Unions say public sector reform is dead in the water

Sat, Dec 5, 2009, 00:00

UNION REACTION:PUBLIC SECTOR unions yesterday claimed the Government’s reform agenda would in effect be dead in the water if pay cuts were imposed in the budget.

However, union leaders said they would not adopt a knee-jerk response on the issue of further industrial action following the rejection by the Government of their proposals for an alternative plan for reducing the public sector pay bill without cutting pay levels.

Where the unions go now is likely to be discussed when the public services committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) meets on Monday.

The unions’ chief negotiator, Peter McLoone, said he was “deeply disappointed and astonished” that the opportunity for transforming the public services had been allowed to slip away.

He said the Government had turned its back on a deal which would have delivered a massive transformation in the delivery of public services, met the Government’s required reductions in payroll costs for next year, and avoided a second public service pay cut in less than a year.

He said the unions’ proposal would have saved billions while protecting – and in some cases extending – public services.

He said there was no doubt the Government had changed its mind on the alternative plan following what he described as the debacle and public relations disaster surrounding the issue of unpaid leave, which was a central feature in the proposal.

“We were not asked in there to make any modification to the agreement. If we came in here on the basis that we needed to construct an alternative . . . We set out what the alternative approach was. They came back to us and said ‘Yes’, we are prepared to construct a solution based on that proposition, [but] I think it would be quite wrong at the very end of the negotiations that they would come to us and say we have had a change of mind.

“There is no doubt, and I do not want any ambiguity about this, when you go into negotiations, the old adage that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed is applied, but what has to attend negotiations, particularly of this complexity, is that at each crucial stage you know where you are. So we would have only proceeded to this point when we were satisfied that we have the basis of doing business with them.

“I do not think that the word promise or assurance applies in negotiations, but when you are in negotiations, and have set out an approach and you are seeking to establish if you can build on that and the answer is ‘Yes’, your presumption is that there will not be a change of heart subsequently, or if there is a change of heart that you will get an earlier warning than we did this afternoon.”

He said it was “now inconceivable” that public servants would rally to public service reform after the Government had reneged on a deal and imposed pay cuts.

Ictu vice-president Patricia King said it did not take a degree in rocket science to work out that the Government would be creating a major uphill battle over the implementation of reform if pay cuts were introduced.

The Ictu said it was astonished at the Government’s decision which was taken following “a hostile campaign of opposition to the proposals before they could be either finalised or explained”.

Ictu general secretary David Begg said he believed an opportunity for public service reform was being lost and it was unlikely to ever arise in the same way again.

The Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors described the Government’s decision as “deplorable”. Deputy general secretary John Redmond said it now seemed the Government had been negotiating in “bad faith”.