Unions say Cowen has killed social partnership


SOCIAL PARTNERSHIP is “dead and buried” following the failure of negotiations with Government on cost-cutting in the public sector, unions have said.

David Begg, general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions (Ictu), said when the Taoiseach spoke on the steps of Government Buildings on Friday he “drove down the model of social partnership”.

Jack O’Connor, president of Siptu, said the decision to reject “the best offer any government was ever made” meant partnership was “dead and buried”.

Des Kavanagh, general secretary of the Psychiatric Nurses Association, also described social partnership as “dead and buried”, while the general secretary of the Irish Nurses Organisation, Liam Doran, said it was hard to envisage how partnership could be put back together.

The social partnership model, involving government, unions and employer groups, has been used to negotiate wage rates in Ireland since 1987. After prolonged negotiations last week and what seemed like an agreement between public sector unions and Government to save costs of €1.3 billion, Taoiseach Brian Cowen said the Government would press ahead with plans to cut pay.

Speaking on RTÉ radio’s This Week programme yesterday, Mr Begg said unions had found the €1.3 billion savings required by Government. However, there had been an unstated element of Government policy which was to achieve the devaluation of wages across the economy.

A calculation had been made that if it was possible to reduce wages in the public sector, it would be much easier to push a reduction across the economy.

He said when it became known an agreement might be reached, “people in the business end of things” lobbied TDs very strongly.

Mr Begg said the Government had lost an enormous opportunity to reform the public sector.

“When the Taoiseach spoke on the steps of Government Buildings at four o’clock on Friday he didn’t just cut the ground from under these negotiations, he also drove down the model of social partnership that we’ve had for 22 years.

“It seems to me there will be no relationship of that kind between this Government and this leadership of the congress.”

Speaking to The Irish Times yesterday, Mr O’Connor said the decision to reject “the best offer any government was ever made” ended partnership.“It is dead and buried now, that’s without question,” he said.

He said negotiations collapsed because of campaigns for pay cuts across the economy. He did not expect union members to take a second pay cut in 12 months lying down, but any decision about strike action would be discussed at today’s meeting of the Ictu public services committee.

Mr O’Connor also said that if the Government had the courage to take €750 million in tax from the top income earners and give it to the most vulnerable, that might be viewed positively by society and trade union members.

“It would offer the possibility of some rapprochement in the fullness of time,” he said.

Mr Kavanagh said there was evidence that TDs had received a lot of calls from business people last week and there was clearly an agenda to cut pay.

He said the social partnership model had been “put to death in a most appalling way”.

“It is certainly dead and buried now,” he said.

The union would meet next Friday after the budget to gauge members’ reaction and work out a strategy, Mr Kavanagh said.

Mr Doran said the Government had put private sector interests before national interests.

“We ticked all the necessary boxes to get this deal done. It is hard to envisage how the partnership could be put back together again.”

Speaking to RTÉ television news, the general secretary of Impact and chairman of the public sector committee of Ictu, Peter McLoone, said Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan had cautioned last year that pay cuts in France could lead to riots. Mr McLoone warned we could expect a similar reaction here.