After two weeks of negotiation with little progress, talks between the Government and trade unions on a new public sector pay deal will intensify hugely over the next 48 hours,.
Unusually for pay talks, the Workplace Relations Commission gave the sides the bank holiday weekend off, perhaps to allow participants to process the position of the other side, to be clear on what they want, and to ensure they come back this morning ready to get down to renewed efforts.
The process has to speed up now — it should have been completed last Friday and the clock is ticking. A deal that includes pay adjustments in 2018 has to be factored into the October 2017 budget announcement.
Unions would have to complete ballots before that and teachers are about to break up for the summer.
While unions say a “small bit” of progress was made on a text covering a number of non-pay issues last Friday, the crunch issue, outsourcing, remains a potentially massive stumbling block. It will have to be addressed before any new deal can be put to a ballot.
The Lansdowne Road Agreement, in 2015, introduced a restriction preventing labour costs from being included in a business case for a service to be outsourced. However, the Government want to lift that restriction.
Unions have insisted that would mean every proposal from the private sector, for a public service, would succeed on the basis of “minimum wage, rock-bottom conditions, and zero job security”.
Actual figures for how much pay the Government is willing to restore to public servants, as well as for how much it wants those workers to contribute to their pensions, will have to emerge within a matter of hours.
PSEU general secretary Tom Geraghty said to his members: “A large problem, to start with, is that Government comes into the talks with a total of €200m fiscal space in 2018 to cover all additional expenditure, not just the pay restoration of its employees.
“Even if union negotiators secured €150m of that money, (which would, in other circumstances, be seen as no mean achievement), spread over more than 300,000 people, the effect would be less than €500 or so per person, or, roughly, a 1% increase on average.”
To accompany such a low amount with an increased contribution to pensions, when the pension levy is done away with, and productivity expectations increased, will make many feel that what should have been talks about pay restoration are actually turning into further reductions in their entitlements.
Mr Geraghty said: “All industrial relations agreements hinge on the ‘how much?’ and ‘how soon?’ questions. At the moment, there are no answers, but the sort of money available suggests that those answers have the potential to lengthen the odds on the success of this process.”
Meanwhile, health unions still have their own list of requirements, which, if they were to be satisfied, would require a “special deal”.
The Irish Nurses’ and Midwives’ Organisation, for example, still wants retention and recruitment issues to be addressed and it wants pay parity with other health professionals. That would require extra monies to be put into those areas, which would lead other unions to cry foul.