Talks on a new pay deal for public sector workers got under way this week. There won’t be any mention of percentages or quantum during these early days.
No. This is the time for hard talk and over the top polarisation as each side builds its case. This is the time when the leaders of each group can safely put the boot in. So what we get from Government, management and unions respectively is a reiteration of what was already expounded in the Minister’s spring statement, outlined by employers’ groups in the business pages and demanded at union conferences.
Predictable as this sounds, it is not without complexity and interwoven objectives. Lead negotiators, in the first place, need to soften up the hardliners in the other groups around the table and to let them see and hear that this is not going to be easy.
More importantly metaphorically hammering the table and “stitching our policies into the record” will also appease the inflexible ideologues in their own group.
Crucially too it lowers the guard of those same hawks and gives the leadership the credibility to sell the inevitable set of essential compromises which are just around the corner and which are the hallmarks of a saleable deal.
The dance is only beginning
This is all reminiscent of the old-time ballrooms of romance. At the moment the lads are lining the wall on one side of the hall and the girls are across the way. They’re all a bit shy of each other. But the dance is only beginning and it is a long way yet to shifting or making out together. There will be many nods, smiles and tentative moves across the floor and then a few foxtrots before the togetherness of some slow sets and finally, commitment. That’s negotiation.
Apparently each side wants a deal. A more accurate assessment is that each side needs a deal. The alternative is a nightmarish series of skirmishes and disputes nationwide. In those situations the sensible arguments generally prevail in the end. Every side wants the best deal but in the heel of the hunt an all-right deal is better than no deal.
Of course the public focus is on pay but trying to estimate the outcome on salaries really is guessing the length of a piece of string. Before coming to any such conclusion there will be very focused negotiation on the length of the agreement, the phasing of awards and various conditions of service and hours issues.
Each and every one of those has a crucial influence on the final figures. There will also be the constant argument as to whether an award is a pay increase or a restoration of the cuts but this is the kind of creative ambiguity whereby negotiations progress.
Some health groups are demanding to be treated as a special case. Good luck with that. That is never easy and their proposal, based on the staff shortage of various grades in health, that market forces would determine the pay rate is an utter non-starter. It would be anathema to the basic “one for all and all for one” principle of trade union negotiations.
Their only hope, and it is a slim one, is via the rarely used “anomaly” category. That requires convincing both the management side and your own colleagues that your people have been left out of the loop and that there is a formula to pay them more without breaching the terms of the agreement.
Outside the tent
No doubt they will push their case but making it stick is another story. And they will be constantly reminded of the cautionary tale of the ASTI. It is cold and lonely out there outside the tent.
The pension issue is seen as a huge challenge and so it is but an analysis of it clarifies the negotiation space.
There are a number of certainties. Government is demanding increased pension contributions and unions are determined to retain the benefits. In their heart of hearts though they know that contributions will have to be increased.
But eureka, as it happens union members already paying extra through the abominable pension levy. It is one of those unusual situations where the fiscal space is in perfect balance with the negotiation space.
Clearly it facilitates a deal. And the formula is sticking out a mile. Reduce the pension levy over the next few years and reassign the remainder as an increased pension contribution. Undoubtedly the final pension proposal will be around that formula.
General talks will continue but no matter how many weeks, days and hours it takes, there is only one hour that matters and that is the last hour. Before that though we can expect high dudgeon, outrage, walkouts and collapses before everyone comes together “in the national interest”.
Joe O’Toole is a former senator and president of Ictu