The last contribution?

SIPTU leader Jack O’Connor posed a pertinent question just a couple of hours before the framework for Croke Park II became public.

“Is the proposal [from the Labour Relations Commission] better than what would happen in a government-legislated pay adjustment and is it as good as or better than we could reasonably expect to achieve through a protracted industrial battle?”

The unions who remained in the talks process to the bitter end had the opportunity to shape a document which, if their memberships vote to accept it, will determine the extra financial and workplace burdens which will be placed on public servants for the next three years.

There is a line regularly quoted by trade union leaders when tough financial measures are being sought of their memberships: “I have not been mandated to negotiate a pay cut.”

However in the case of these negotiations, a unilateral across-the-board pay cut was the inevitable outcome without an agreed solution. Ministers and management had both made it clear that the required €1bn in savings would be found one way or the other.

Therefore, a withdrawal by nursing unions, the Irish Medical Organisation, and the Civil, Public, and Services Union, and Unite seems, on the surface, to be inexplicable.

What has emerged from the talks will be put to a ballot of the full memberships of the Ictu-affiliated public sector unions. The key negotiators in the talks were Shay Cody (Impact), Patricia King (Siptu), Tom Geraghty (Public Service Executive Union), and Sheila Nunan (Irish National Teachers’ Organisation).

They would not have emerged from Lansdowne House with a deal which they felt there was no possibility of their memberships backing. Between them, those unions account for almost 200,000 of the 290,000 public servants who will have a ballot in the Ictu vote.

If the majority vote to accept it, Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin reiterated yesterday that its terms “will apply to everybody”.

So in spite of their opposition, nurses, doctors, gardaí, and low-paid civil servants will be subject to a deal formulated through negotiations which their representatives abandoned.

Furthermore, as one experienced union source pointed out, the potential deal that has emerged marks a significant improvement on what had been proposed by the Government at the start of the talks. Many of the union leaders who walked away will actually be surprised by the concessions achieved.

To go from a situation where low-paid public servants faced a complete freeze on increments for the length of the agreement to a situation where they will only see their incremental pay raise delayed by three months is a major achievement.

Likewise, the maintenance of premium payments on a Saturday and persuading the Government to accept the reduction of the Sunday premium from double time to time and three quarters rather than time and a half is also something of a coup for the public service union leaders.

As the union source said: “Apart from the cuts for the high paid which the Government seemed to have set in stone, we have done either OK or really well on the headline areas in the end.”

It must be pointed out, however, that the frontline unions in particular had been given clear instruction by their memberships not to agree to any deal which will reduce their take-home pay.

The opposition to a reduction in premium payments was unequivocal so the union leaders had no mandate to remain in a process where such a reduction was quite clearly going to feature.

The unknown factor now is how far the unions who walked away will go to prevent their members being subjected to the terms which will be imposed upon them.

Rank-and-file gardaí have already started their campaign against the cuts to premium pay by refusing to use their own cars, phones, and computers for work purposes. They have indicated further steps will be taken if the cuts are imposed upon them, but as they are legally prohibited from engaging in industrial action, there is no doubt that any escalation could have severe consequences.

Possibly the two anti-deal unions with the strongest cards to play are the INMO and IMO. Any form of action which these groups engage in could have an immediate impact on frontline services. The question is whether either group has the stomach for such a campaign.

Asked yesterday about the likelihood of industrial action by his 40,000 members, INMO general secretary Liam Doran said nobody is “talking about hell and brimstone and blood and thunder at the moment”. They will first try “democratic” avenues, lobbying the politicians who have advocated the cuts.

With the non-negotiable requirement for the €1bn to be found somewhere over the course of the agreement, pro-deal unions will be adamant that the dissenters pay their way. They will expect the Government to keep a firm hand on the purse strings and, if the anti-deal unions do not engage in the work practice changes required, they may well join a chorus of demands for legislation which secures the required monies.

Over the next six to seven weeks unions will brief members on how they will each be affected. There is no doubt that various sectors of the public service will suffer in more ways than others.

For example, the loss of supervision payments for teachers means the loss of a one-off annual payment of €1,800 per teacher. That may be a step too far, especially for those teachers who earn over €65,000 and who will also be hit by the cuts for the higher paid and the extra required working hours.

What will weigh heavily in the minds of public servants is the reiteration by Mr Howlin that “this will be the last contribution that people will be asked to make”.

“This will give certainty to public sector workers for the next three years,” he said.

“And will allow people to plan their own lives knowing their income is protected.”

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