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Public Sector Pay Commission report: No recovery for the working class

17 October 2018

The latest proposals for increases in teachers’ pay have been greatly exaggerated. The newer teachers at the lower end of the pay scale have received a raise, skipping a year on a revised scale which has been extended overall by a period of two years, taking twenty seven years to complete, the longest pay ladder in the public service. In a classic case of moving the goalposts, the worst off teachers can now skip a point on an extended scale. This has been presented as if it brings teachers’ pay up to what it was before the government raided their incomes, and talk of pay restoration has given the impression that everyone was going to be repaid all that they lost to the banks over the last ten years. No such thing is happening.

The accumulated losses down the years of the fempi cuts are lost with no mention of return, there is no 'restoration' in the true sense of the term and average pay for the teaching profession is falling in relative terms. The cuts have been endured, new teachers in practical terms are looking at a median pay rate that is slightly over €31,000, well below that of their predecessors in real terms and below the Irish median salary of €38,000. The promise that they can achieve a higher level a little quicker grants some benefits but the ball has been kicked down the road and overall the State strategy of reducing average pay levels and holding on to the cash they have already grabbed is on track.

Pay not the problem!

Some teachers at least are getting an increase. The Public Sector Pay Commission report has found that the lack of a reasonable level of pay is not the cause of declining numbers of workers in the health service. The report has already produced anger among long suffering health workers who see it as justifying the continued suppression of their income. Pressure is growing across the public sector for action and the Irish Nurses & Midwives Organisation's rank and file are so incensed that a significant body of the membership is calling for a ballot for strike action.

Nurses and midwives' workloads have greatly increased because of the shortage of staff, there is only one applicant for every four jobs advertised … while trained medical staff are opting to work abroad but according to the pay commission it has nothing to do with poor pay!

Health workers correctly identify the problem as being due to the long term starvation of funding and the deliberate holding down of the wage bill. It is also important to remember however that this situation and the preceding austerity period for all public sector workers has been arrived at through consensus with the trade union leadership. The talks that led to this particular juncture took place at Lansdowne road and produced an updated Public Sector Stability Agreement.


The Lansdowne Road Agreement (LRA) with ICTU is at the centre of government plans. This agreement is overseen by the Public Sector Pay Commission, a selection of pro-profit experts supposedly balanced by selected trade union “experts” who through their long history of social partnership are equally pro-profit.

The setting up of the commission was originally mooted by the Fine Gael think tank 'The Collins Institute' which required reliable hands from the union bureaucracy to sit on it in order to be ostensibly described as “independent”. The terms of reference of the Commission compelled them to comply with; “Government spending priorities”, the “public service reform agenda”, “maintaining sustainable national finances and competitiveness” and the catch all “any other issues as they are determined by Government”. It is a creature of the State and a part of the apparatus put in place to facilitate wage restraint and cuts and with such explicit terms of reference the participants know that!

Its propaganda function for the State is to give its blessing to the government line while adding the occasional petty caveat. Prominent representatives of the union movement were selected to give the impression of objectivity but they represent no one except labour aristocrats like themselves who agree with government strategy and who seize upon the findings of such a commission as a way of defusing moves towards strike action as a defence of workers’ wages and conditions.

They have an ignoble history. Among their ranks are career bureaucrats such as Kevin Duffy of the Bricklayers Union who was Chair of the Expert Panel on Water Charges which left the door open to retaining the structures required for water charging and privatization, Noel Dowling of Siptu with a long history of social partnership with the bosses on a European wide scale, collaborating on the board of the European Transport Federation, the recognised Social Partnership body at EU level. Peter McCloone of Impact who is well known as the loudest and most aggressive voice in support of a trade union partnership with capital. These bureaucrats are not exceptional but have gained these positions because they represent the politics of those in control of our trade union movement!

Beyond the Pale?

While the report of the pay commission is intended to put a veneer of consensus on continued wage suppression the message that there was no alternative was simultaneously delivered clearly by government.

Flying in the face of claims that Ireland is enjoying an economic recovery in any real sense for the working class Leo Varadkar laid down a marker by asserting that beyond the small concessions to some teachers the Government could afford no more; “We don't want to repeat the mistakes of the past and start borrowing money to pay for pay increases, because that is illusionary, all that we go back to is that cycle of increases followed by pay cuts down the line”. Despite the talk of a recovery it is becoming increasingly clear that the figures being produced relate largely to the multi nationals' activities and the benefit is garnered overwhelmingly by them while for the rest of the working class it is the recovery itself that is “illusionary”.

Pascal Donahue warmly welcomed the report but reminded everyone in the same breath that; “I understand there is a commitment between public service employers and staff representatives to meet within four weeks to discuss issues around implementation of the Report. It is important that this agreed process is adhered to and that space is afforded to the parties to reflect on the detail in this Report and engage in that process”. The reliance on the trade union bureaucrats to 'do the right thing' here is glaringly obvious.

The “agreed process” is very important to them indeed because it allows dissenting unions to be excluded. ASTI suffered the ignominy of being openly betrayed by the rest of the bureaucracy two years ago, Unite talked 'big' but despite the opposition of their members to this scabs charter they accepted it ultimately, leaving ASTI out in the cold until they returned to the fold the following year.

Richard Bruton went on to drive the message home with an implied threat that no union should take the oppositional route previously taken by ASTI. His statement that if unions decided to step outside the Public Service Stability Agreement “it creates a different situation” simply means that any union that dares to oppose this plan will be regarded as being beyond the pale and undoubtedly as before will be abandoned by their fellow bureaucrats to suffer the consequences. Whatever happened to the pledges that founded trade unionism that “an injury to one is an injury to all”, or “unity is strength”? Completely forgotten by the professional bureaucracy.

