Insdustrial unrest: Time for Dál to get back to business

THERE are scores of reasons for members of the 32nd Dáil to stop faffing about and form a government. The need to get back to a fair, orderly, and sustainable process of income recovery is one .

Continued uncertainty and instability caused by the absence of a government could easily morph into nervousness among employers and investors. This, in turn, could halt the modest wage growth that many workers —private and public — have begun to experience after years of pay cuts and income suppression.

Right now we effectively have no government response to headline industrial disputes in transport; rows that threaten to undermine a thoughtful and jobs-focused trade union strategy that has delivered sustainable private sector pay rises over the last couple of years.

God forbid that we’ll still be waiting for a government when the Brexit referendum lands.

Meanwhile, in the public service, the absence of a governmental grip on developments could put a careful approach to income recovery — in the context of financial realities and other priorities in society — at risk.

The spring trade union conference season is always noisy. This year the sound and fury have been amplified by the void in Government Buildings, and a series of individual public service professions and groups have enjoyed an unusually uncluttered media stage to voice their specific demands.

Unsurprisingly, and understandably, each union and association highlights the grievances of its own members. But, no matter how legitimate those complaints are — or how strongly they resonate in the public imagination — none of them can realistically be resolved in isolation or without reference to both the cost and the wider implications of conceding one point or another.

We need to maintain an overall approach that covers every public service grade and profession, and considers all the issues in the round.

Assuming continuing healthy economic growth and exchequer funds, the alternative to a public service-wide approach is most likely a return to the beggar-my-neighbour pay claims, and accompanying widespread industrial action, of the past.

Unions themselves should be concerned that such a scenario, which was last seen in Ireland at the cusp of this millennium, often rewards the strongest rather than the most vulnerable or deserving.

It is not always correct to assume that those able to articulate the most compelling case to journalists, politicians, or the public necessarily have the strongest claim to past injustice or future improvement.

Moreover, seemingly straightforward solutions to even the most deeply-felt grievances can have unintended consequences. For instance, at recent union conferences we heard the plausible suggestion that the FEMPI legislation, which introduced pay cuts and pension levies into the public sector, should be immediately repealed now that the emergency is over.

Let’s look at that proposition, taking the expiry of the Lansdowne Road agreement as a baseline. The complete repeal of FEMPI in 2018 would give a worker on €30,000 a total gain of less than €450 a year, while someone earning €125,000 (rare as they are in the public service) would stand to gain almost €20,000.

The Lansdowne Road deal delivered the first small recovery in public service incomes in January 2016, with further modest improvements due next year. I recently argued in these pages that there will be a strong case to accelerate this process if better-than-expected growth and ‘fiscal space’ emerge in the coming months.

But it’s very hard to envisage a scenario where there will be enough money to meet all the demands we’ve recently heard. In any case, union members will not thank their negotiators if we agree anything like the regressive outcomes I’ve described above.

Lansdowne Road also holds out the prospect of a new system of public service pay determination capable of dealing fairly and rationally with the many demands that the next and future governments will encounter.

The deal commits the government to discuss with unions a new pay-setting mechanism, which will eventually replace the FEMPI legislation. This would be to the benefit of workers, government, and taxpayers.

It would bring stability to public service pay determination at the end of a turbulent period, which has seen wages set variously through social partnership agreements, benchmarking, the imposition of pay cuts and the pension levy, and now through public service agreements framed by amended FEMPI legislation.

Under FEMPI, the minister for public expenditure and reform must report to the Dáil annually, setting out whether — and in what form — this emergency legislation needs to remain in place.

Every day our elected representatives spend striking poses and spinning out discussions makes it less likely that a meaningful report will be made when it’s due in June. That would certainly antagonise an already febrile atmosphere.

Bernard Harbor is head of communications with Impact

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