Pay and conditions to come under union spotlight
Opinion: Conference season opens for public service unions
‘Eoin Ronayne CPSU General Secretary described 2013 as the most difficult year not only in the history of his organisation but of the public service trade union movement generally. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
In the foreword to his annual report, the general secretary of the Civil Public and Services Union (CPSU), Eoin Ronayne describes 2013 as the most difficult year not only in the history of his organisation but of the public service trade union movement generally.
It was the year in which the Government came back for a third time to seek cuts in the terms and conditions of public service employees.
It was holding in reserve a big stick in the shape of emergency legislation which would impose even harsher measures if a deal was not agreed.
In the fallout, the broad movement of public service unions – representing about 300,000 State employees ranging from civil servants to nurses, teachers, doctors and local authority and health service personnel – came very close to fracturing.
Now 12 months on, the public service trade unions are embarking on their first conference season since the signing of the Haddington Road deal last summer.
There are first hints that they are preparing to seek to regain some of the ground they have lost during more than five years of austerity.
Jack O’Connor, the president of Siptu (the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union), the country’s largest union, said at the weekend that, depending on economic growth, it would look for a new agreement with the Government aimed at improving pay and conditions before the scheduled expiry date of the Haddington Road agreement in the middle of 2016.
Separately the trade union movement has begun a process to look at its own structures which could result in a dramatic rationalisation in the number of individual staff representatives bodies.
Ronayne in his annual report says that, arising out of the experience in the Croke Park two/Haddington Road process, there is a general acceptance the nature and structure of the public service trade union movement left a lot to be desired.
“Essentially representatives of 19 separate unions, representing just under 300,000 public service workers, worked with and against each other while negotiating with a considerably more unified employer side led by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform,” he states.
Break-ups and mergers
Last summer, the overall umbrella organisation, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, at its biennial conference backed radical reform plans for the movement which could ultimately see existing unions breaking up and merging.
Ultimately, the current structure of more than 40 private and public sector unions affiliated to congress could be slimmed down to just six under the proposals.
In the public service, talks on future organisational structures started in recent weeks between the CPSU, the Public Service Executive Union, Impact, the Association of Higher Civil and Public Servants and the Veterinary Officers’ Association.
This issue is expected to be discussed at all the main public service union conferences which get under way today when delegates arrive in Galway for the annual meeting of the 13,000-strong CPSU which represents lower-paid civil servants.
This will be followed by the conference of the various teaching unions, the Public Service Executive Union and the Irish Medical Organisation later in the month and of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, the Association of Higher Civil and Public Servants and Impact in May.
However, at all conferences the most heated debate is likely to centre on pay and conditions, and how the unions can go about making up some of the ground lost over recent years.
The years since 2009 have been hugely challenging for unions across the public service.
Staff across the public service have experienced the introduction of previously unthinkable cuts to their terms and conditions.
These have included a pension levy, a direct pay cut (two cuts for higher earners), increased working hours, redeployments, reductions in sick-leave benefits, the standardisation of annual leave and significant reductions in staffing levels.
Unions effectively agreed to the cuts in pay and conditions under the original Croke Park and later the Haddington Road agreements for fear of the Government imposing even harsher measures – possibly even compulsory redundancies – under emergency powers legislation.
Expect to hear loud calls at the various union conferences for the Government to repeal the financial emergency legislation, particularly in the light of the improvement in the economy.
The country’s improving economic fortunes will undoubtedly be cited by delegates at the union conferences in calls for a reversal of the cuts imposed over recent years.
The CPSU conference today will hear motions from a number of branches essentially seeking the abolition of the longer working week introduced for its members under the Haddington Road agreement.
Reversing recent cuts
The Public Service Executive Union conference in a fortnight is also expected to hear calls for a process aimed at reversing the cuts introduced over recent years.
In the light of the controversy over top-up payments to senior management in the health service and the revelation that former chief executive of the Irish Medical Organisation George McNeice left with a retirement package of more than €9 million, there is likely to be some debate in private sessions about the internal finances within unions.
However, while the public service unions may be moving closer together as part of revised structures, this does not necessarily mean there will not be competition between the different groups over scarce resources.
The Government has agreed under the Haddington Road deal to restore pay levels cut under the accord for higher earning staff as well as for teachers in two tranches starting in 2017.
However, expect to hear strong calls at the CPSU conference today for the Government to concentrate any resources available on reversing cuts for lower-paid staff earning under €35,000.
Martin Wall is Industry Correspondent