Need for new ‘social dialogue’ to address cost of living, says Fórsa

Improvements to social services can be factor in new pay deal, conference delegates told

Fórsa members have left little room for doubt that pay is, by some distance, at the top of their agenda as unions prepare to open negotiations with the Government on a new national agreement for the civil and public sectors.

At the trade union’s biennial conference in Killarney on Thursday, general secretary Kevin Callinan proposed the day’s key motion on the issue and saw it passed comfortably, but there were strong contributions from the floor regarding what the bottom line should be in the talks.

Delegates expressed reservations about entering into another multi-year deal due to a view that the current agreement needs renegotiating because of the impact of a sharp increase in the cost of living since it was sealed.

The union and Government sides are due to meet in the second half of next week in order to “scope out issues”, said Mr Callinan, with formal talks to begin at the Workplace Relations Commission the following week.

Fórsa, as a key part of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu), will be aiming to obtain significant pay rises as part of a recently triggered review of the current Building Momentum deal, and to negotiate either an extension to it or a new deal to cover next year and possibly beyond.

In relation to the review, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath said that “in view of the impact of the current inflationary environment on living standards, we are prepared to go beyond the pay terms within the current agreement but we need to balance that against the risk of doing any long-term harm to the economy, the public finances and indeed the competitiveness of the Irish economy”.

Beyond pay

Mr Callinan acknowledged that the comments were positive in so far as they went but said Ictu negotiators would not know just how far beyond the 1 per cent that is due to workers this year the Government side would be prepared to go until the process was properly under way.

He suggested that the current situation presented an opportunity to broaden the financial aspect of the deal out beyond pay. He repeatedly mentioned the need for “social dialogue”, a return to a form of social partnership, although one in which the “P-word”, with all of its negative connotations from the Celtic Tiger era, is never mentioned.

“The absence of a social wage in Ireland is putting all of the pressure here on a pay negotiation,” said Mr Callinan after the issue had been debated.

“If I was living in Germany or Sweden, I would certainly have all of the other cost pressures, but I’d also have access to affordable housing and childcare. If I needed to go to the GP or emergency department, I wouldn’t have to worry about the cost.

“We’re calling for serious negotiations, with outcomes, with Government over the coming weeks in order to place a context for collective bargaining in the public and private sectors.”

He said, however, that if the talks were to drag on beyond a few weeks then they might end in failure.

Members attending the conference also debated issues ranging from taxation and blended working to social policy. One of the day’s more emotional debates centred on a call for the union to back the creation of exclusion zones around medical facilities providing healthcare services such as abortion, which routinely attract pickets.

Supporting the motion, Marian Cody of the special education sector, said that until such protections were put in pace, “Ireland will not have properly repealed the Eighth Amendment”.

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times