The initial phase of the forthcoming — and potentially very expensive — talks between the Government and the public sector unions has begun, but there are already welcome signs that money will not be the sole issue at hand.
Despite the current inflationary trends facing economies worldwide, it would appear that both the Government and the unions are willing to bring issues other than wage packets to the table and that negotiations between the two parties will see these traded off against basic pay terms.
It is not before time that this has happened.
Although it is not yet clear how much issues such as childcare costs and welfare entitlements will feature in the talks, it is a sign that wage talks are evolving into new spheres and not simply concentrating on cash emoluments.
This is fresh territory for the Government and the unions, but it appears to have the potential to lead the way into a new era of wage negotiations not only for the public sector, but the private sector as well.
Public sector pay might not in itself be of great significance, but if an agreement can be reached between the two sides it may will almost certainly have wider implications.
What we know of the situation right now is that inflation this year is going to run at somewhere between 6% and 7%, while the Government is only committed to paying 1% in pay rises under the existing pay deal.
The gap between what one side wants and what the other is prepared to give is growing alarmingly.
Constructive ways to fill that gap need to be found, especially as so many will be closely observing what transpires.
Pay moderation is top of the Government agenda, but a deal which would hark back to the social partnership agreements of old have already been tentatively discussed and would cover areas beyond pay including taxation, assistance with childcare costs and improvements in public services could come into play.
It appears the Coalition are supportive of this idea — and with good reason — but while both sides feel their way into relatively unchartered territory, this is something that should be carefully teased out to find areas beneficial to both, especially with the private sector looking on with a beady eye.
The concept of a ‘social wage’ — a concept which measures how much better off workers are as a result of spending on social issues such as support and services — is now being feted by Government and unions as a preference to tax cuts.
A considered agreement on this should benefit everyone rather than just a few, as well as helping to keep Ireland Inc. competitive in the global picture.