Unions out of touch with economic reality


It’s high time union bosses realised that their “equality” mantra in the good times should be applicable in the bad, writes SARAH CAREY

THE BIGGEST problem when you’re watching the news is figuring out if the players are knowingly telling lies, or if like Tony Blair, think that if you try hard enough you can make yourself believe anything, and therefore it’s not really lying when you don’t tell the truth.

Did Eamon Gilmore really believe he had to drop the guillotine so cruelly because it was the only way? Or was he perfectly aware that the priority was not accountability but winning the PR battle by triumphantly waving the severed head to the mob?

Does Eamon Ryan really believe that it’s possible to harness the magnetic energy of asteroids passing near the Earth’s atmosphere and by 3014 export electricity to the Elbonians? Or does he know well that the renewed programme for government is a document where the laudable becomes the laughable and if Brian Lenihan is the man I hope he is, will simply stick it in the shredder?

In their broadcasts from Planet Entitlement do trade union leaders really believe that a pay rise in a deflationary and near bankrupt economy is feasible? Or do they know that strikes will serve only to exact some sort of bitter, aimless revenge on their own country for failing to maintain their members in the style to which they’ve become accustomed?

The wholesale double-think serves to confer a kind of respectability on the wrath of those Fianna Fáilers who promised vengeance for O’Donoghue. At least their anger was honest. Or the sight of a shocked Enda Kenny after Gilmore’s unnecessary vindictiveness last week, which exposed not Kenny’s supposed weakness, but his innate decency.

But those are rare moments of truth. Instead we must struggle to to translate the words we hear into what they mean.

As the Battle of the Budget revs up, let’s start with “equality” so beloved of the trade union movement.

Context is all.

Before they open their mouths, trade union leaders expect us to believe that we are supposed to interpret their words from a socialist perspective. They also ask us to believe that though they represent specific interest groups, they are unlike the Irish Farmers’ Association or the Irish vintners associations because they seek the betterment of society, not just their members.

But these are false premises and the wilful and changeable meaning they put on words like “equality” exposes the lie of their supposed socialist stance.

A true left-winger knows that equality means what I will call vertical equality. It means that the gap between those at the top of the earning ladder and those at the bottom should be as narrow as possible. It’s a really important principle because the more “equal” we are, the greater our mutual self-interest. If we’re more “equal” we don’t need private schools or the VHI because it’s in all our interests to provide good public services. Then people don’t get left behind because they ended up in the poor school or die because they waited too long for the cancer diagnosis.

So, what have trade unions done for “equality”?

Before benchmarking, progress through the civil and public service represented a kind of equality. The top of the pay scale at one grade was the bottom of the pay scale for the next grade. Earning potential was incremental and income levels rose throughout one’s career gradually and fairly.

Through social partnership the self-proclaimed social union democrats found themselves in a position of enormous power. Did they use their negotiating skills to achieve their political aim of “equality”.

Well yes, except the definition of equality had changed. Now they wanted what I’ll call horizontal equality. This meant that they insisted that the inequality of the private sector, whereby the chief executives and directors earned significant multiples of the secretaries and the labourers, would be replicated in the public sector. This is why the chief beneficiaries of benchmarking were the higher civil and public servants defended by Dave Thomas in this paper on Monday.

Gone was the gradual pay scale and instead promotions resulted in significant jumps in salaries. The higher you went the bigger the jumps, with some secretaries general getting increases of 25 per cent.

Through benchmarking, the unions delivered “equality”, but it was the equality of the free market they so frequently condemn, not the equality of social democracy they claim to hold dear.

Now, having raised its flag on the good ship Equality, the mainstream left has a bit of a problem. Having convinced us of the merits of horizontal equality, they find it difficult to answer the demands of the private sector for precisely that. You wanted equality on the way up? Then why not on the way down?

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