Public service unions have been invited to pay talks by the Government in a bid to strike a deal on a successor to the current Building Momentum agreement, which is due to expire within weeks.
Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe announced the invitation after the Cabinet met on Tuesday, saying he believes a deal is possible but that discussions would be “difficult”.
“I’ve been involved now in a number of different public-sector wage agreements and my anticipation is that this will be a particularly demanding agreement to get.”
Mr Donohoe said he hopes the talks intended to yield an agreement can start in the coming days.
Speaking at the union’s conference in Galway, Siptu’s Deputy General Secretary with responsibility for the public sector, John King, said the Irish Congress of Trade Unions public services committee would meet on Wednesday morning to discuss the invitation but agreed with Mr Donohoe that the process is unlikely to be easy.
The union side feels the Government has not moved on in its outlook from the public service deals done in the immediate aftermath of the financial crash of 15 years ago, he suggested, while expectations in society more generally have been transformed by the scale of the economic recovery in recent years.
The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, he said, viewed the deals as being about “cost control containment”. The union’s committee, however, believes that “society is demanding greater and more public services”.
“So there’s a natural conflict in that. The conflict was less evident when the economy was in crisis mode but we now have a robust economy, we’ve a population of over 5 million, we’ve got 2.3 million people work,” he said.
Mr King has previously said the unions see the establishment of a mechanism to address local claims with regard to issues like grade-related pay as a key component of any new agreement.
In a statement, the union group said it wants “a focus on the stabilisation of any future agreement, by seeking to resolve outstanding issues affecting a number of public service grades, groups and categories, in addition to measures to ensure the ‘future-proofing’ of quality public services and public service employment”.
Mr King declined to comment on what pay increases might be sought but the unions have previously suggested they must address the impact of ongoing high levels of inflation.
The committee’s officers are officials of Fórsa, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation and Irish National Teachers Organisation as well as Siptu. Those four senior officials will negotiate on behalf of all public and civil servants.
Initial indications from the union side are that talks at the Workplace Relations Commission might not get under way at until after the weekend but the scheduling depends to a significant extent on the WRC.
Building Momentum is due to expire at the end of the year and Mr Donohoe said “there is a need to continue to manage the public service pay bill in a sustainable way”.
“This is particularly important given the multiple challenges facing the economy, including increasing levels of economic uncertainty, and, of course, the challenge of the cost-of-living.
“I believe an opportunity does exist for all parties to engage constructively to deliver an outcome that is reasonable and fair to both public servants and to taxpayers,” he said.
He acknowledged the impact of price pressures and inflation on public sector workers and highlighted the Government has already announced cost-of-living measures in the Budget.
“There is an important balance to be struck between maintaining industrial peace and protecting the taxpayer and as always, the Government will engage in good faith to find a mutually acceptable outcome in any discussions. But this equally means that it cannot be a deal at any cost,” he said.