Era of industrial unrest is looking likely

Several unions look set to test the mettle of the minority Government on pay issues, writes Kyran Fitzgerald.

Speaking on RTÉ radio last week, one of the country’s leading industrial relations experts wondered aloud whether we might be about to witness a turning point following a long period of industrial peace.

According to Professor Bill Roche of the UCD Smurfit School of Business, a series of disputes in the transport network could be pivotal.

Ironically, his warning comes at a time when hopes have grown of a settlement of the long-running dispute on the Luas network.

The decision of the Labour Court to invite the parties in for discussions has been described by Industrial Relations News magazine as a “critical crossroads”.

Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Prof Roche said the court would not have got involved unless it was clear that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) had “sounded out”’ Siptu, the union at the heart of the dispute.

Some believe that there is now a degree of war-weariness on both sides.

Even if the revived talks go nowhere, there is also a sense that the Luas dispute is something of a sideshow in national terms.

A more ominous development for the new minority Government is the prospect of the spread of trouble across the national transport network, with claims already lodged about moves towards privatisation.

A new twist has also been provided in the form of a warning delivered by the outgoing general secretary of the TEEU, Eamon Devoy, in relation to ongoing ESB talks.

He told IRN that if his members reject the current agreement on pay and conditions “on management’s head be it” and described management’s response to clarification proposals from his union as “contemptuous”.

The last thing anyone would desire is a threat of action at the ESB.

The TEEU has not been slow to flex its muscles in disputes and has the capacity to draw blood.

The new Governmentlooks rather weak. Some will be looking to test its collective mettle.

Much will depend on the country’s industrial relations dispute mechanism.

Professor Roche believes that the Labour Court has been strengthened in terms of its personnel.

While much attention has focused on public sector union demands for ‘pay restoration’ and an end to restrictions imposed by the Croke Park, Haddington and Lansdowne Road agreements, Prof Roche believes developments in private sector pay bargaining could act as a trigger for action on the part of public servants.

Up to very recently, annual pay settlements have held at around the 2% mark.

Roche fears that the delivery of a cluster of settlements of 3%, or above, particularly in profitable, unionised pharmaceutical and chemical companies could provide such a trigger.

He draws a parallel with the late 1990s when a series of private sector deals provoked a reaction in parts of the public service that in turn led to the establishment of the benchmarking process in public pay determination.

The performance management development system (PMDS) model is viewed in retrospect as having provided the fig leaf for large awards that played their part in the financial crisis that unfolded some years later.

Some experts believe such increases were all but inevitable given the overheated nature of the economy.

According to one leading industrial relations observer, the “2% run rate [of pay increases] has held pretty well into 2016, but is now looking a bit ragged at the edges, though many of the deals being agreed have a fair bit of a productivity element”.

In his view, there is a “fair sense of the reality of the situation”, with trade unionists aware that what can be achieved in, say, biopharma firms, will not be there for the taking in hard-pressed retail and distribution firms.

Bill Roche believes a return to a form of benchmarking is likely but it will not form the basis of a revived social partnership.

While he is sceptical, he believes performance management will be part of this, but with objective setting and day-to-day management as critical ingredients.

A new benchmarking body is likely to include a recognised international expert; something sorely lacking back in 2001 when the first body met.

A full-blooded pay restoration seems unlikely due to financial constraints and a recognition that it would not be equitable.

Speaking recently, the general secretary of the IMPACT union, Shay Cody, warned against an immediate unwinding of the crisis era Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (FEMPI) legislation.

Its main effect would be to provide an income boost of almost €15,000 a year to the highest paid, with a benefit of below €500 for those on €30,000 a year.

One thing is clear: The industrial relations diary looks crowded with trade unions ready to take advantage of the 2015 Industrial Relations Amendment Act which provides them with a bargaining clout that has been lacking since the Supreme Court judgement in the Ryanair case, nine years ago.

Only time will tell whether ordinary members will display further patience or, having lain in the long grass, decide to strike.


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