THREATS OF industrial action and disruption of services have grown more bellicose as trade unions warn the Government of the likely consequences of any reduction in the pay and conditions of public service workers. Such behaviour does nothing for the national interest. The situation reflects unwillingness by trade unions to recognise high pay levels and unsustainable levels of public borrowing, along with an inability by Government to communicate fair, effective and coherent policies.
It is a worrying time. The negative sentiment being generated may increase resistance to the Lisbon Treaty in next Friday’s referendum. While the issues are totally unrelated, some voters can be expected to take the opportunity and vent their anger on Government. There has been a lack of decisive leadership. Bursts of intense activity relating to Nama and the banks within Cabinet have alternated with ministerial disagreements over the McCarthy report, confusion over Fás and a lack of focus in responding to the fiscal crisis. Such behaviour has tended to alienate not just trade unions but the Opposition parties as well.
The extent of that anger was evident yesterday when Siptu president Jack O’Connor spoke of the trade union movement having been “suckered into a talks programme” by the Government earlier this year, when there was no intention of reaching a deal. The State’s largest public service union, Impact, is currently balloting its members for strike action. And the executive council of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions will meet tomorrow to consider details of a campaign in opposition to pay cuts and reductions in public services.
There is an urgent need to reduce official borrowing. The Government is committed to trimming expenditure by €4 billion next year. Pay reductions, rather than job losses, are publicly favoured. And Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan has no appetite for further tax increases. The Government has confirmed it will reduce the cost of children’s allowances. Such a measure will be extremely unpopular, as the recent Irish Times/TNS mrbi opinion poll made clear. The same holds true for cuts in social welfare. But it would be a travesty if welfare benefits were reduced while the pay and conditions of a privileged group of employees were protected.
Eamon Gilmore of the Labour Party has opposed a cut in public sector pay and questioned the need for €4 billion in savings. His pro-trade union stance places him at odds with Fine Gael and raises questions about future government policy.