Union consensus unravelling as decision on Croke Park II looms

Opinion: Outcome of votes next week could have major implications for Government’s budgetary plans


Officially at least, the fate of the proposed new Croke Park agreement will be known within the next few days when the large public service unions announce the results of their ballots.

Next Wednesday, the public services committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions will meet to decide whether or not employee representatives will ratify the controversial new deal.

As far as the Government is concerned, if the public services committee backs the proposed accord, by no matter how small a margin, that will be that and the pay cuts and work-practice changes in the document will come into effect from the beginning of July.

In reality, however, things may not turn out to be that simple and there are potential scenarios that could cause considerable unease for both the Government and unions in the weeks ahead.

As of now it is impossible to predict definitively the outcome of the public services committee meeting. However, if members of the larger unions that have recommended a Yes vote actually support the deal in the ballot box, the agreement will more than likely be carried, albeit possibly by a very narrow margin.

But in light of the surprise decision yesterday of medical laboratory scientists to go against the recommendation of their union and vote to reject the proposed agreement, all predictions should probably be treated with caution.

The procedures by which the public services committee will decide on ratification of the deal are quite similar to the electoral college system used in US presidential elections.

Union weighting
Individual public service unions affiliated to congress ballot their own members initially. Subsequently these unions bring their results to the meeting of the public services committee. Each union is given a “weight” or particular number of votes at the meeting, based on the size of their membership. According to the individual union ballot results, the votes assigned to the different affiliated member unions are then added up with the overall decision being determined on a simple majority.

The total number of votes available at the public services committee meeting is 2,892, which means that 1,447 are needed to win. Siptu has 719 votes, while the other large public service union, Impact, has 606. Both of these unions have recommended acceptance of the proposed deal, so if members vote accordingly the Yes side will be well on the way to victory.

The Public Service Executive Union, which represents about 10,000 middle-grade civil servants, has also urged acceptance. It has 113 votes at the public services committee, and if members follow this recommendation the Yes side could be just nine votes short of winning from the votes of three unions alone.

The votes of unions such as the Prison Officers’ Association and/or smaller unions representing craftworkers could push the Yes side over the threshold of 1,447.

The traditional position of the public services committee has been that all unions accept its overall decision even where their own individual members have rejected the proposals. However, on this occasion, a number of unions are opposing this principle.

Unions on the No side argue that the concept of weighted majority was fine when they were dealing with agreements which were of benefit to members, ie that led to pay increases or improvements in employment terms. They maintain it is a quite different situation when they are dealing with pay cuts.

The Croke Park proposals affect different public service groups in different ways. The No side has raised the question of, for example, the appropriateness of civil servants voting in favour of a deal which would reduce the earnings of frontline health service workers but not impact on themselves in the same way.

Yesterday four unions, the Civil, Public and Services Union; the Irish Nurses’ and Midwives’ Organisation; the Irish Medical Organisation; and Unite all formally wrote to the public services committee and warned they would not be bound by the traditional weighted majority rule.

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland has already told the committee that, in keeping with a decision of its annual conference last week, it would not necessarily be bound by any overall position it may take on ratification.

The Government’s position is that, if the agreement is ratified by the committee, it will consider it to have been accepted and binding on all affiliated members.

When the original Croke Park agreement was rejected by some groups, they were in effect warned that if they stayed outside the fence they would lose the protections of the deal and could face further pay cuts or compulsory redundancies. This threat was sufficient to bring opponents back into line. However, this might be more difficult if larger numbers of unions insist they will not accept the agreement.

If, for example, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation rejects the deal – as the Government fears – it is likely all teachers and lecturers across the education sector will have voted to oppose it.

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin has indicated that, if the deal is rejected, the Government will introduce an across-the-board pay cut of about 7 per cent.

Minority muscle
However, the tricky position for the Government will be what to do if a bare majority of congress backs the deal but a very large minority are refusing to support this overall acceptance.

The unions seeking a No are in effect gambling that Howlin is bluffing and that, particularly after the Meath East byelection, there is no appetite on the Labour back benches to vote in favour of public service pay cuts.

These unions argue that the Government could seek to renegotiate the measures or reverse policy entirely and opt for tax rises instead of pay cuts.

All that is a matter of debate, but what is certain is that the Government’s budgetary policy is based on generating €300 million in savings on its pay bill this year. Any delay in meeting this target will quickly draw the attention of the EU-International Monetary Fund troika.

Either way, the next week or so could have major implications for the Government’s budgetary position, industrial relations in the public service or the existing structures of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Or all three.

Martin Wall is Industry Correspondent

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