permanently been lost to the bailed out banks or subsidised corporations and individuals. 

As it stands; Workers on €30,000 in 2009 have lost €18,000 in the period up to 2017 and will have regained €1,803 by 2020 which is a restoration of 10% of what they have lost. Workers on €40,000 in 2009 have lost €33,292 in the period up to 2017. They have gained nothing and continue to lose. By 2020 they will have lost a further €2,999. Workers on €50,000 in 2009 have lost €47,525 in the period up to 2017. They also continue to lose and will have lost a further €7,466 by 2020. This will mean that Haddington Road: ICTU’s Most Moderate” demands public sector workers have lost upwards of a year’s wages and will continue to lose under this deal as their wages have been suppressed for over a decade, but this is not the most insidious aspect of the drive to lower wages. 

Two Tier Pay

There is no change to the pay scales for post-2010 entrants to the sector. The usual fig leaf of a “process” is to be put in place to look into it, but the two-tier pay structure remains firmly in place. The outright refusal of any concessions on two tier pay reveals the government’s strategic objectives. In return for giving very little to the lowest paid the State achieves the greater goal of copper-fastening two tier pay and their longer term strategy remains on course for a drastic reduction in the public sector wage bill. As older workers retire they will be replaced by workers on the lower tier and when the numbers of those on the higher tier get small enough wage harmonisation will take place. Simply put, the top rate will be cut. Pay has not been restored and is nowhere near it, the state has no intention of restoring it and the bureaucrats are tasked with selling a pup to their members as usual. 

Work – Life balance 

The issue of additional working hours is even clearer. No work, no pay! The much vaunted opt out of additional hours is not a firm contractual agreement but is at the discretion of management and will only be available on their approval, providing it will not impact on frontline services. 

So, if you are lucky, the “opportunity” to refuse to work the extra hours will be offered to you, and the employers will take the opportunity not to pay you! This is dressed up in liberal sounding jargon about work-life balance and a “process of change” is promised, again by way of a concession to the bureaucracy who have to sell the idea to their membership. 

For those that can’t afford another pay cut the vague suggestion is also advanced that rostering arrangements will be reconsidered so the compulsory additional hours can be worked at a more convenient time. But again this is loaded with caveats. A process to review rostering arrangements including Saturday working is promised to be “looked at” but no change can be made without agreement. So little or no concessions are granted on whether or when additional hours are worked and this will cement the destruction of terms and conditions, Annual and Sick leave have been left unchanged while the threat from low wage competition through outsourcing remains and is continuing under the existing, and completely ineffectual, protections. But, without so much as a blush, the bureaucrats claim they have “obtained assurances”! 

The rate of surplus value

The reason for maintaining the extra unpaid hours is obvious. Fifteen million hours have been added to the workload and overtime drastically cut as the rate of work, or in Marxist terms the rate of surplus value, is racked up, an essential part of the recovery is to make workers produce more for less money. Paschal O’Donahoe has explicitly made it clear that it is keeping recruitment levels at about half of what they should otherwise be; ... “If I were to lose those hours the Exchequer would need to double the number of people it is looking to hire this year to maintain the same level of public services”. This is fully clear to the trade union bureaucrats but is also becoming increasingly clear to at least some sections of their membership. 

Union acceptance and equivocation

There is little organised resistance to this outside of the hesitant opposition voiced by the leaderships of the most effected unions. Siptu are now fully on board with the deal after unashamedly urging an acceptance, the ballot has recorded an overwhelming “Yes” vote of 76%. Impact proceeded with indecent haste in pursuing a yes vote and stand accused of not allowing time for discussion. They have long since balloted and secured a yes vote by a margin of 77% on a 52% turnout. The union has almost 60,000 members, including 50,000 in the public sector and both they and Siptu are making further noises to convince their membership that two tier pay can be ended through talks about to start. 

The Irish Medical Organisation are, so far, not recommending the agreement to their members, but neither are they actively resisting it and the Civil and Public Services Union, which represents more low paid workers, after some equivocation, are now recommending acceptance. In the absence of a revolt from below and judging from their cautiously positive analysis of the deal, their ballots are set to accept it. The usual bureaucratic inaction guarantees it. Unite, posing as the radical wing of the union movement, have recommended rejection but with the caveat that they will be bound by the ICTU Public Services Committee aggregate ballot, a similar position to last time when, after announcing their uncompromising resistance to the deal, they immediately complied with it, leaving ASTI out in the cold and deserted by the greater trade union leadership. The notion of solidarity emblazoned on union banners, “An injury to one is an injury to all” features nowhere amongst the ICTU leadership except in conference speeches. 

