Croke Park II: deal is not attractive but alternative would be far worse

Plan to cut €1 billion from public service pay and pensions cannot be wished away

Thu, Mar 28, 2013, 06:00

Public servants voting on new Croke Park proposals face both an insurmountable challenge and a choice. The insurmountable challenge is called €1 billion. That’s the sum of additional savings that, one way or another, the Government will extract from the public service pay and pensions bill over the next three years.

The choice is whether or not they will have the protection of an agreement – with clauses that rule out compulsory redundancies, avoid pay cuts for most, restrict changes to working conditions, and establish procedures and protections on redeployment – while that €1 billion is extracted.

It goes without saying that the deal is a difficult proposition for the 290,000 people it will affect. But the choice is not between this package and the status quo. It’s between this and something far less certain, and almost certainly worse.

Ministers and managers have consistently said they will impose measures to make the savings if the deal is rejected. Naturally they prefer an agreement given the success of the original Croke Park deal and its contribution to stability and Ireland’s international reputation. But an agreement is best for workers too.

This is not an attractive package. But it’s better than any achievable alternative that can be negotiated at this difficult time. If accepted, the deal will protect 87 per cent of public servants from further cuts in core pay, while most of those subject to pay cuts will have a route to restoration.

Without an agreement, deeper, wider and probably permanent pay cuts are in the offing. If the proposals are rejected, existing Croke Park protections, including the commitments on compulsory redundancies, redeployment limits and outsourcing, will also be in jeopardy.

Atypical examples
Members of many unions will be hit by changes to overtime and premium payments. But some – whose members are largely protected from cuts to core pay, and who wouldn’t be in the front line for compulsory redundancies – focus solely on this issue, and highlight atypical examples, to present the deal as “inequitable”.

Every public servant is understandably exercised by the elements of the package that hit them directly, and it’s essential that they understand what the proposals mean for them before they vote. But “equity” can only be judged by looking at the package as a whole.

The agreement will see the burden fall heaviest on those with higher incomes; almost a quarter of the savings will come from the 13 per cent of public servants who earn over €65,000. Virtually none of them are uniformed or “frontline” workers. By comparison, just 6.5 per cent of the total savings will come from overtime and premium payments.

A strategy based on rejecting the deal and its protections in the hope that protests and political lobbying will achieve a better outcome is extremely high-risk.

In this scenario, the €1 billion insurmountable problem is simply wished away. The inevitability that changes to allowances, premium payments, working hours, flexitime and increments would still be sought or imposed is glossed over. And the vulnerability of public servants in the absence of a deal (just listen to what managers, ministers, backbenchers and commentators have been saying for the last three years) is simply ignored.

Those who underplay the value of having an agreement do their members a disservice. While Croke Park is delivering widespread reforms and €3.3 billion in savings, unions have also been able to use its procedures to curb management demands – for groups and individuals – on many issues including sick leave, redeployment and annual leave.

Similarly, the recent negotiations allowed unions to shape and restrain management demands under virtually every heading. They wanted compulsory redundancies in some circumstances; there will be none. They wanted a 100km redeployment limit; it stays at 45km. They wanted a three-year increment freeze for all; they didn’t get it. They wanted Sunday premiums to be paid at time-and-a-half; they will be paid at time-and-three-quarters, with some compensation for lost earnings.

A similar softening of the management position was achieved on working hours, flexitime, overtime and outsourcing. Even on salary cuts, union negotiators ensured a route to restore pay over time for all but the highest paid. Management wanted permanent cuts.

In the absence of an agreement, public servants and their representatives will have no such influence over the management agenda. Only sustained industrial action – with no certainty of success – could prevent the imposition of a worse package.

Some say we can reject the package and keep the original Croke Park protections until this time next year. Even if you made the huge assumption that the Government would sit on its hands in that situation, it would still be a high-risk approach. Budget 2013 included additional cost reductions for the second half of 2013. It’s inconceivable that the budget would be rewritten if this deal was rejected.

Prudent negotiation
In any case, trade union-supported economists have confirmed that the budgetary figures for 2013 and 2014 are substantially worse than originally envisaged, and that the biggest single reduction in the Government deficit is planned for 2014. What prudent negotiator would wait until precisely the worst time – when public finances are under most pressure – to enter talks with no protections in place?

Impact has been advising its members to think about two things before voting. First, what does it mean for you? Second, what’s the alternative? The answer to the first question varies depending on your job, sector and salary. The answer to the second is the same for all: it’s almost certainly worse.

Bernard Harbor is head of communications of I mpact trade union

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