It may be less than one week since the Labour Relations Commission issued its recommendation on how to cut the public service pay bill by €1bn but already the deal’s survival hangs in the balance.
Yesterday’s decision by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation — previously a Croke Park-friendly organisation — not to issue a recommendation to its 32,000 members could be seen as a barometer of the way the deal is viewed generally across the public service, given the INTO’s support of the original Croke Park deal.
In about six weeks, the leaders of the Ictu-affiliated trade unions, of which the INTO is a major player, will vote on behalf of the whole trade union movement on whether to accept or reject the deal.
If the INTO membership were to vote against in its internal ballot, its delegates would then have to reflect that in the overall ICTU ballot. If it were joined by the likes of Siptu, it would seem highly unlikely that the deal could be rubberstamped by unions. That would leave the Government having to resort to legislating for pay cuts across the public service.
It is true to say that, at this stage, all we have are recommendations from the union executives. However, it is very rare — though not unheard of — that a union membership ignores the recommendation of its executive.
There is no doubt that the reinvented Croke Park agreement has created a greater headache for unions than its predecessor, not least since Croke Park I was supposed to be the culmination of the public service contribution to the country’s ailing finances.
The way this latest incarnation has pitted public service workers against each other has been more than evident in the emergency vs non-emergency staff debate.
However, the divergence of opinion runs deeper than that. The division which developed in the civil service on the deal can be seen in the way union executives there have recommended their members vote in a ballot. Representatives of low- and high-paid staff are opposed to the terms, while the unions for those in the middle ranks are pushing for an acceptance.
It would be disingenuous to blame that divergence of opinion merely on the fact that the two unions with middle-ranking civil service members, the Public Service Executive Union and Impact, had two of the main players who negotiated the terms of the recommendation. The Civil Public and Services Union argues the deal, which includes delays in incremental increases, impacts unfairly on their members’ already low incomes.
At the other end of the scale, the senior members of the Association of Higher Civil and Public Servants say the straight pay cuts being imposed on its members come after they already suffered pay reductions of between 15% and 17%.
However, pro-agreement unions insist the pain has been shared as equitably as possible. Yet the 24/7 Frontline Alliance will continue to argue that their members are suffering a heightened level of pain compared to their non-frontline equivalents. They say cuts to premium payments constitute a reduction in their members’ take-home pay which will not happen to the rest of the public service.
The level of anger among the alliance members has been more than evident, not least in last month’s show of strength in a Dublin basketball arena.
Their strength in numbers has no doubt been weakened by the concessions to firefighters and prison officers over their entitlement to premium payments. However, that move will only strengthen the resolve among nurses and gardaí.
It is also clear, though, that both have not yet played their full hand.
On Monday, rank-and-file gardaí will reveal details of how they will escalate their protest. Experts say that even though officers are legally prohibited from engaging in industrial action, they have an arsenal of measures which can be rolled out. At this stage, the 24/7 Frontline Alliance is only at its “information and campaigning” stage where it seeks to coerce public opinion. However, if that is not successful, industrial action will become a real option or else their opposition will only fizzle out.
*Gardaí — Officers up to the rank of inspector may be legally prevented from engaging in industrial action, but they have been among the most vociferous of opponents of the Government’s €1bn savings drive.
Like their nursing and prison officer colleagues on the 24/7 Frontline Alliance, they are most exercised by cuts to premium payments, which constitute a large part of their take-home pay. Rank-and-file gardaí are already engaging in protest action which they intend to escalate.
*Nurses — The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation will have a vote in the final ICTU ballot, which will decide whether to accept or reject Croke Park II.
They point out that the cuts to premium payments mean a nurse on €35,000 will lose 8% of pay as a result of the Labour Relations Commission proposals — the same percentage as a non-emergency public servant earning €80,000.
*Doctors — The Irish Medical Organisation argues that its members face cuts on a number of fronts. They will be hit by increased hours, straight pay-cuts for earning over €65,000, a freeze on pay scales, and a reduction in the premium and overtime rates they currently receive. The Irish Hospital Consultants Association has argued that the reduced salaries will make it impossible to fill consultant posts.
*Teachers — The executives of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland and the Irish Federation of University Teachers are already recommending members vote against the deal. About a third of school teachers, and a higher proportion at third-level, would be hit by cuts to salaries over €65,000.
Proposals for a new salary scale could see the earnings of teachers who started on lower pay since 2011 eventually make up ground on their colleagues, but those at the lowest levels would also be hardest hit by the loss of payments for supervision and substitution work. Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland leaders will decide their position late next week.
*Clerical officers — Representatives of this grade in the civil service say their members face hardship because the cuts are being taken off a low salary base. Longer working weeks for no extra pay mean their hourly rate is, in effect, cut by 6%. Overtime rate has been reduced to time-and-a-half at the first point of the staff member’s scale, even if they are on a higher point.
*Civil Service Management — Facing the same longer hours requirement and an overtime cut. But all those who earn over €65,000 have also had a pay cut imposed upon them, ranging from 5.5% up to 10% for those earning over €185,000.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved