Pay rise demands loom as public service unions begin conferences

Government’s plan for financial and industrial stability under pressure

INMO’s Phil Ní Sheaghdha marching with nurses and midwives in Dublin: About 17,000 healthcare assistants, other hospital support staff and chefs will begin a ballot on Monday for strike action. Photograph: Alan Betson

INMO’s Phil Ní Sheaghdha marching with nurses and midwives in Dublin: About 17,000 healthcare assistants, other hospital support staff and chefs will begin a ballot on Monday for strike action. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

At a time of international political uncertainty, the Government had hoped the issue of public service pay had been settled until early 2021.

But the proposals made to end the recent nurses’ strike have changed the landscape. The financial and industrial stability that Ministers hoped would come with the €900 million public pay deal negotiated two years ago is under threat.

About 17,000 healthcare assistants , other hospital support staff and chefs will begin a ballot on Monday for strike action. In a potentially more worrying development for Government, the acting secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions’ public service committee this weekend indicated it is looking at a mid-term review of the current deal. This could lead to higher pay increases, planned rises being brought forward or industrial unrest.

Pay and pensions for more than 300,000 State employees – including teachers, gardaí, health workers, local authority staff and Defence Forces personnel – account for about a third of all Government spending.

Accord stretched

The existing deal provided increases of close to 6 per cent over three years in return for a guarantee of industrial peace. However, the terms proposed to settle the nurses’ dispute stretched the accord to the very limit, if not beyond.

The Government had insisted for months that nurses could not get any increases over and above those set out in the public service agreement. However, it ultimately accepted proposals that would see thousands moving on to a higher-paid, enhanced-salary scale or qualifying for additional allowances.

There may have been very good political reasons for the Government to compromise with the nurses.

There were real fears that a planned strike over three consecutive days in February, along with parallel industrial action by psychiatric nurses, could have brought the health service to the very brink. This could have had potentially serious consequences for some patients – for which the Government, undoubtedly, would have been blamed.

Minister for Health Simon Harris was already facing a no-confidence motion in the Dáil which the Government ultimately won narrowly. A seriously escalating crisis in the health service could have destabilised the Government at a crucial period in the Brexit negotiations.

However, the settlement proposals were always going to have consequences elsewhere in the public service.

Knock-on claim

While there was no immediate rush to lodge knock-on claims, unions watched very carefully as further talks continued on the work practice changes for nurses that would accompany the enhanced pay scale offered.

In the last week there have been signs that the pressure on the Government is beginning to crank up.

In the vanguard are those healthcare assistants, hospital support personnel and chefs who will ballot for strike action this week.While their dispute is not strictly a knock-on claim – it stemmed from a process set out in the public service accord, it shows they are not prepared to wait for payment of their award while nurses bank additional money.

The mid-term review of the pay deal suggested by Kevin Callinan, the man likely to be the union’s chief negotiator in any future talks with Government on the issue, opens up the prospect of hundreds of thousands of State employees receiving, or at least demanding, additional or accelerated pay rises.

Monday sees the start of the public service conference season with teachers, doctors, nurses, civil servants and others all likely to raise pay grievances in the weeks ahead.

Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe this weekend warned of deteriorating economic conditions worldwide and called for pay restraint.

Whether unions and staff will heed his call remains to be seen.