The Die was Cast

The response of the largest union, Siptu, has been to demand that the stability pact due to expire in 2020, be wrapped up next year and the next deal be negotiated early. Undoubtedly this reflects discontent among the membership. Union members are being fed, on an almost daily basis, the line that we are enjoying a 'recovery' while at the same time watching privatisation continuing to grow unabated, people being evicted from their homes, rents skyrocketing, wages shrinking in real terms and terms and conditions being continuously eroded. Instead of opposing the deal, scrapping it and confronting the structural attack that is taking place on working class living standards Siptu translates this smouldering discontent into lukewarm ambiguities about doing a better deal next time.

For the entire duration of the economic crisis and the so-called recovery Siptu's, and ICTU's, partnership with capital has delivered nothing for workers. When the banking crisis struck the leaders of the Irish working class movement, prepared by decades of Social Partnership were fully on board with the strategy for recovery. Jack O'Connor speaking on behalf of the entire trade union leadership has previously spelled it out, agreeing that trade unionism was “essential to the survival of capitalism”, and to that end he committed the forces of the labour movement, without a word of opposition from the ranks of the so called left bureaucracy, to working within the “narrow confines of the Troika programme”, irrespective of what that meant to union members. When young socialists heckled him at a rally in 2011 for a general strike he disgracefully went straight to the bourgeois press to describe them as fascists. Only a single incident but it reveals the way the die had been cast for the entire era.

Illusionary recovery

The bureaucracy's Keynesian dream of a 'healthy capitalism' is no closer! With the exception of the workers directly involved in the construction of high end accommodation, or office and retail projects for the vulture funds the recovery appears further away than ever for the working class.

After ten years of austerity and a recovery that exists only on the balance sheets of the same banks, corporations and developers as before, with the unwelcome addition of the Vulture funds, every drop of value is being squeezed out of the working class to pay the national debt. The real economy is dragging along the bottom and Leo Varadker has just told us as much when he announced “we can't afford” pay increases.

Two tier pay in education still exists, the average pay level is dropping, essential services are starved of funds and skilled health workers are still fleeing abroad for a decent standard of living. Transport workers have to bargain away terms and conditions for every petty increase and are increasingly threatened with privatisation and the further erosion of conditions. Privatisation of another 10% of bus routes has just been announced as the selloff continues. The working class has emigrated, had their pensions stolen, had their pay slashed, been sacked , evicted and emigrated only to be told, at the supposed height of the so-called 'recovery'; that no real pay increase for the majority is all we can 'afford'!

Endless Debt, Endless Sacrifice

The Leadership of Irish trade unionism are helping to impose this disgraceful condition on Irish working people but there is a growing realisation that the workers are paying for the recovery through immiseration or emigration, as usual!

ICTU's deal with Irish capitalism commits them to respecting Government spending priorities and to “maintaining sustainable national finances and competitiveness”. The reduction in spending on health, education and transport has the objective of achieving a balanced budget and reducing the national debt, at the workers' expense of course.  As it stands Ireland is the third most indebted country in the world and payment of the sovereign debt, if things remain as they are, will not complete until the mid-2050s.  But things are not likely to stay as they are. The cost of servicing the debt, induced largely by the bank bailout, increases with any growth in interest rates and that now looms on the horizon. The next recession is falling due, Brexit will impact on trade and profitability and this time, with a decade of cuts and austerity behind us, any further cuts will be felt more acutely.

Occupations and Flying Pickets

The union bureaucracy's continued partnership with capital translates into continued and increased hardship for the working class for the foreseeable future but they have an increasingly difficult argument to make to convince workers that their medium term austerity-lite strategy can produce some kind of benevolent Keynesian version of capitalism.

Their increasingly obvious refusal to confront the State's agenda has led to a certain loss of confidence in their own ability to mobilise large demonstrations of increasingly restless members.
A new generation of young activists are arriving, largely outside the trade union movement that do not accept the stale lies of this bureaucracy and reject their hypocrisy in favour of action.  But the bureaucrats still control our unions which are almost a million strong and any strategy for the mobilisation of the working class must confront this reality and fight to expose their reactionary strategy and politics.

The direct action of the Bus Eireann strikers last year, which momentarily saw flying pickets and wildcat strikes, is reflected in the occupation movement which directly confronts the class enemy. Conditions are changing and the experience of the last two years points the way forward.

Unexpectedly invading the vacant properties of greedy landlords had a shock effect on the landlords and the State which quickly resorted to forced evictions of protesters; downing tools unexpectedly has the same effect on the State and employers and leaves them at a disadvantage. But what a task faces them if a thousand workers walk out as opposed to the thuggish eviction of ten or twenty protesters!

These are the tools the landlords, employers and the union bureaucrats loath equally, because they are spontaneous and effective, they challenge the State, the capitalist class and the union mediators who pride themselves in the 'art' of demobilising workers struggles.

This may only be the first weak reverberations of increased levels of struggle but the lessons for rank and file trade unionists are clear. The bureaucracy which is tied hand and foot to capital and agrees with the class enemy's arguments have nothing to offer the working class. Self-organised groups of workers do. Let us begin to build that self-organisation and prepare for action. Then our movement will dispense with the empty rhetoric we have become resigned to tolerating and begin to become the voice of an active labour movement engaging in struggle, capable of defending workers' interests and confronting capital.

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