Unions acknowledge medicine is harsh but say members have avoided a far more bitter pill

Tue, Feb 26, 2013, 00:00

ANALYSIS:The bottom line of the extension to the Croke Park agreement is that very many staff across the public service will have less money in their pay packet if and when it comes into force than they had beforehand.

However, trade unions who stayed the pace in the negotiations have argued that the situation would have been far worse if they had not taken part.

They contend that in reaching a deal they eased the severity of virtually all the measures originally tabled by the Government as part of its bid to secure a reduction in its pay and pensions bill over the next three years.

Unpalatable proposals

However, the proposals set out in a document drawn up by the Labour Relations Commission at the end of six weeks of talks will still prove to be hugely unpalatable. The document contains many of the big headline items originally set out by the Government in January, albeit in a diluted form.

Staff will be asked to work additional hours, there will be cuts to pay for high earners and reductions in premium payments. Overtime rates will also be slashed. Supervision and substitution payments for teachers will be ended.

However, unions can point to some victories in the process. The Government’s original proposal for a five-hour increase in the working week for all staff has been diluted. There will now be a minimum 37-hour week with a maximum of 39 hours.

The Government plan to eliminate increments has also been modified. Instead a three-year freeze on increments will be put in place for those earning more than €65,000.

For those earning up to €35,000, a three-month freeze on increments - the increment will cover 15 months rather than 12 - will be introduced.

For those earning between €35,000 and €65,000, two separate three-month freezes will be put in place.

For those already at the top of their incremental scale, they will be asked to contribute either through a reduction of six days in annual leave over the course of the deal (which runs to 2016) or a cash deduction from salary of an equivalent amount or the value of half of the last increment, whichever is the lesser.

As reported consistently in The Irish Times since before the talks began, the Government settled for introducing the cuts for those earning above €65,000. The pay cuts start at 5.5 per cent but will increase depending on salary.

Twilight payments

The new deal also splits the difference between unions and management on proposed cuts to premium payments. Twilight payments for evening work will be abolished while the premium rate for Saturday will remain. The payment for Sunday will be reduced from double-time to time and three-quarters rather than time and a half as originally proposed.

Money saved by cutting substitution and supervision payments in the education sector will be used to eliminate the “two-tier” pay system which has seen recent entrants to teaching paid less than those appointed previously.

Unions also won a concession on the application of the pension levy, which they said would generate a modest saving of €125 per year for staff.

However, while a deal may have been struck between union and State negotiators yesterday, there are still a number of significant hurdles to be overcome before the measures are implemented on the ground and the savings start to flow for the Government.

Ballot of members

The deal will be brought before the executives of the various unions, which are expected to send the measures out to ballot. These ballots could take several weeks to conclude and a complicating factor is that the trade union conference season will begin at the end of March.

Union leaders will want the process started by then.

Even though union leadership is likely to argue strongly they got the best deal possible, vocal opposition is expected.

Critics are likely to contend the current Croke Park deal ran until some stage next year (the exact date is unclear) and that the Government has broken its terms by its plans to cut earnings. They are also likely to maintain that at the heart of the Croke Park agreement was a Government guarantee not to reduce pay further or introduce compulsory redundancies in return for co-operation with reforms but that they were now being asked to continue with the reforms while earnings were being cut.

There is also the question of the unions that withdrew from the process at the weekend and what their reaction will be to the new deal.

The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation said on Sunday it would not be bound by an outcome. The public services committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions said the deal would be decided by its traditional approach of a weighted majority based on the membership of individual unions following on from the ballots.

With the support of the big unions such as Siptu, this should ensure that it will be passed. However, there are no guarantees and events could intervene. The Government is also likely to have to introduce legislation to give effects to at least some of the cuts.

The Government’s negotiators, headed by assistant secretary at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform Paul Reid, secured the Government’s objectives on savings in the deal. However, there could be many more turns in the road before it is finally implemented.

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