The possibility of an overarching agreement between unions, employers and the Government covering pay, economic and taxation policy and issues such as housing and childcare has been raised in preliminary contacts between those sides, The Irish Times understands.
Such an arrangement, reminiscent of some social partnership agreements of the past, could trade pay restraint from trade unions for tax cuts, welfare increases and improvements in services for workers.
But senior Government sources suggested on Friday night that such an agreement was a long way off and a short-term deal focused on wages to combat the impact of inflation was more likely.
Trade unions have acknowledged they are open to the idea, with the head of the country’s largest public sector union, Fórsa, this week suggesting that a “social dialogue” should be considered as part of a new structure to shape wages, labour and economic policy in advance of public pay talks later this year.
"I think there needs to be a combination of measures to address the cost-of-living crisis which will involve negotiated collectively-bargained pay increases, coupled with agreed measures to address the social wage," Kevin Callinan, the general secretary of Fórsa, told The Irish Times.
“Let’s call it social dialogue or tripartism – that would be the way in which most modern progressive European countries would operate.”
Mr Callinan said such an approach could avoid “short-termism as the way of responding to fundamental challenges facing the country”, instead “trying to create cohesion and stability”. He said the issue should be addressed ahead of forthcoming public pay talks as it would have a knock-on effect on what unions would seek from the Government.
Taking a more limited approach, he said, would mean there was “more pressure on to provide greater pay increases if people’s cost of living hasn’t been lessened by other measures that have been taken”. A structured approach could see measures introduced over a few years “but committed to in a real way in the upcoming budget”, he said, “in a way that was manifest and people could see we’re on a trajectory here to try and manage the cost of living over a period of time”.
Danny McCoy, chief executive of employers’ body Ibec, said a broader framework for pay negotiations was worth considering.
“I think it should be explored,” he said. “In the absence of a framework, people are getting higher wages but are getting frustrated because they still can’t afford services . . . The most catastrophic mistake would be to try to index wage increases to price increases.”
Taoiseach Micheál Martin on Friday indicated he was open to a broader public pay agreement due to the need to “work strategically as a country in the face of a unique set of circumstances”.
“We have begun exploratory dialogue with the unions in terms of what would be the best approach as a country in respect of not just in terms of pay but in terms of services and we’ll see where that takes us.”
Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) general secretary Patricia King on Friday told Fórsa's conference in Killarney that there was a real threat the current round of wage claims linked to surging inflation would end in strikes at firms that did not recognise their employees' difficulties.
On the public pay talks, Ms King said it would be unwise for the union movement to state a target figure regarding what they were seeking to gain before negotiations intensify next week. The Fórsa conference also heard calls for pay rises to match or exceed the rate of inflation, which is running at some 7 per cent.