A test of resolve and fairness

Public pay disputes coming to a head

 

The Government will face a test of its resolve in the search for a fair but affordable solution to a number of industrial relations disputes that are coming to a head in the public service. There is now a threat of serious disruption in the State’s public transport system and second-level schools and there are also a range of problems building up in the health sector that could spill over into industrial action.

The establishment of the Public Service Pay Commission, the work of which will form the basis of talks on a successor to the Lansdowne Road agreement and which is expected to include in its deliberations the value of public service pensions, was designed to bring stability to industrial relations. But some groups are vying with each other to get their concerns to the top of the agenda.

The dispute involving the Association of Secondary Teachers (ASTI) has taken another turn for the worse and it could really escalate if the Government follows through on a threat to make surplus ASTI teachers redundant.

Forced redundancies in the public services were avoided during the worst of the financial crisis and their emergence at this stage would move the dispute to a dangerous level.

The ASTI has lost a lot of public sympathy because of its militant stance, but on one issue it does have a serious point. That is the lower pay scale that applies to new teachers who started work in the wake of the financial crisis.

The union forfeited the moral high ground because of the way those in secure jobs agreed to sacrifice their newly qualified colleagues to protect their own salaries, but that is now beside the point. It may have made financial sense to start newly qualified teachers on a lower rung of the pay scale, but leaving them on a lower scale for their entire careers was a step too far.

Solutions can be found to the problems in teaching as the agreement with the other two unions – the INTO and the TUI – proves, but it will take a new approach from both sides.

The dispute in Bus Éireann is even more intractable. The State company is dying on its feet because it has proved unable to compete with private sector rivals. Serious changes in work practices are needed if it is to have any chance of surviving, but finding agreement on this and the even more contentious issue of pay cuts will be extremely difficult.

The danger is that the other arms of the State transport service will become embroiled in the dispute and a national transport strike could develop by the end of the month.

Ultimately the Government will face a political decision about whether it can stand firm even if there is a national shutdown. But its short-sighted collapse last November in the face of threatened strike action by gardaí has proved to be extremely damaging by encouraging others to try the same tactics.

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