Public sector pay: How we came to the brink of a major strike

Public-sector industrial action has been looming for months. A strike could destabilise pay deals, budgetary strategy and perhaps the Government itself

 

Economic recovery was always going to be accompanied by pay expectations, as workers sought to regain the ground conceded after the economic crash. Until about a month ago the Government believed that in the public service it had more or less contained these expectations. Unions representing about 250,000 State employees had signed up to the Lansdowne Road agreement, which offered a modest start to pay restoration, with most receiving €2,000 up to 2018.

This strategy has now come off the rails, and the Government is facing a very serious challenge to its public-service pay policy. The country appears to be on the brink of a major strike by both gardaí and teachers. This could destabilise public-pay arrangements, undermine overall budgetary strategy and potentially even threaten the survival of the Government itself.

How did this all happen so quickly and apparently so unexpectedly?

Although public-pay policy seemed secure for the Government until 2018, warning signs emerged some months ago. The bulk of trade unions had backed the Lansdowne Road deal, but some key groups had not.

The Irish public service is by no means a homogenous bloc. About two dozen organisations represent a 300,000-strong workforce that includes nurses, doctors, teachers, gardaí, Defence Forces personnel, prison officers, local-authority and health-service workers, and civil servants.

All groups keep a close eye on each other’s arrangements, and anything given to one group leads to demands from another.

The crash threw industrial relations in the public service into chaos. Civil and public servants had two or three pay cuts. There have also been changes in work practices, including unpaid additional working hours, restrictions on annual holidays and reforms to sick leave that would have been unthinkable in other circumstances.

Three successive agreements – the Croke Park, Haddington Road and Lansdowne Road accords, none of them popular with unions – sought at least to put some order in place.

The most recent, the Lansdowne Road deal, was negotiated in May 2015. But the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland did not sign up to it; and the Garda Representative Association, or GRA, the largest of the groups representing gardaí (which are not members of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions) also rejected the deal.

The agreement was supposed to represent a start towards restoring the pay cuts imposed on public servants, which for many was about 14 per cent. Critics point out that while tens of thousands of people in the private sector lost their jobs in the crash not one person in the public service was made compulsorily redundant. Incremental pay continued to be paid. Public-service staff also continue to have defined-benefit pensions, which are ever rarer in the private sector.

Although the Government believed that pay policy was settled until 2018, demands for an acceleration of pay restoration began within months of Lansdowne Road’s being ratified. Partly this stemmed from the general-election campaign, in which senior politicians proclaimed the end of austerity and highlighted a rapidly growing economy.

As early as March union leaders warned that the deal was fraying at the edges and put the Government on notice that if the economy continued to grow at rates of 7 per cent a year or more they would seek to speed up the process of restoration.

The Luas and Dublin Bus disputes, which saw staff receive increases of nearly 4 per cent a year, gave rise to the view that strikes worked.

Union conferences in the spring highlighted the plight of young public servants taken on since the crash.

In his dying hours as minister for public expenditure Brendan Howlin authorised a deal with firefighters. In return for their acceptance of Lansdowne Road and implementation of some productivity measures the Government would introduce a revised pay scale that would go some way towards reversing the two-tier pay structure. This offered a precedent for other groups.

A strategy emerged in which the Government sought to bring the groups outside Lansdowne Road into the fold by showing them that their concerns could be addressed within its framework.

A deal was secured on new-entrant pay with the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) and the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), and the Government hoped it could reach similar arrangements with the GRA and the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, or AGSI.

Talks with the ASTI never appeared to be going anywhere. The AGSI backed an agreement with the Government in a vote a number of weeks ago, and the Department of Justice believed it had a deal with the GRA.

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

The Government knows that it cannot offer the teachers or gardaí more than the pay rises set out under Lansdowne Road.

The general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Patricia King, spelled this out last weekend when she maintained that any settlement with the ASTI would have to be offered to all in the public service, as they had the same employer.

Now a row with junior doctors – which is to say all doctors who are not consultants – is also on the cards. And although Bus Éireann is outside the public service there is potential for a major row between the company and its staff over controversial cuts to its Expressway service.

A collapse of the Lansdowne Road deal would lead to a free-for-all in public-service pay. Counterintuitive as it may seem, public-service unions do not necessarily want a free-for-all. In general they seem to want an acceleration in pay restoration, not a collapse of the process.

Lansdowne Road was not just about pay. There were also a number of side deals. For example Siptu, which represents many lower-paid staff in the health service, secured a side agreement aimed at preventing outsourcing of work – a serious concern for its members. It would not want to lose such protections in a free-for-all environment.

Public-pay policy is facing its most serious challenge since the crash. The implications could, in a worst-case scenario, go far beyond industrial relations.

Union demands: what do they want, and when do they want it?

Teachers:

The strike days are Thursday, October 27th; Tuesday, November 8th; Wednesday, November 16th; Thursday, November 24th; Tuesday, November 29th; Tuesday, December 6th; and Wednesday, December 7th.

Unless schools can find other appropriate people to do the supervision and substitution work, hundreds of schools could have to close indefinitely after the Halloween midterm break. The Government has contingency plans to keep schools open, such as employing parents as supervisors, but most school boards regard the three weeks available to recruit and vet supervisors as far too narrow a window. And the fact that the ASTI strike includes school principals means executing contingency plans will be close to impossible at many schools.

Gardaí: Members of the 2,000-strong Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors began limited industrial action on Friday in pursuit of a 16.5 per cent pay claim and reforms to allow them access to State industrial-relations machinery, such as the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court.

This campaign is scheduled to escalate next Friday, when members will refuse to undertake any administrative duties, such as detailing members for duty, processing files or responding to correspondence from management. On four Fridays in November – the 4th, 11th, 18th and 25th – members of the AGSI and the 10,500 members of the Garda Representative Association will strike from 7am to 7pm.

The Department of Justice says that the Garda authorities “will take whatever measures possible to ensure the best possible policing service remains in place whatever the circumstances”. The Government also says that it’s trying to deal with issues of concern for the Garda bodies; talks took place on Thursday and Friday.

Doctors: Nonconsultant hospital doctors want the Government to restore a €3,000 living-out allowance abolished for staff taken on from 2012. The Irish Medical Organisation is taking the Government to court on the issue next week. It has also said it is considering industrial action.

Nurses: The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation says it will ballot members on industrial action if bed numbers and services are not reduced to match the number of staff available. The nurses’ union has also called for the immediate acceleration of pay and pension restoration.

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