We will all be losers if this winter is blighted by widespread strikes

‘You don’t win a strike,’ Paddy Cardiff used to say. ‘When it’s over, you try to recover from it’, writes, Fergus Finlay.

We will all be losers if this winter is blighted by widespread strikes

ISN’T winning-and-losing strange? Sometimes, you have to see it in action to be sure about what happened. For example, I stayed up to watch Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, last week, in the US presidential debate. Bleary as I was at the end of it, I wasn’t sure who had won.

But I was certain who had lost. Again and again, throughout the debate, Trump ‘shot himself in the foot’. By the end, he could barely stand, because he had shot most of his two feet away. He was rude and blustering; he walked (actually charged) into every rhetorical trap she laid for him; he gave her endless opportunities to score direct hits.

It was the opposite on Saturday evening, in the All-Ireland football final replay. Mayo didn’t lose the Sam Maguire; Dublin won it. Although it’s a tiny consolation for Mayo, they played like a great team, and matched Dublin man for man in a really physical encounter. Dublin just had a bit too much firepower, and it was almost inevitable that Mayo would run out of steam. But you still didn’t know, right until the very end, which side was going to come out on top.

No doubt, Mayo will continue to bemoan the curse that has allegedly blighted the county’s fortunes. But, actually, the real curse is that with all their skill and courage, they were unlucky enough to come up against one of the best teams that has ever played in an All-Ireland football final.

And then there’s the Ryder Cup. I was glued to it for most of the weekend, and the first thing I realised was that the US was doing what Europe usually does. They were playing like a team, rooting for each other, and keeping their own spirits, and their fans’, at fever pitch. Several times, the commentators noted sourly that there seemed to be too much beer available for the fans, but the Europeans must have known in advance that an American tactic would be to get the crowd going.

It was the European players’ job to silence the crowd. And with one or two exceptions, they failed to do that. I suppose there’ll be endless debate among golf aficionados about whether Darren Clarke failed as a captain. But it was another example of the winning/losing thing. Europe didn’t throw it away. America did everything right over the three days. They won, fair and square.

You might think I spend all my time glued to the telly and, apart from a bit of American politics, all I follow is sport. Only at the weekends, I promise. The rest of the time, like everyone else, I worry about what’s in the news — and especially about the darkening industrial-relations clouds that seem to be gathering.

And I wonder, if it all goes pear-shaped, who’s going to win and who’s going to lose in the ‘winter of discontent’ that is daily being promised.

I’m old enough to remember the actual winter of discontent, back in 1979. It was Britain’s winter of discontent, not Ireland’s, and I can remember the television pictures of refuse being piled high on the streets, and the reports of funerals being turned away from cemeteries because the grave-diggers had gone on strike.

The winter of discontent — which took place against a background of the coldest weather Britain had experienced in a generation — was essentially caused by an explosion pf public-service pay demands, after a long period of austerity imposed by the British Labour government of Jim Callaghan.

I remember it for two reasons. First, that winter of discontent led directly to the emergence of Margaret Thatcher. A previous general election, in 1974, between Edward Heath and Harold Wilson, had also been fought against a backdrop of union unrest and harsh economic conditions.

Heath had campaigned under the slogan ‘Who governs Britain?’ (me or the unions, he meant). He lost, and was replaced by Mrs Thatcher, whose first order of business, after she later came to power, was to curb the unions. The rest, as they say, is history.

We probably need to remember this, because what’s shaping up now is one of those battles in which there will be no winners.

The other reason I remember that period so well is because I was a trade union official myself then. I worked for Denis Larkin, Paddy Cardiff, and Harold O’Sullivan — men who might not be remembered much now, but who were powerful and influential back then.

They were also very different. But they believed one thing in common with each other, and they tried to impart that to the younger people around them. All had been involved in bitter strikes in their time, and all had come to regard strikes as a failure of industrial relations. “You don’t win a strike”, I remember Paddy Cardiff saying. “When it’s over, you try to recover from it.”

That’s not to say they shied away from strikes, when all else failed. But they believed in negotiation, and they believed in process. The processes, invented in those days to sit alongside the normal industrial relations machinery — things like the employer/labour conference — were all designed to ensure that strikes really were the last resort.

They worked, as did the partnership model that replaced them. But, ultimately, they fell into disrepute, partly for ideological reasons, and partly because their remit began to extend way beyond the industrial relations sphere. Partnership became the vehicle by which nearly all aspects of social and economic policy were made, and it essentially collapsed under the weight of all that.

But it’s surely clear that we need a new mechanism, and quickly. There are two choices now, and each of them is a bad option. The first is to start seeing public servants and their unions as the enemy. You can already see, in some of the commentary, the view emerging that, for instance, the gardaí will leave us at the mercy of ruthless criminals if they contemplate industrial action. That sort of stuff is utterly counterproductive.

Public servants aren’t the enemy. They, too, have suffered through a tough recession. Public service pay was the first thing to be cut when the economy collapsed, and they didn’t go on strike then. They’ve been promised restoration, and it’s the Government’s job to figure out how that can be done, without breaking the bank.

The second option is to just let it happen — to allow public servants to piggy-back on each other, and to settle one dispute after another. That’s the way to create a never-ending spiral, and to do immense damage to the economy.

What’s needed is a plan. The Croke Park and Haddington Road agreements are over, and the Government should be sitting down, now, with the wider trade union movement, recognising everyone’s right (including the gardaí’s) to sit at the table and hammer out a new, inclusive pay agreement.

Of course, it won’t be easy, but the alternative to a coherent approach is a potential winter of chaos, if not discontent. And that will serve none of us.

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