Union solidarity the first victim of Croke Park II
The position faced by the leaders of the public service unions who renegotiated Croke Park is quite without precedent in Irish industrial relations.
In the deep recession of the 1980s, unions negotiated the first social partnership agreement in 1987. While the rate of unemployment and the burden of public debt were comparable to current levels, the 1987-1990 Programme for National Recovery contained a series of sweeteners that included modest pay rises and reductions in income tax.
What has occurred this week is a root-and-branch renegotiation of the original Croke Park deal, a year earlier than the agreement was to end.
If the agreement is eventually ratified, unions will gain the rather slender carrot of an assurance that this Government will seek no further concessions from public servants. More significant in the thinking of union leaders is their concern to avoid a large stick in the form of legislatively imposed pay cuts. Any law passed to reduce public service pay would likely take less account of issues such as fairness between high and low earners or between new entrants to jobs such as teaching and established professionals.
Throughout its life Croke Park has come in for consistent criticism on the grounds that the concessions sought from public servants were too modest when set against the scale of fiscal consolidation required to stabilise the public finances. Some commentators also pointed out that, with more confidence than warranted by the quality of the evidence adduced, that a public service pay premium existed that needed to be pared back significantly.
While public servants have been spared the involuntary job losses that have been all too common in the commercial sector, it bears emphasis that only minorities of workers in the private sector have been faced with either pay cuts or increases in working time.
Most have borne pay freezes and some have continued to enjoy pay rises. If ratified, the current draft agreement will give the lie to outright attacks on the Croke Park process, as it will mark effectively the third cycle of pay cuts since the onset of the recession and will involve unprecedented increases in working time for most public servants.
A raft of work practice and mobility reforms will also be carried over from Croke Park I. Some of the areas of reform contained in the original agreement, for example, the treatment of under-performance and the territory over which job mobility may be required, will be tightened significantly.
Over the weeks ahead attention will focus on whether the deal will be ratified. This is very much an open question. The “big four” unions in the Irish Congress of Trade Unions public services committee – Siptu, Impact, the Public Service Executive Union and the Irish National Teachers Organisation – hold the votes to achieve the majority required to ratify the agreement. However, it is clear from recent statements and pronouncements by these unions that they will not proselytise in favour of the new agreement but rather put the terms before members as the best that can be achieved through negotiation and better than available through industrial action.