Union rejection

The teachers unions are worst affected by the deal’s most negative aspects and the TUI has come closest to making a principled stand. But not quite. They recommend rejection of the draft deal and their 17,000 members are being balloted but the leadership are devoid of any perspective on how to oppose it and can only suggest renegotiation. The same tactics against the same opponents, the same intransigence on two tier pay and the same negotiators and they hope for a different result. The TUI leadership have the difficulty that a lot of their younger membership are badly affected by the two tier pay system and it is there that the drive towards a low wage economy is most acute. INTO has already rejected the draught pay deal but the bureaucrats are likely to agree to be bound by the majority decision of the ICTU Public Services Committee (PSC). The result of their ballot was 89 per cent in favour of rejecting the deal on a 53 per cent turnout of the balloted membership. In fact the INTO result shows both the possibility of a fightback by members and the hypocrisy of the leadership. Secretary Sheila Nunan sat on the ICTU committee that negotiated the deal and then made herself invisible by recommending that her members reject.

Union solidarity

The language being used by much of the leadership is exactly the same as that used in relation to the Bus Eireann dispute when they called for the “immediate implementation” of what was a bad deal, as though the committees set up to introduce the cuts were a hard won concession. In this case they want to get down to work in the promised processes that, they say, will resolve the two tier pay issue as soon as possible. Of course two tier pay was decisively removed from the negotiating table by the State and not a chance exists, under the conditions of the industrial peace that the deal secures, of overthrowing something that is at the very heart of the State’s strategy for a low wage economy. There is no doubt that the bureaucracy accept that this is the new norm and are happy to sell the little bit of window dressing as progress. 

The ICTU PSC advocate an acceptance. Any union under pressure from their members, and having the temerity not to accept the aggregate decision, possibly the Teaching or Nursing unions, will be abandoned, as ASTI was last time. ASTI have now returned to the fold by suspending the industrial action taken against the first Haddington Rd agreement, indicating they are now likely to agree to be bound by the PSC’s decision. Although anger towards two tier pay is apparent among those professions most effected it is being managed by the leadership of the union bureaucracy, both right and left, and as pressure builds for wage increases in the private sector, among Crane drivers or those involved in a very localised commercial building boom, discontent continues to rumble in the public sector among those worst affected by this abysmal continuation of austerity. 

Thinking inside the box

As things stand the bureaucracy are likely to get their way this time again, but the level of discontent is rising and as Dublin Bus is being privatised and Bus Eireann workers resistance demobilised, it is becoming harder to sell the lie that the recovery is here for the working class or that with continued compliance within the “narrow confines of the troika programme” public sector wages and conditions will end up anywhere else other than on the floor. 

The contradictions will catch up with them sooner or later. The “radical opposition” when it did emerge with Right2Water, proved Brendan Ogle to be just as firmly within the Troika’s parameters and to be working within the same fiscal space as Jack O’Connor. They were thinking inside the Troika’s box and this political weakness led to the demobilising the anti-water charges movement, its conversion into a popular front, acceptance by the left, and a prospective new electoralist front led by Sinn Fein. 

This foray into the water charges campaign by the union bureaucracy has resulted in an acute exposure of the exact nature of their role. The left version of the bureaucratic prograamme that is accepted as normal within the trade union movement has provoked an outraged response among some sections of the anti-water charges movement because of the premature winding up of the campaign which, unsurprisingly to those familiar with the policy of the trade union leadership, left Irish Water and the threat of privatisation in place. 

“We only want the earth”

No meaningful change will come through the existing leadership or without the most acute opposition from below. James Connolly attempted to break workers consciousness from the “realism” imposed by capitalism on the working class with the poetic slogan “Our demands most moderate are, we only want the earth”. As today it was reformism which was fully accepted and reinforced by the labour leaders, acceptance of the needs of capitalist profitability at the expense of the working masses and it is today, more than ever, a break with that reformism that needs to be made. 

A different political project is required, one that is unafraid to be immoderate, to formulate demands based on the needs of the working class and to burst out of the limits of the Troika’s fiscal space, one that draws together all the tenuous strands of opposition, both inside and outside the trade union movement, in a united front, organises opposition on the ground democratically and one which sees that struggle as primary, with Dail seats as a secondary consideration rather than the other way round. 

Any resistance to austerity undoubtedly would face powerful global enemies but it would also be one which could bypass the deadening control of the bureaucracy and appeal directly to all European workers that are struggling under similar conditions for support and solidarity. Internationalism must be at the heart of a strategy for building opposition to austerity rather than a left version of parliamentary manoeuvring which operates only within the parameters laid down by capitalist “realism”. 

We must dare to dream and plan to fight! Opposition will return to the streets, it must be organised and fully independent with a leadership that is accountable to it. This is at present beyond the imagination of the leadership of much of the Irish Left, as their demands are indeed, “most moderate”, but not in the ironic way in which Connolly meant it!

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