Life breathed into Croke Park II but new agreement still a long way off

The revised plan is based on pay cuts for higher earners and increments

Irish Nurses and Midwives general secretary Liam Doran  arriving at the Labour Relations Commission for talks between management and unions in the health service on Monday. Photograph: Eric Luke

Irish Nurses and Midwives general secretary Liam Doran arriving at the Labour Relations Commission for talks between management and unions in the health service on Monday. Photograph: Eric Luke

Tue, May 14, 2013, 01:00

Over the last few days new life has been breathed back into the proposed Croke Park II agreement which many believed to have been dead.

A series of unions and representative bodies have reached agreement in principle on generating savings in their particular part of the public service. However, this does not mean that a new national agreement embracing the entire public service is on the cards.

Talks were still continuing last night with key groups such as staff in the health sector, which has to generate €150 million or half of all the savings sought by the Government across the public service. Other meetings were scheduled for today .

A significant impetus for the breakthroughs reached at the Labour Relations Commission (LRC) over the weekend came from a Government decision to revise some key elements in the original Croke Park II proposals which were rejected by staff last month.

The most high-profile of these were changes to the plans for pay cuts for public service staff earning between €65,000 and €100,000.

Staff in this category will still face pay cuts of 5.5 per cent. However, under the revised proposals there is more certainty that the original pay rates will be restored on a phased basis in 2017 and 2018.

The Government also made changes to its plans to freeze increments for three years for staff earning between €65,000 and €100,000.

Increments
Now staff will receive their increments but they will be paid not on an annual basis but every 18 months. In essence staff will face two six-month pauses in the payment of increments.

A key question for the Government when this process ends will be how much this concession on increments will cost and where the money to pay for it is to come from given it still is insisting that it must save €300 million on its overall pay bill this year.

The revised plan on increments and pay cuts was welcomed by the union representing higher civil and public servants, which indicates that its leadership must believe members could be persuaded to accept the deal in a new ballot.

Revised plan
The revised plan was also welcomed by Impact and the Public Service Executive Union which both accepted the original Croke Park II agreement.

The decision by Garda organisations to agree a deal in principle will be welcomed by the Government as these organisations walked out of the Croke Park process before its conclusion. If gardaí back the revised plan it would also further fragment the alliance of frontline workers who provide services on a round-the-clock basis.

Prison officers had already negotiated their own deal.

Nurses, both general and psychiatric as well as midwives, were the other main force in the 24/7 frontline alliance that opposed the Croke Park II proposals.

The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) spent much of the weekend in negotiations on a plan it devised with the Irish Medical Organisation to generate savings while keeping existing pay rates and working hours in place.

Psychiatric nurses were not involved in the process at the LRC over the weekend and it remains to be seen how the Government intends to deal with this group.

Siptu also represents nurses but only fully became involved in the process at the LRC yesterday. It said that tweaks and minor adjustments to the Croke Park II proposals which were rejected by its members would not be sufficient.

Another major issue for the Government is what to do with teachers. All of the teaching unions voted against the original Croke Park II proposals and were the first group to actually ballot members on industrial action.

Some teachers would benefit from the concessions on pay cuts for higher earners and on increments. However there was no specific education module in the LRC talks.

The three unions yesterday called on members to provide them with a strong mandate for industrial action to protect pay and conditions if necessary. However, at the same time they did not rule out further talks , although the Teachers Union of Ireland is bound by a decision of its annual conference not to enter new talks in relation to Croke Park II.

Ballot result
There is some speculation that the Government could wait until the ballot result is known next week before inviting teachers to new talks.

Undoubtedly significant progress has been made over recent days on the Government’s plan to reduce its pay bill.

However, it must be remembered that talks in some cases are still under way, that the executives of the various unions have to consider the agreements reached in principle and, perhaps most importantly, members will have to ballot on the new proposals.