Government should act and ditch Croke Park deal


OPINION:CLAUSE 1.28 of the Croke Park agreement on public service pay and conditions states: “The implementation of this agreement is subject to no currently unforeseen budgetary deterioration.”

Since Christmas 2009, when the agreement was finalised, and June 2010, when it was ratified by a majority of trade unions, there has been unforeseen budgetary deterioration on several fronts. For example, growth projections for the economy have not materialised and the scale of mortgage defaults, personal indebtedness and bank debt – all of which require massive amounts of public money to resolve – has risen to a level not envisaged in 2009.

All multi-year pay agreements contain a 1.28-type clause to permit a firm or the government to plead “inability to pay” in the event of unanticipated downturn in finances.

It is blindingly obvious the Government could reasonably have invoked clause 1.28 long ago and declared its inability to pay.

It represents a fundamental failure to govern when €1 billion is being borrowed every month not just to keep public services ticking over, but to pay annual increments, the most absurd allowances and index-linked pensions to deliver on the Croke Park deal as interpreted by trade unions.

It also represents a failure that, over four years into the crisis, the Government is still in “ongoing discussions” in the Labour Relations Commission to secure mere “flexibility” from medical consultants, with no intention to mention pay cuts. Consultant pay is protected by the Croke Park deal. Apart from the fiscal madness of the agreement, its continuance is having profoundly unfair consequences.

Right across the public service the most vulnerable workers and service-users have taken a disproportionate share of the pain. Newly appointed teachers now start on a salary 28 per cent less than their predecessors, and other cuts in education have hit some of the most disadvantaged students.

Home-help staff, who are not unionised, have lost work hours and the people they serve will be deprived of needed care.

The list of such patently unfair cuts is endless, and there is much worse to come as the Government refuses to consider revisiting the Croke Park deal before 2014.

In this context, where nothing is sacred but the agreement, it is increasingly galling to hear Government reassurances that it is “making every effort in making unavoidable cuts to protect the most vulnerable”.

Equally galling is to hear trade union officials call for “social solidarity” in this time of national crisis. Trade union mantras like “stronger together” , “ni neart go cur le chéile” and so on ring hollow when set against the deal they have cut for existing members at the expense of new employees.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions’ assertion that a strong union movement is the single most effective way to achieve “greater equality for all in society” has been exposed as bogus and pretentious. “Social solidarity” has come to mean nothing more than “what we have, we hold”, regardless of its impact on new work colleagues – not to mention the people being served or wider society.

Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the 1913 lockout and the trade union movement will take the opportunity to remind us of the heroic struggle of their founding members against injustice. Big Jim Larkin will rightly be remembered for his inspirational leadership in that epic struggle.

But before current trade union leaders presume to don the mantle of Larkin and all he stood for, they might stop to ponder this question: if Larkin were around today which causes would he champion? Where would he see the greatest injustices?

The stark facts are that the Government’s protestations about “protecting the most vulnerable” and the trade unions’ espousal of “social solidarity” hold no water. The reality is that the most powerful interests have won out by a country mile. The Croke Park agreement represents a continuation of the social partnership process that ultimately failed as an instrument of distributive justice.

But wait a minute: am I not missing something? Should I not recognise and be grateful that Croke Park is “enabling flexibility” and “ensuring industrial peace”?

This part of the official narrative is hard to take seriously.

Flexibility has been a way of life and the ultimate key to survival for 20 years in the private sector and more recently in semi-State companies, such as Aer Lingus or the ESB, as they feel the heat of competition. Flexibility was paid for handsomely in the infamous benchmarking deal, but never delivered. Commitments under Croke Park amount to paying for flexibility a second time – Joe O’Toole’s second visit to the ATM, as it were.

Not so long ago, just before Christmas 2009, a union leader, Liam Doran, politely told us to “back off” and keep our “mouths shut”. He was reacting to public anger over a leaked union proposal that public servants should get an additional 12 days’ annual leave as part of the unfolding deal.

About the same time, a stream of trade union leaders threatened to “ the government out of power” (Larry Broderick), to initiate a go-slow programme across the public service (Jack O’Connor) and so on.

Anyone who had the temerity to challenge the hegemony of the unions or who decried the inefficiencies, waste of public money, absenteeism and overtime rackets and other shortcomings of the public service was framed as engaging in “a campaign of vilification” (Sheila Nunan of the INTO) and of bordering on “incitement to hatred” by David Begg.

Now that the Croke Park deal is under pressure, the guns are coming out again but the well has now run dry. The ATM is empty.

In addition to “protecting the most vulnerable”, “facilitating flexibility” and “delivering industrial peace”, another much-used construct has been “legitimate entitlements”. When exit packages for secretaries general and others, one of which carried a value of €5 or €6 million, were questioned, we were asked to accept that these people have “legitimate entitlements”.

Similarly with medical consultants and allowances across the public service. Well, everyone’s legitimate expectations have been dashed, many to smithereens. A friend of mine saw his pension cut overnight to 2 per cent of its value and now sees it raided by the Government to fund a “jobs programme”.

It is time for the Government to snap out of its denial and invoke clause 1.28. The country cannot afford to maintain the Croke Park agreement until 2014, and its inherent unfairness is deeply damaging to society. The agreement is fundamentally flawed on economic and moral grounds.

Dr Eddie Molloy is a consultant in strategy, change management and innovation

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