Year begins and ends with strikes and threats of further action

Lansdowne Road agreement undermined by Luas, Dublin Bus and Garda settlements

Members of the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland (ASTI) take part in a strike  over a pay dispute in  November.  Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

Members of the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland (ASTI) take part in a strike over a pay dispute in November. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

 

The industrial relations year began with threats of strikes at the Luas light rail system in Dublin. It will end with the knock-on impact of the Luas dispute still reverberating across the economy. In the wake of the Luas strikes and all that flowed from them, the State very narrowly avoided an unprecedented mass stoppage by gardaí, the Government’s overall public service pay strategy was completely up-ended and private-sector workers began to seek higher levels of pay rises.

Given the turbulence, it is hard to recall that only last Christmas, the industrial relations climate appeared calm. Public service pay had been settled until mid-2018 under the Lansdowne Road agreement. In the private sector, there already had been hundreds of deals negotiated over recent years directly between unions and employers, mainly in the 2- 3 per cent range. A survey of 500 private companies published in March suggested most would agree rises of 2.8 per cent in 2016.

The strike at the Dublin tram system was a game-changer in many ways. However it was not the only one. The original claim by staff for increases of up to 54 per cent was eye-watering and totally unheard of in post-crash Ireland. While Luas was a private-sector operation, albeit under a public contract, pay developments for tram workers were always going to be watched very carefully by staff in the public transport system.

Another key element that undoubtedly fuelled pay expectations was the pronouncement by politicians during the general election campaign that austerity was over. As politicians highlighted surging economic growth, unions reported that their members were questioning wage restraint.

As early as March, while the Luas dispute was still raging, union leaders warned that the Lansdowne Road agreement was fraying around the edges. They set down a marker that they would seek acceleration of pay restoration in the public service if the economy continued to power ahead. The Luas row involved 12 days of strikes and dragged on until the summer. When final settlement proposals were agreed, they immediately, as was inevitable, spilled over into the State-owned CIÉ group.

Other workers and industrial relations observers noted that Luas drivers before the dispute had been offered rises linked to inflation – close to zero – while after the strikes they received 18 per cent over four years.

A perception that industrial action worked was reinforced after six days of strikes by Dublin Bus staff saw them receive 11.25 per cent over three years, or 3.75 per cent annually. This was very close to the terms of the Luas deal on an annualised basis and well ahead of the then existing norms across the labour market.

Unions in the CIÉ group immediately argued that the Luas/Dublin Bus terms should now set a benchmark for rises in Iarnród Éireann and Bus Éireann. The pay terms were also watched carefully by gardaí and second-level teachers in the ASTI union, who had never come into the Lansdowne Road tent.

The Government argued that the Lansdowne Road accord was sufficiently robust to address particular areas of concerns such as lower pay rates for more recent recruits – an issue that had been building up among gardaí and teachers as public service recruitment intensified.

A deal with firefighters literally in the dying hours of Brendan Howlin’s tenure as minister for public expenditure effectively set a precedent. Eventually the Government reached a €20 million deal on new entrant pay with the Teachers’ Union of Ireland and the primary school teachers’ union, INTO.

However the ASTI continued to resist. When the union urged its 17,000 members not to carry out additional unpaid working hours originally agreed under the 2010 Croke Park agreement, the Government determined it had “repudiated” the Lansdowne Road accord and imposed financial penalties permitted under emergency legislation.

ASTI members forfeited increments due from July and lost out on a planned €800 payment for supervision and substitution duties. The ASTI was now involved in three disputes with the Government; over new entrant pay and supervision and substitution while a separate row over junior cycle reform was in the background.

In October the ASTI announced a series of one-day strikes over new entrant pay while a separate withdrawal from supervision and supervision duties led to hundreds of schools to close for a period. After three days of school closures, the Teachers’ Conciliation Council intervened and three weeks of talks led to a deal which looked very similar to the one available to the ASTI before the strikes. Members of the union are now balloting on the offer, although the union leadership has urged it should be rejected.

For the Government, by far the most worrying prospect was industrial action by gardaí. The Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI) initially backed an agreement with the Government in a vote and the Department of Justice believed it had a deal with the Garda Representative Association (GRA).

Things began to go sour though when the GRA executive rejected the deal and announced strike action. This was quickly followed by the AGSI reversing its position and deciding to join the GRA in its industrial action.

A worried Government offered a €30 million deal to gardaí on the October bank holiday weekend but this was rejected. However, on the eve of the first ever Garda strike, the Labour Court proposed a package that was worth more than €50 million. This deal, which effectively increased payments by €4,000 to gardaí on average, ultimately headed off their strikes.

However it came at the price of effectively undermining the Government’s pay agreement. Other groups were furious that gardaí were to receive more money by staying outside Lansdowne Road than they were by remaining inside.

The Government’s strategy on public pay was hastily amended in the face of further potential industrial action across the public service. New talks aimed at addressing “anomalies” arising from the Garda deal are to conclude by the end of January. In reality, most public service personnel will receive more money – possibly by bringing forward the payment of €1,000 due under Lansdowne Road next September.

However this in effect will only be a down-payment on an overall deal to replace Lansdowne Road which the Government wants to conclude over the summer after the report of its new Public Service Pay Commission.

Meanwhile, the potential for trouble in the transport sector continues. Bus Éireann is facing a serious financial crisis and plans to radically restructure its loss-making “expressway” service are likely to lead to conflict. The Government is also facing potential industrial action by nurses and doctors early in the new year, meaning that the industrial relations climate is likely to remain as turbulent at the start of 2017 as it was for most of 2016.

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