Time to reimagine social partnership as Luas dispute and other pay claims raise prospect of further strike action

Exaggerated claims of economic recovery impact on industrial relations

 

Public disillusionment with existing power structures was reflected in the outcome of the general election when Independent TDs and smaller groups made considerable gains at the expense of the major parties. That disappointment is also manifesting itself through industrial relations where some employees believe they are being denied a fair share in the benefits of economic growth. There is little recognition that this is a two-speed recovery, with multinational companies thriving on exports while many indigenous enterprises struggle to remain competitive.

The outgoing Government brought this on itself by exaggerating the extent and depth of the recovery in pre-election campaigning, even as a majority of the electorate failed to recognise the effects on their own lives. There was a clear disconnect between rising employment, government revenues and a public feel-good factor. Recovery for many meant a return to pre-crash, 2008 living standards, not an incremental improvement in working conditions.

Rejecting the pay offer in the Lansdowne Road Agreement, earlier this year, the Garda Representative Association looked for full restoration of pay and allowances to 2008 levels, along with an accelerated recruitment campaign. Those demands will face any new government. The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland also rejected the agreement. It has served notice of a series of one-day strikes from September because of proposed reforms to the junior certificate that were the subject of detailed and productive negotiations.

There was considerable relief when a planned stoppage of Luas services on St Patrick’s Day was called off. This followed intensive negotiations at the Workplace Relations Commission and an offer to Luas drivers of an 18.7 per cent pay increase spread over three years. The National Bus and Rail Union immediately sought similar increases for its Dublin Bus members, in addition to other claims ranging from six to 13 per cent that are before the Labour Court. Iarnród Éireann employees are also demanding pay rises of up to 25 per cent. The terms of the proposed Luas settlement will be voted on later this week. Rejection could mean prolonged and intractable disputes.

It was inevitable that, following years of austerity, employees in the public and private sectors should feel entitled to recover lost ground. Recession brought the collapse of social partnership and there is no prospect it will return in its original form. But, as the Irish Congress of Trade Unions struggles to maintain discipline and a united front, some arrangement linking trade unions, employers and government in common cause should be re-established. It may take time – and some damaging disputes – to convince intractable elements of its value. But, as was said in another context: “better jaw, jaw than war, war”.

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