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Union leaders bluster as government imposes cuts

JM Thorn 

17 December 2009

The Government has proceeded with its proposals to cut the pay of public sector workers.This was one of the key elements of the last week’s cost cutting budget.The wage cut will contribute €1.3 billion to the overall €4 billion reduction in public expenditure over the next year. 

This along with other measures, such as cuts in social security payments, drew criticism trade union leaders.The general secretary of ICTU, David Begg, described the budget as the most right-wing he has ever experienced.He said that the measures contained in it were “highly dangerous” and “too brutal and too quick”; and ran the risk of delaying any recovery in the economy.However, this cannot be taken as a sign of opposition. The reality is that the trade union leadership are in agreement with the Government on the need to reduce wages and cut public spending.The phrase “too brutal and too quick” reflects the very limited nature of trade union opposition, with the only points of contention being over the means to achieve the cuts and over what time period they should be implemented. 

This was the substance of the talks on which took place between public sector unions and Government officials prior to the budget announcement.While those talks did not end in agreement, they did serve to demonstrate the degree to which the trade union leadership had accepted the cuts agenda.ICTU’s public sector negotiating team, which was lead by Peter McLoone of IMPACT, may have had a mandate from members to oppose any pay cuts, but the substance of talks was how to produce an effective pay cut.The priority for trade union leaders was to keep social partnership together by reaching an agreement which gave the Government the cuts it demanded in return for a gesture towards their concerns.

The mechanism that the trade union leadership hoped would achieve this was its proposal for unpaid leave.This would have reduced overall pay while leaving pay rates intact. A secondary element of this was agreement on the complete overhaul of pay and working conditions within the public sector from 2011.The net effect of this would have been an immediate five percent pay cut for public sector, with a wholesale assault on conditions to follow. All for the face saving gesture of maintaining pay rates for a short period. 

Trade union leaders did their best to talk this proposal up as a major breakthrough.But hopes for an agreement were dashed when it was rejected by the Government.There is speculation over whether the Government ever seriously considered the paid leave proposal or was using the talks to draw out what the unions would agree to in a future overhaul of the public sector.In the end the convoluted proposals of the trade unions were rejected in favour of a straight pay cut.

Trade union leaders were indignant that agreement had not been reached. The unions’ chief negotiator, Peter McLoone, said he was “deeply disappointed and astonished” that the opportunity for transforming the public services had been allowed to slip away.He claimed that the aborted deal that would have delivered “a massive transformation in the delivery of public services far beyond anything previously contemplated - let alone achieved - in this state.”In the aftermath of the talks failure, with trade union leaders desperate to assert their credentials as “responsible” partners of the Government and employers, more of the proposed deal was made public.It included:

  • Redeployment of staff across the public and civil service.
  • The introduction of performance related pay.
  • The centralising of functions such as payroll, procurement and purchasing, IT and human resources.
  • The introduction of an extended working day in the health service covering the period 8am to 8pm.
  • An overhaul of staff roistering in health so staff could work any five days in a seven day week.
  • A review of staffing ratios.
  • Schemes for early retirement and career breaks.
  • Flat rate overtime for the first eight hours of each month.

If this programme of “reform” was implemented it would mean a massive set back for workers, resulting in further wage reductions, more job losses and a steep deterioration in working conditions. That the leadership of ICTU should make such proposals demonstrates the degree to which they have moved from being representatives to managers of the working class.They completely indentify with the Government and employers and see their role as persuading their members to accept whatever is demanded.

Despite their public indignation and claims that the proposed deal on public sector reform is “dead and buried” it is still very much on the agenda.As one government official said:"They’ve put out the list of things they said they would do. Why don’t they go ahead and do them [in the interests of a better public service]? Do it anyway."Even in the wake of the Government announcement that was to press ahead with the pay cuts, trade union leaders continue to cling to social partnership. Jack O’Connor of SIPTU said there was "some possibility" of retrieving ground "if something progressive" was done to make the budget fair.This was quickly dashed with the publication of budget containing €4 billion worth of cuts made up mostly of pay and welfare reductions. There were no gestures towards ICTU’s proposal for a “wealth tax”. 

Despite their huffing and puffing and warning of a “long and sustained campaign” of industrial action there is no indication that the ICTU leadership is about to change course and mount any serious opposition to the Government. There have been several executive meetings that have taken place since the budget, but they have concluded without any specific action being proposed. Speaking after one meeting Peter McLoone said that any campaign would be “different in character and substance” from previous action without saying how.Larry Broderick of the Irish Bank Officials' Association said the unions’ strategy “has to be taking this Government out of power”.David Begg later distanced ICTU from these remarks.

Despite the rhetoric the trade union leaders are going through their well worn formula of criticising of the Government while hoping for talks and the conclusion of an agreement. While they were not successful in March or November they still haven’t given up.They remain committed to social partnership.The Government is also leaving door open to further talks on the implementation of reforms in the public service, hinting that further pay cuts might be avoided if such reforms were delivered. As ICTU has already agreed to most of this how could it refuse? 

This latest debacle by the leadership of ICTU demonstrates once again the urgent need for the development of a current within the trade union movement that opposes social partnership and seeks to re-establish unions as independent organisations.As long as we have a leadership that is wedded to social partnership it is impossible for workers to defend themselves against the onslaught.The imposition of the pay cut and the union deal on working condition will serve to disorientate and demoralise some workers, but there are also signs, such as the formation of a new grassroots movement and some union branches passing motions critical of the leadership, that an oppositional current is emerging.While small at the moment this is where the hope for a future fight back lies. 


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