Whoever wins the general election will face having to address ongoing demands for a full reversal of lower pay arrangements introduced during the austerity years, not just in teaching but also in other parts of the public service.
About 19,000 members of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) staged a one-day strike on Tuesday which led to the closure of hundreds of schools.
Another second level teaching union, the ASTI, is expected to ballot its members in March for industrial action on the two-tier pay issue, although it is unlikely to go on strike unless it is accompanied by another education union.
Separately several thousand doctors, represented by the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO), have already backed strike action over pay inequality. However the union has deferred any immediate action pending talks on a proposed new contract for hospital consultants.
Lower pay arrangements for those recruited since 2011 has been a persistent issue of concern for public service trade unions for a number of years.
There have been a number of attempts by Government to resolve the issue but unions contend that while some progress has been made, the bottom line that some personnel still receive less than more longer-serving colleagues remains.
The TUI has argued,for example, that teachers employed after January 1st 2011 will earn some €110,000 less than longer-serving colleagues over the course of a career.
The union has maintained that “critically, they will earn over €50,000 less in the first ten years of their career when key life choices are made”.
Medical representative bodies contend that recently-appointed hospital consultants can earn up to €50,000 per year less than longer-serving colleagues.
Unions in both the education and medical fields maintain that this two-tier pay system is fuelling recruitment and retention problems in both schools and hospitals.
Minister for Education Joe McHugh said last April that the issue of the two-tier pay system would be given “full consideration” in either an upcoming pay review or in the context of the new round of pay talks.
However while unions and Government officials held months of preliminary discussions over the establishment of “sectoral talks” to look at issues such as the two-tier pay system in schools, the establishment of any such process was overtaken by the general election and the envisaged sector talks never materialised.
The issue of the two-tier pay system is likely now to have to be addressed as part of overall talks on a new national public service agreement.
The current deal is schedule to expire at the end of the year. However the logistics of having any such accord ratified by more than 20 different public service groups in time for the budget next October mean that negotiations would have to commence quite soon after Easter.
However negotiating a new national public service agreement may not be easy.Under the current deal most public service personnel will receive a 2 per cent increase in October. However the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has urged affiliate organisations representing workers in the private sector to seek rises of between 3.5 and 4.5 per cent this year.
In its general election materials, Fórsa, the country’s largest public service trade union, stressed “the need for inflation-plus increases to reflect the fact that economic improvements have run ahead of agreed pay provisions over the last three years”.
As well seeking candidates to pledge to resolve remaining two-tier pay issues, it also wants progress on productivity measures introduced following the economic crash such as the requirement for some public service personnel to work longer hours.
Governments over recent years have insisted that while the pay reductions introduced during the austerity years would be rolled back, the various productivity measures were permanent.
Fórsa general secretary Kevin Callinan told members last month: "The spending power of public service wages is being eroded by the increasing cost-of-living, including in housing and childcare, while private sector earnings are now rising at three times the rate of public service pay."
Another issue which the next Government is likely have to face is whether to continue with legislative provisions which allow it to impose financial penalties on members of trade unions which are considered to have repudiated the public service agreement.
Such penalties including freezing of increments were imposed on members of the ASTI after they engaged in industrial action in autumn 2016. Members of the ASTI lost out on about €15 million in payments as a result.
However the Government did not apply such sanctions to nurses following the strike last year by members of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation.
The Department of Public Expenditure has not answered definitively as to whether penalties will be imposed on TUI members as a result of their strike, however the indications are that they will not be applied.
Last Friday a spokeswoman for Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe said it was "not constructive" to talk about financial penalties being applied to those teachers taking part in the planned strike.
The next government is likely to come under pressure from trade unions to drop the provisions under financial emergency legislation to penalise members in the public service for taking industrial action in the future.
A campaign by the ASTI for reimbursement of the losses incurred by its members on foot of the Government-imposed penalties in 2016 is likely to continue in the weeks and months ahead.
After the strike on Tuesday, the TUI will have to decide on whether there are to be further stoppages before the end of the current school year or whether it will wait to see what develops in any talks on a new public service agreement.
Either way the two-tier pay system is likely to continue to be a major issue in public service industrial relations.