Unions enter endgame

WEDNESDAY’S Ictu vote may finally present the Government with a “formal” trade union position on Croke Park II, but what will it be worth if doctors, nurses, teachers, and gardaí are utterly opposed?

It has been all about the bottom line for the Government in its two years in power and, no matter what the outcome on Wednesday, it will be free to introduce the legislation, which will save €300m this year and €1bn over the next three years from the public service pay and pensions bill.

Even the slimmest majority in favour and ministers can claim the backing of the trade union movement for the Croke Park II proposals. From the start of July, overtime rates will be cut, premium payments slashed, and work practices revolutionised to make the required savings.

If the ballot goes against, the Government can simply follow the course taken by the predecessor it takes every opportunity to malign. In late 2009 the Fianna Fáil-led coalition, determined to wipe roughly €1bn from the public service pay bill, lost patience with trade unions and used the budget of Dec 2009 to introduce pay cuts of up to 7%. Fast-forward three years and again the Government needs to slash €1bn from its pay bill — and again the threat of a 7% cut hangs over the State’s employees.

The mechanics of Wednesday’s vote are simple. There are a total of 2,892 votes shared among unions according to their size. Siptu has 719 of those votes and Impact has 606. That means that if, as their executives have advised, both those unions back the deal in their individual ballots, their votes in the Ictu ballot will almost be enough to take the yes count past 50%. All they would need is the Public Service Executive Union and Prison Officers Association to also obey the wishes of their executives.

However if, as is looking increasingly likely, the other unions all vote no, the Government would be imposing a deal to which unions representing 150,000 of its employees had clearly signalled their opposition. Among those 150,000 would be the bulk of teachers, gardaí, doctors, and nurses.

The tradition has been for Ictu-affiliated unions to toe the line of the overall vote even if its individual ballots returned the opposite result. This time, that seems unlikely given the sizeable no contingent. Therefore, the mobilisation of opposition to the deal could potentially see concerted campaigns of industrial action.

Such a scenario would drive a wedge into the heart of the trade union movement and raise serious questions over collective bargaining as a means of negotiating workers’ rights. For example, Ictu’s public services committee, with two pro-deal union chiefs at its head, would no longer be seen as representative of the sectoral landscape.

Irrespective of the outcome of Wednesday’s vote, Labour TDs, who are already bearing the bulk of anti-Government sentiment, will be in for a torrid time. In the event of a yes outcome, they will point out that it was the outcome of a democratic process. But that will hold little weight with the sizeable no contingent. If the outcome is a rejection of Croke Park II, those TDs will be faced with voting to impose a straight pay cut on workers, something which flies in the face of the party’s close ties with the trade union movement.

The Government hoped Wednesday would finally see the end of the battle on extending the Croke Park agreement. It must now hope that battle does not descend into an all-out war.

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