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"Building Momentum" pay deal

Another set of handcuffs for the workers

15 February 2021

In mid February the members of the secondary teacher's Union, ASTI, voted to reject a new two-year public sector pay deal. They are likely to be followed by the other secondary union, the TUI. Although these deals are central to the government's economic strategy, the ASTI rejection was largely ignored and in fact only 20% of members voted.

The reason for the low turnout is very simple.  ASTI has voted against a succession of pay agreements over many years only in each case to find that their vote was ignored, as their executive agreed to accept the overall result. Each union votes individually only to see the final decision made collectively.  A series of large unions; SIPTU, INTO, FÓRSA and the IMO, overwhelm the others. As SIPTU and INTO sit on the Irish Congress of Trade Unions  negotiation team that proposed the agreement, the outcome is certain to go in favour of Congress and the government.

It's a bad deal.  2% over 2 years, modified to a 500 euro payout that will offer a bigger percentage payout for the lowest paid workers. The government economists argue a inflation rate of 2.5%, which would mean a pay cut for many workers, a cut accentuated by an inflation calculation that does not include housing costs. In Dublin today the price of the cheapest apartment is so high that a couple on average wages could not qualify for a mortgage. As is commonplace in these agreements, the intent is that the workers pay for this miserable rise themselves through changes in working conditions and working hours. It is of course, a no strike agreement.

On top of what's essentially a cuts agenda, the deal bakes in pay cuts and social wage failures over more than a decade of social partnership. 1% is set aside for sectoral bargaining and €150 million towards partial restoration of overtime rates. A nod is given towards an increment payment to teachers to reduce the gap in a two tier pay structure. The government are waiting for older teachers to retire so that the austerity pay structure becomes the norm. The government has promised that emergency powers for controlling public sector pay will be abolished, but no sharp timeline has been established.

But there is another layer to austerity. The "social wage" in areas such as housing and health is severely constrained.  Millions are invested in housing, but they are fed to speculators and used to attract vulture funds. There's almost no public housing and an extremely limited public health service.

Partnership is  now a built in element of overall government strategy. Rarely do workers take action. When they do,  it is behind the union leadership, who always stop short of declared goals and any gains are paid for by increased privatisation, speed up and deregulation. Resistance is smothered by the alliance of union bosses and the government. Years of partnership were followed by a Public Sector Stability Agreement, policed by former union bureaucrats and the new deal, "Building Momentum" is to take the place of the PSSA.

What can be done?

Fightback calls not enough. Union bosses are operating in tandem with a comprador capitalist class with a strategy that only industrial peace, restraint by the working class and capitulation to banks and speculators can secure the Irish economy. We are still in the territory former SIPTU leader Jack O'Connor described as the "narrow confines" set by the Troika.

No matter how angry workers get, they really don't see any alternative. At most suggestions for political and economic reform revolve around bigger loans from the European bank that are unlikely to materialise. Elections see the same discredited parties return again and again.  None if the major issues are ever resolved and Sinn Fein grows in popularity for the simple reason that they are the only card that has yet to be played in Southern coalition politics.

This is unsustainable and is only holding together because of the flood of cheap money from the European Central Bank. A Celtic Tiger boom originally based on industrial investment is more and more based on financialisation and Ireland's status as a tax haven. This doesn't create jobs. Instead civil society and the economy are deformed to meet the needs of imperialism. There is an enormous wealth transfer from the poor to the rich. The deformation has become so extreme that special measures are taken to measure change in what is essentially two economies,  native and transnational.   In the face of Covid-19 and Brexit the transnational economy forges ahead and the native economy falters.

Explosions of anger can drive back irish capitalism on specific issues.  A broader fightback requires tapping into a native anti-imperialist consciousness.  At home this means expropriation of native and vulture capital, sucking out our lifeblood in areas such as housing and healthcare. The issue of a united Irish democracy must be flipped from an aspiration for a mythical border poll organised by the British to concrete demands for all Ireland mobilisations around Covid-19 and Brexit. Abroad we need defiance of the ECB  and the forces of the Troika, repudiation of debt and a call for a debt jubilee and linkage with other workers across Europe to advance the call for a United Socialist States of Europe.

This is a tall order, but the alternative is "Building Momentum" and yet another partnership deal that yet again transfers wealth from the poor to the rich.

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