Arbitration system may end pay claim deadlock

 

AN arbitration system may be set up to tackle the wave of public sector pay claims threatening to destroy the Programme for Competitiveness and Work.

Government and senior trade union sources yesterday confirmed that such a system was being considered as a way of preserving the industrial peace clause of the PCW.

The executive of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions meets on Wednesday to review progress in talks and be briefed on Government proposals to tackle unemployment.

Normally the executive meets for half a day at ICTU headquarters in Raglan Road, but Wednesday's meeting will last all day and take place in Government Buildings. There is increasing pressure to resolve the impasse in restructuring deals, particularly those with the nurses and civil servants.

The annual conference of the Irish Nurses Organisation has voted unanimously for a full scale national strike from July 1st. The Civil and Public Service Union (CPSU) is already involved in a work to rule that is causing serious disruption, particularly in the Department of Agriculture.

The CPSU annual conference in Dublin, on May 24th, will consider the latest Government pay proposals. It is unclear if these will produce an offer acceptable to conference delegates.

If the offer is rejected the union has nowhere to go except an all out dispute. A similar situation arises with the nurses. If their latest talks fail then the State faces its first national nursing strike.

Both Government and union leaders now accept that the lack of an arbitration procedure is proving a major defect in the PCW's clause on restructuring deals. The clause is known as "Option A".

Ironically, there is provision for arbitration when unions opt for the much simpler process of concluding a pay deal under the local 3 per cent bargaining clause of the PCW. This is "Option B".

Option A deals have to be within the overall financial parameters of the PCW, but because the unions are negotiating to allow restructuring and extra productivity in the workplace, the savings can be taken into account in agreeing an overall pay rise.

Consequently public sector unions can expect to do much better than 3 per cent and, in the Public Service Executive Union - the only union to conclude a comprehensive deal so far - members have received increases of around 7.5 per cent on average.

It was thought that unions, which opted to negotiate under Option A would lower their sights and revert to Option B if there was no agreement on productivity. In that case the arbitrator would ultimately iron out any differences.

But unions and management have had great difficulty in reaching productivity deals, which are a new phenomenon in the public service.

The Government is coming under increasing pressure from private sector employers to hold the line on public sector pay. There is also growing unease within private sector unions, whose members feel they are being left behind while public sector workers are being offered special pay rises outside the PCW under another name.

Agreement on an arbitration system might solve all these problems. Although, given the temper of the nurses and the CPSU members, selling them the idea may not be easy, especially if it was proposed to make the findings binding.