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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: December 4, 2009 @ 7:16 pm

    Pay Talks Go Down In Flames

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    What a mess! There was a deal in the making with the unions but the way it was presented meant it was never going to be acceptable to public opinion. As a Fianna  Fáil source put it, the unpaid leave was really “short-time working”.

    What’s in a name? If it had been dubbed “short-time working” it would have been much easier for the public to swallow, whatever about the union membership. And why a second day of strike action was planned for yesterday is not exactly clear. The indications are that it would not have received the same level of support as the previous strike.

    Backbenchers in FF, who are staring into the electoral abyss on a daily basis, were badly rattled by suggestions that the unpaid leave plan would only save €800m. This was 0.5m short of the 1.3bn target and the obvious implication was that a goodly proportion of this would come out of Social Welfare, the client-base of many backbenchers.

    The spectacle of a union leader telling people to keep their mouth shut is not good for the image of the movement. But maybe this is not bad news for the Government. They will now presumably impose a pay-cut in line with their budgetary target and may even be seen as giving decisive leadership. Opposing the unions is always a  popular move with the generality of the news media and will play fairly well with public opinion in its present form.

    • Senan says:

      A mess indeed. The one positive to take out of it is that finally the FF backbenchers are making their voices heard. Maybe Jim McDaid was the catalyst, I don’t know.

    • martin wallace says:

      i cannot fathom what public sector workers did to deserve the treatment they have got during the past year. A year in which some semi-state workers have actually got wage increases, including bank officials. By the end of December public service workers will have lost 20% relative to some other workers in the economy. Yet we still waste money on the political class, we still have costlyquangos and the highest amount of tax breaks of any country in Europe. Roll on the next election.

    • Brian Boru says:

      What was especially obscene about the original proposals is that they were additional to the existing paid-leave – not in place of it. So that would have meant our teachers’ leave going from the existing 31 days to 42 days. A more acceptable proposal would have been for the 12 unpaid leave days to be included within the existing days of paid leave. That would have reduced costs without compromising on the provision of public-services.

      Social-Partnership has outlived its usefulness and become a cure worse than the disease. What began as a reparatory mechanism in the crisis of 1987 became an exacerbatory one in the crisis of 2008-9. A showdown with the public-sector unions is long overdue. I particularly want to see the end of the ludicrous Garda allowance for not doing overtime – designed to compensate them for not working ‘unsocial hours’.

    • Niall says:

      Honestly, the union leader in question was dead right. People expressing opposition to a deal that they know nothing of and which hasn’t been fully negotiated is ridiculous.

      This episode shows just how spineless Cowen is.

    • Gilbert says:

      Yes, what a mess. The pay cuts are needed and should have been introduced six months ago. It would have been a lot better to simply introduce the cuts than to go through these negotiations.
      As a result of the lingering debate we have fed a divide between private and public employees to an unhealthy degree.
      While the unpaid leave proposal was not a realistic option the ending of the negotiations in such an abrupt fashion will result in unforeseen fallout.
      Don’t be surprised if the mood of Public Sector workers becomes much more militant and without doubt social cohesion will be seriously damaged.

      Clear and decisive leadership at an early stage would have avoided this fallout.

    • Thor says:

      Cut the wages only on lower income.
      Don’t touch the massive army of higher-paid “Managers” – they may be able to articulate.
      Play the population against each other.
      Job well done.
      The Elephant in the room has no name.

    • Joanna Tuffy says:

      The irony of it all is that unpaid leave is already being used by private firms to cut down on costs. It is also being already implemented in some parts of the public sector. Local authorities for example have been asked to encourage staff to take sabbaticals, effectively. I know of one Government agency that is encouraging staff to take unpaid leave. It’s something parents get under the parental leave rights in the public and private sector.

      That Fianna Fáil and the editors of our main media outlets would have made such an issue of this on the week that the Government forced through the extension of the bank guarantee by 5 years is depressing. The Irish Times editorial has got it wrong today. It would have been a great achievement by the Government if they had gone the distance on this and nailed a deal.

    • Deaglán says:

      It does sound as if the Budget vote would have been in jeopardy if the unpaid leave deal went through. Jim McDaid declared he would vote against. Now we have ex-PD Noel Grealish looking for a deal a la Jackie Healy-Rae and Michael Lowry. The Government itself could have gone down in flames.

    • don says:

      Twice before backbenchers have eased themselves off their big behinds to grunt their disapproval at something. Once was when their allowances were threatened and again when lowering of drink driving limits was proposed. They’re a credit to Fianna Fail.

    • Robert says:

      The budget needs to go through and then we need an election. The deal on offer for health sector reform included fundamental work practice changes. The government lost sight of the bigger prize. As someone working in the health sector, I know how intransigent the workers are. These changes could have allowed for the necessary changes (eg shutting unnecessary hospitals, redeploy staff to primary care) to occur next year. There is absolutely no prospect of health service reform now. Only with a change of government will there be any talks on reform. And despite what the media may say, it cannot be forced through. No backbench politician will vote for legislation to change public sector contracts if it facilitates their local hospital being closed.

      The public/private sector divide is real. I, for one, no longer socialise with my private sector friends. I got fed up going out for a quiet pint and spending the evening being lambasted for being in the public sector. And not one of these guys has had their pay cut this year and most of them use various tax breaks to minimise their tax liability considerably. An option not open to we (supposedly greedy) public sector workers.

    • dealga says:

      “The irony of it all is that unpaid leave is already being used by private firms to cut down on costs.”

      Ms Tuffy you seem to have grasped the wrong end of the stick with that one. There is no irony whatsoever. Private firms who use unpaid leave to cut down costs are doing so because there has been a reduction in demand for their goods or services – i.e. there is less work to be done – and there is a hope that things will improve before it becomes more cost effective to make a portion of the workforce redundant.

      Given that there is no reason to believe the workload in the public sector is easing off this proposal simply meant that we were all going to have to tolerate reduced services with no choice in the matter.

    • Joanna Tuffy says:


      The public are already having to tolerate reduced services and remaining public servants are having to do more work because of the embargo on filling vacant posts, the making redundant of thousands of temporary public sector workers, incentivised early retirements, and the Government ‘Shorter Working Year Scheme’. The last one is for “work life balance” but is really about doing that private sector thing of reducing costs by paying employees less by giving them less hours.

    • Joanna,

      You can read a summing-up of short-time working in my comment on another post here, but Dealga is correct. I don’t know if you’ve ever worked in the private sector, but private sector employers do not give people fewer hours for the sake of it. They simply have fewer hours that need working because they have less business.

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