Rejection of Croke Park II deal may have prevented damaging split

With any revised deal, the prospect remains of rows reigniting within the trade union movement

Siptu ballots.

Siptu ballots.

Thu, Apr 18, 2013, 12:02

It is ironic that the decision by ordinary members of various public services unions to go against the advice of many of their leaders and to reject the proposed Croke Park II deal may have saved the trade union movement from a damaging split.

When the public service committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions yesterday announced it would not be ratifying the proposed deal, it did so with a unified voice.

It is, of course, speculative to suggest what would have happened if there had been a 3 per cent swing in the Siptu vote and the public service committee had announced yesterday that it had ratified the deal by a tiny margin. However, given all we have heard over recent weeks, it is a fair bet there would have been a major row.

The traditional position in deals with the Government has been for those in the minority on the public services committee to adhere to the majority decision even if their own members had voted a different way in individual union ballots.

On this occasion, however, several unions had publicly declared they would not be bound by any such majority decision if it differed from their own ballot result.

If the public service committee had ratified the deal, the likelihood is that some unions on the No side would have begun balloting members on what response to take. It is more than likely some would have included an option of pulling out of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

While the rejection of the deal may have saved the trade union movement from damaging divisions, there remains a prospect that these may only be postponed, especially if the Government decides it wants to re-engage with the unions on a possible “tweaking” of the deal.

Any tweaking of the deal could, in reality, only be targeted at a small number of unions that voted No, most specifically Siptu.

There would have to be tweaking on an industrial scale, for example, to persuade the 95 per cent of nurses in the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation who voted to reject the proposed Croke Park II deal to change their mind.

Narrow defeat
In contemplating a re-engagement, the Government will be mindful that although it appears the deal was comprehensively rejected by union members, the reality was it was only narrowly defeated.

If 1,000 members of Siptu had voted the other way, or if more of its members had been minded to come out and vote – there was an extraordinarily low turnout of 45 per cent – the deal would have had sufficient support to be ratified at the meeting of the public service committee yesterday.

It was that close.

If the Government wants to see the deal accepted a second time around, in theory it would only have to target Siptu members and not everyone across the public service to accept revised proposals.

However, if Siptu was to accept a revised deal in a new ballot and other groups continued with their opposition, at most a new deal would be ratified by a 51:49 margin, leaving open the prospect of internal rows reigniting within the movement.

Politically it seems that a re-engagement with the unions is the most palatable option for the Government, particularly on the Labour side.

A number of Labour backbenchers yesterday came out in support of new negotiations rather than introducing legislation to give effect to pay cuts.

The overall executive council of Congress yesterday said it would resist any attempt by the Government unilaterally to impose pay cuts across the public sector. However it suggested changes could be brought about by way of consultation and negotiation.

In drawing up its plans for any re-engagement, the Government will also have to ask itself why trade union members voted against the Croke Park II proposals.

In reality there was probably a wide range of reasons.

Some public servants, undoubtedly, did not like what was in store for them personally under the deal, whether that be straight pay cuts, changes in increments, additional working hours and so on.

However, it is also undoubtedly the case that some who would have been relatively unaffected also rejected the proposals.

The No argument that workers should not vote for pay cuts for other workers was simple and effective.

It is also likely that some public servants voted against the deal because they disliked either the Government or its policy of austerity, or both, and were determined that if politicians wanted to impose pay cuts, they would have to do it the hard way and walk through the division lobbies to bring it about.

If the Government wants to attract support for a revised deal in Siptu or elsewhere after a process of tweaking or clarification, it will need to know why people voted against the deal in the first place.

Tweaking deal
The downside of tweaking the deal is that any concession the Government may offer to generate support will have to be offset by deeper cuts elsewhere. And already the Government will have noticed that Impact was quick out of the blocks to state that any tweaking could not be at the cost of worsening the terms for its members.

If the Government decides after Cabinet next week to re-engage, it needs to develop a strategy and implement it very quickly if its July deadline for making savings on the public service pay bill is to be met.

At this stage, a new process of tweaking or clarifying the deal seems to be one of the more attractive options for the Government. However there are no guarantees. A revised deal could easily be voted down again and even if it was accepted, the problem of having a divided workforce and a divided trade union movement in its wake could remain.

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