Can leaders forestall a summer of discontent?

The Government has surely pinned its hopes on resurrecting Croke Park II on the efforts of Labour Relations Commission boss, Kieran Mulvey.

While more of the unions may come on board and rescue the Government there is still a big risk the whole thing will unravel.

Perhaps it’s just sabre rattling but reports that the Government is continuing to put together legislation would suggest that it is concerned it’s not a done deal.

It has already been reported that the Garda representatives have welcomed the Government climb-down on pay and conditions. Under the proposals put to the Garda reps, premium payments and allowances will remain untouched.

Unless we missed something those are where most of the costs are. Oh, yes, I forgot to mention that the Garda are going to give 30 hours of “free overtime”.

Now where have we heard this before? I’m sure most of us remember the across the board promises made during benchmarking on greater efficiencies and service but very little of what was committed by the unions was ever delivered.

The Government has also said it is prepared to negotiate with individual unions if it cannot get on a collective one. But that will simply sow the seed for greater industrial relations problems as the more powerful unions get better terms than those with less muscle. One of the problems with Croke Park II was the fact that the Government had already given in to some frontline unions like the prison officers to the detriment of others. Frontline unions such as the nurses were not so lucky.

We should ask ourselves what agreement with the unions now means. Firstly, the Government takes months to put together its proposed Croke Park II agreement to have it thrown out by the main unions despite an earlier expectation that they would begrudgingly accept it. Then the LRC is asked to cobble something together in a few days, to get everyone who matters around the table, reach agreement and sign off on a new deal.

It would seem that the only way it will be accepted is if some of the more demanding cutbacks are excluded. However, if they are excluded, the €300m saving required will only be met by a liberal use of smoke and mirrors and even then it is questionable. And that is not solidarity, it is stupidity.

One alternative is to impose the pay cuts. Another is to start imposing more taxes or cuts in service which will do nobody any good. However, sustained industrial action is the big alternative but will this simply make matters worse?

The bus drivers unions have started, and then temporarily suspended, the strike weapon for 48 hours. Dublin Bus and Irish Rail members in Siptu are due to ballot for industrial action in support of their Bus Éireann colleagues. It would be really intriguing if one of the demands on the bus and train unions’ ballot was that their own senior management share in the pain. They are calling for it, and they should as others should, but will they make it an issue? The odds are that an agreement will be patched together — the alternative is unacceptable. Government needs an agreement and are likely to accept almost anything to achieve it. Imposing mandatory pay cuts across the board would probably incite serious industrial relations problems particularly in a country where those at the “top of the food chain” seem immune from the demands imposed on most of the population.

It’s likely that we will have some sporadic industrial action as those unions which do not win favour in any piecemeal negotiations react. The major unions will come on side to maintain the status quo and their place at the top table. It’s going to be an interesting couple of months but it will not eliminate the need for a root and branch reformation of our whole public sector.


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