Return to Recent Articles menu

Subordinate to capitalism and imperialism

A Partnership pay deal that sacrifices workers

09 April 2024

Workplace Relations Commission.

A recently finalised agreement on public sector pay in January had ICTU spokespeople describing the talks as "difficult".  In bureaucratic terms this means a bad deal.  In a telling phrase the officials said that: "the new agreement, valued at 10.25% over 2.5 years, represented the “absolute maximum achievable” through negotiations at this time."  The idea that there might be some mode of advance other than negotiations no longer occurs to the union bureaucracy.   But 10.25% over 2½ years is not a large sum. It is split into 2% and 1% tranches over the years to create an impression of movement where none exists.

Many workers amplified the silent confession of the bureaucracy, pointing out that a general agreement left the poorly paid behind, that the award would not meet inflationary pressures and, above all, that earlier agreements that had cut back wage and pension rates had never been restored.

This criticism was not enough. While workers will fight the bosses and the government, they will not fight their own leadership, given the historic experience of all the ways in which the leadership can sabotage struggles that they do not approve of.  The bigger, and more collaborationist, unions, such as SIPTU, FORSA and INTO, marched through the vote and then presented it to smaller unions who can them tell their members that the war is already lost.

The partnership between government and the union bureaucracy is visible to many workers yet, as with many aspects of political economy, only the outer layers of this collaboration are understood.   So, many understand that the new pay agreement leaves them worse off.   A number of them understand that this has been the case since 2011 when ICTU endorsed the Troika budget that sliced through pay and pensions.  Again, many understand that the extension of the Building Momentum agreement from 2022 until 2023 was designed to save the deal when high inflation dictated a full renegotiation.

There is less knowledge of the Public Service Stability Agreement (PSSA). After the state became bankrupt the government used emergency legislation to cut wages and pensions through the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (FEMPI). They also set up the PSSA, which government and union officials jointly enforcing the agreement.  One element was a massive cut in pay which created a lower pay scale for new entrants and a two tier pay structure.  Over time the low pay rate became the standard.

The unions accepted this imposition through the Croke Park and Haddington Road agreements and the mechanisms set up with the government that have acted as handcuffs on workers ever since. The INMO nurse's strike of 2019 was hailed by the bureaucracy for extracting every last penny that could be gained through partnership.   Needless to say, restoration of original pay grades and pensions did not appear in the settlement

But the central issue in the latest pay round is the reality that the award is built into the budget.  ICTU were involved in consultations last year about the overall size and range of the budget.  Although the pay talks came later, the amount available was already baked in.

From the viewpoint of the bureaucracy the advantages of this partnership are strong. They get a voice in overall economic policy and negotiate one off payments and particular social reforms. However, there are consequences. Public sector pay has lagged since 2011 and will continue to lag into the future. There are no genuine public services in Ireland as outsourcing, privatisation and internal markets dominate.  This has reached crisis point in housing, where the high costs of private provision are obstructing the supply of workers available in cities.

How has the partnership agenda dominated Irish society for so long? The answer is that many workers accept the government line of utter dependency on imperialism and the need to keep up the inflow of capital. The union leaders have been engaged in some form of partnership since the 1980s. Sinn Féin abandoned revolutionary nationalism over 30 years ago.  This period of quiescence is coming to an end. The low levels of corporation tax will no longer apply. The flow of capital will reduce as US and European capital demand closer integration with the political and military structures aimed at global war.  What is required now is an anti-imperialist movement that breaks from partnership and collaboration.

Return to top of page