Few options for State as public sector strike chaos looms

James Callaghan:  after the strike-riddled winter of discontent of 1978-1979, the UK public vented its anger at the polls and Mr Callaghan’s Labour government lost office in the 1980 general election.

James Callaghan: after the strike-riddled winter of discontent of 1978-1979, the UK public vented its anger at the polls and Mr Callaghan’s Labour government lost office in the 1980 general election.

 

If mollifying disaffected public sector workers was “plan A” is there a plan B? Pleas by Ministers to call off industrial action will continue, but Ministers might now take a stand in defence of their own public sector pay policy.

In some past disputes, public opinion was initially sympathetic to groups of public service workers but it quickly turned negative once industrial action was taken.

The Government might calculate it could face down striking public service unions – particularly if their core demands were seen as incapable of being satisfied.

Are there other options that might prevent industrial chaos? In the past when serious conflict threatened to engulf public services, the institutions that occupy the neutral middle ground in industrial relations, the Labour Relations Commission (now the Workplace Relations Commission), the Labour Court and similar bodies, intervened in the public interest.

Public interest

Labour Relations CommissionKieran MulveyPark

Procedural and substantive barriers would seem to stand in the way of such responses to the impending strikes. The National Implementation Body disappeared with the collapse of social partnership. The Garda associations remain outside the remit of the State conflict resolution bodies – although they are likely to come within that remit whatever the outcome of the current dispute.

Lansdowne Road

A final option would be to bring forward talks on a successor to Lansdowne Road. The current agreement is due to expire in 2018. The previous Haddington Road agreement was terminated early at the behest of the government when fiscal conditions were seen to have worsened significantly. Not surprisingly, the major public service unions have pressed the case for shortening Lansdowne Road, or readdressing pay restoration within the current agreement.

They have cited both the pragmatic grounds that the current agreement cannot hold and the more positive grounds that fiscal recovery has gathered pace. The case for accelerated pay restoration has been canvassed by Opposition parties and some within Fianna Fáil. Such an option would have very serious fiscal implications.

A principle in industrial relations is that if a union takes on a government, the government wins. History points to a more complex picture. In the UK winter of discontent of 1978-1979, public service strikes crippled the country for months on end. There were ultimately no winners.

The community suffered and subsequently vented its anger at the polls. James Callaghan’s Labour government lost office in the 1980 general election, and British trade unions entered a long decline from which they have never recovered.

Bill Roche is professor of industrial relations and human resources in the UCD college of business