Pay row merry-go-round conjures up remembrance of times past

 

The writer Eugene O'Neill could have been talking about the current wave of industrial disputes when he argued: "There is no present or future - only the past, happening over and over again - now." When it comes to pay bargaining patterns in Ireland over the past 50 years there is some truth in his observation.

With the teachers and CIE, among others, engaging in industrial confrontation, all the portents of doom, or of history repeating itself, are visible.

IBEC's Mr Turlough O'Sullivan likens it to the disastrous phase of the late 1970s. Tom Garvin of UCD's Politics Department even suggests comparisons with 1969, when an unprecedented burst of economic prosperity sent unions on the warpath.

With the secondary teachers' union engaged in industrial action over a 30 per cent pay claim, the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness (PPF) looks increasingly ragged. The ASTI has long claimed a special position in the teaching profession, and has never been afraid to press the point. As far back as 1946 it successfully confronted the government with its pay demands. In 1964 it refused to superintend or act as examiners, eventually forcing the government to see things its way, via a 12.5 per cent pay rise.

In 1969 the union's industrial action again forced a government turnaround, heralding a six-month period when all three teachers' unions went on strike. The following year they refused to correct the exam papers until they got their way.

By the mid 1980s there were threats of IMF and World Bank intervention to restore order to the Irish economy. Record national debt of £25 billion and an unprecedented annual budget deficit of £1,400 million didn't help. It was in this fragile economic climate that the government took the exceptional step of supporting a Dail motion from the then Minister for Education, Gemma Hussey, to amend an arbitrator's 10 per cent pay award to the teachers.

A combination of political pressure, examination boycotts and industrial action helped change the same government's mind. The Fine Gael-Labour Coalition government was soon voted out of office.

The search by Government and employers for a way to keep pay disputes at bay is longstanding. The recent decision to appoint a benchmarking body to compare public and private sector pay is the latest departure in this quest for a formula of union appeasement. But this body will do well to find answers to this particular conundrum - which partially explains the ASTI's dismissal of the initiative. Just who exactly in the private sector do you compare the work of a teacher, a garda, an army officer, a firefighter, a prison officer or an ambulance driver with?

Back in the 1960s and 1970s piecework and work study techniques became popular to contain pay-related union militancy. Unfortunately as time wore on, their complexity - aligned with workers' ingenuity - tended to accentuate the pay problem. This era also saw the emergence of job evaluation techniques which, according to Prof John Purcell at the University of Bath, attempted to create a structured set of pay differentials between jobs. Job evaluation was also designed to curtail union disturbances in the process of determining pay levels. But between subjectivity associated with the job evaluation process, the pace of change at the workplace and the relegation of industrial relations issues in the recessionary 1980s, this technique also faded from popular practice.

In the interim the 1970s national wage agreements helped maintain some order in the pay rise process. Before these agreements this process basically entailed picking a profitable employer, wringing a pacesetting pay rise from them and then using it as a precedent for similar pay rises for all workers throughout the economy.

When Thatcherism and Reaganism prevailed in the 1980s, individually-oriented performance-related pay schemes really took off. The problem is however, as the current British government has just learned - coincidentally from its teaching profession - this mechanism can cause as many problems as it pretends to solve.

It's easy to see where the current public sector industrial unrest is coming from. For example, the ASTI has produced data showing that long-serving teachers now find youngsters they recently had in their classrooms earning more than they do. Practically every week the Industrial Relations News carries reports of private sector employers and unions settling pay claims at well above the terms of the PPF. Goodness knows how irrelevant the PPF is when deals are being struck behind closed doors in the non-union private sector.

Whether we're on the cusp of a "winter of discontent" is too early to call just yet. Some even contend that the current anxiety is all just media hype and union posturing. But few will bet against the PPF's demise or its terms being revised.

Prof Patrick Gunnigle from the University of Limerick notes that these national pay arrangements don't endure forever. He asks who gains from a continuation of the current series of national pay and partnership agreements? Up to recently the unions have conceded moderate pay rises for real increases in living standards. But rising inflation is undermining this benefit.

Back in the early 1980s employers were central to the demise of the national pay arrangements. While they have benefited from modest pay rises under the pay pacts, they find that, in practice, the tightening labour market is forcing concessions often well above the terms of the PPF. For the Government, the political goodwill from the consensual approach is wearing thin, as the battle lines are being drawn up by angry workers right across the public sector.

Many years ago George Bernard Shaw advised: "A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend upon the support of Paul." Having already conceded to other groups, the Taoiseach and his colleagues will surely have considered this possibility when it comes to the teachers. Problem is, who'll be in the queue after the teachers?

Dr Gerard McMahon is a lecturer in the Faculty of Business, Dublin Institute of Technology. E-mail: ppl1@indigo.ie