Striking at the wrong moment

 

ORGANISING A one-day national strike at a time of such unprecedented crisis is national sabotage. The sooner the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) calls off such destructive action, the better. A genuine grievance may exist in relation to the unilateral breach of a formal agreement entered into by the social partners, but that development has to be viewed in the context of massively altered financial circumstances. It certainly cannot justify the likely damage that will be caused to the economy and to the job prospects of workers if such action goes ahead.

A weekend invitation from employers’ group Ibec to resume discussions, either directly or through the Department of the Taoiseach, may allow Ictu to avoid impaling itself on that hook. Acknowledging there was some merit in Ictu’s 10-point plan for economic recovery, Turlough O’Sullivan of Ibec indicated a willingness to accept pay increases already negotiated for companies that could afford them. Otherwise, a pay freeze or wage cuts were envisaged along with the resolution of disputes through established industrial relations machinery. It did not represent a fundamental change in direction by Ibec. But it offered the prospect of agreeing a common approach in what are deteriorating economic circumstances.

The Government has, deservedly, been held responsible as the prime architect of our economic ills. But the social partners are not without blame. They sat around the negotiating table in Government Buildings while unsustainable economic policies narrowed the tax base and fuelled public spending and the building boom. They agreed pay increases that destroyed our industrial competitiveness and are now crippling the prospect of recovery. Ibec and Ictu will argue they were only representing the interests of their members. Having been part of the problem, they must now become part of the solution.

Retreating into traditional attitudes simply will not serve. The time for grandstanding and posturing is long gone. The extent of the economic downturn has been so violent and dramatic that public-sector workers in Impact have withheld approval for strike action. Unemployment exceeds 10 per cent. Revenues fell by one-quarter in the first months of this year. And the Government is borrowing at an unsustainable rate to pay wages. The landscape of industry and trade has been transformed. In that context, the pay terms of last year’s national agreement are as relevant as the Dead Sea scrolls.

A new covenant is required: one that will not only include the social partners, but the Opposition parties in the Dáil. Trade unions and Opposition parties are understandably fearful of being blamed if they do not reject harsh fiscal measures. This, however, is not about short-term advantage. It is about protecting the weakest in society, promoting economic recovery and ensuring fairness in apportioning cost. The outline of a three-year plan, as promised in the budget, may provide the basis for such broad agreement. But first, the parties have to get around the table.