John Geary: Public sector pay talks are a matter of urgency

Delays risk further claims and will undermine the credibility of union leadership

During the recent economic crisis Ireland managed to sail a steady course through very turbulent waters. In the public service, wages were reduced, pay allowances were jettisoned and working hours were increased. Yet there were few prolonged or bitter industrial disputes of note.

Now, just as we enter calmer waters and our economic woes seem to be receding, a chaotic free-for-all in public service pay bargaining looms. Talk of the Lansdowne Road agreement being dead in the water is commonplace.

Ictu general secretary Patricia King has spoken of its "fracturing" on foot of the Government's willingness to concede a side deal with the Garda Representative Association which is not party to the agreement.

In turn, the pay recommendation offered to gardaí has emboldened other union representatives to rattle their sabres. Most notable is the call by the country’s most seasoned union leader, Jack O’Connor, to authorise ballots for industrial action among Siptu’s public service membership if the Government does not move in haste to hold talks to renegotiate the Lansdowne Road agreement.

Surely, if anything does, this sounds the death knell for the agreement.

Yet others disagree, arguing that the accommodations made to particular occupational groups merely demonstrate the Lansdowne Road agreement’s flexibility. One of its virtues, they claim, is its ability to correct for pay anomalies, and/or to accommodate deals which are self-financing. Any increases in pay are thus presented as being offset against improvements in service delivery.

Nothing new here, they say, or nothing at least which inevitably imperils the agreement.

External agencies

So who is right? And how are events likely to unfold? To answer these questions we need to revisit unions’ motivations for working with the Government from the onset of the crisis.

First, they had little choice. Social partnership was no more. The troika were in town. Power was now in the hands of non-elected and politically unaccountable external agencies over which union leaders exercised no influence.

Buffeted by forces beyond their control, they sought to hunker down, build fortifications where they could and wait for the tide to turn. Their strategy was to present the union movement as a stakeholder with which the then government could reach a reasoned and consensual compromise. The negotiation of a succession of public service reform agreements followed.

While some may have been disenchanted with the government’s response to the crisis, there was little appreciable sense that they saw this as a justifiable, or perhaps more critically, a winnable casus belli.

The unions’ posture embraced significant elements of the spirit of social partnership where union members were enjoined to adapt their demands to the economic circumstances and budgetary parameters of the State. Where disputes occurred, workers were prevailed upon to work constructively with the State’s dispute resolution agencies.

Finally, in the context of such collective agreements, there remained the scope, however limited and circumscribed, for unions to shape the outcomes of public service reform.

Critically the currency of collective bargaining was preserved, which bestowed some refuge for unions and their members in otherwise very turbulent waters. To have opposed the government risked marginalisation and worker impoverishment.

In these circumstances, realpolitik won out.

Wage militancy

So in this light, how might we interpret recent developments in public service industrial relations?

The response of Jack O’Connor risks being misinterpreted. His task, and that of other union leaders, remains that of managing the discontent of their members. In this, the retention of inter- and intra-union cooperation and consolidation is paramount. This is why concessions to well-placed groups of workers, which carry uncertain obligations around productivity improvements, are so potentially dangerous for unions.

Bear in mind, too, that the predominant face of Irish trade unionism continues to be one of restrained mobilisation and of attempts to preserve their cooperative orientation and to portray itself as a vehicle for the achievement of social cohesion.

However, there are limits to any such position. Time is now of the essence.

It is imperative that the Government moves quickly to convene pay talks with union leaders in an effort to agree a new accord. To delay risks other sectional groups pressing their case for “special treatment”, while elsewhere union leaders struggle to contain their memberships’ demands for follow-on claims.

If this was to occur, the Government in turn would be compelled to hold fast and adopt a strategy of management by confrontation. Inevitably, a spiral of prolonged industrial unrest would ensue.

To date the Government has been fortunate that there has been no contagion or spill-over in wage militancy from the public service to the private sector. However, it would be naive to assume that pay expectations are not on the rise, particularly in large unionised workplaces.

Whatever terms we put upon it, a renegotiation of the Lansdowne Road agreement, or the negotiation of a new agreement, doesn’t matter a great deal. What matters is that talks commence as soon as is practicably possible to shore up a unitary and centralised system of collective bargaining so as to ensure an orderly return to public service pay-fixing.

To attain such an outcome is an essential ingredient in achieving a competitively sustainable, balanced and inclusive recovery.

John Geary is full professor of industrial relations and human resources at the College of Business, University College Dublin