Unions need to be very wary of an all-out war with the Government

THE trade union movement is in a very difficult place. Angry at the way its members have been treated by the budget it has to find a way to respond that protects their interests.

But that is easier said than done. Too soft a response could mean that nothing changes, further fuelling the ire of members and undermining the authority of the leadership, perhaps making them vulnerable to replacement.

But too aggressive a response could see a very large section of public opinion move firmly against the unions and, ironically, behind the Government. The wrong approach — as in one that does damage to the economy or to the state — could result in further job losses among union members or a further reduction in income beyond even what’s taken place to date.

The unions have to be careful not to overstep the mark too when it comes to what might be called democratic accountability. Some of the talk from members and officials is verging on provoking anarchy, on a brute expression of power that seeks to take authority away from the democratically elected institutions of the state.

But governments, no matter how bad, should be brought down by democratically elected oppositions, not by vested interests, even those who believe they have justice on their side. Some senior union figures appear to want to coerce the Government by ruining the effective running of state services, thereby creating enough anger to destabilise and collapse the government. Wily ICTU general secretary David Begg insisted on Wednesday that the trade union movement is not “formally” planning to oust the Government in response to the budget, not having authorised a policy to do so.

But ICTU president Jack O’Connor — also president of SIPTU, the country’s largest union — has made no secret of his desire to replace the Government with one including the Labour Party. He clearly would not have any problems with Sinn Féin in power either.

Larry Broderick of the Irish Bank Officials’ Association said this week that the trade union movement needed to respond to cutbacks with “a strategic approach, focusing on local issues, non-co-operation and taking the Government out of power”. Broderick warned that the country faced a “very serious winter of discontent”.

Begg has to be mindful of the appeal to some workers of men like Eamon Devoy of the TEEU and Brendan Ogle of Unite, both of whom represent workers in the ESB, which provides the bulk of the country’s electricity to homes and businesses. Both were quick to threaten the Government when Brian Lenihan spoke last week of reducing pay levels at commercial semi-state companies.

When I interviewed Ogle he warned of a “ferocious response” if efforts were made to cut the pay of workers he represents. He had no intention of launching protest marches. He would have no problem in turning the lights off. Devoy would be quick to get his electricians to do the same. Not surprisingly, the Government has backed off.

This puts pressure on Begg and his colleagues to threaten similar militancy. It may not come naturally to them but if they don’t get tough, they risk being replaced. Begg is boxing clever. He said Broderick’s comments reflected the general feeling of Wednesday’s ICTU meeting.

One of Begg’s big problems is his own exclusion from the centre of power. He said this week that the Government’s withdrawal from partnership talks earlier this month “drove a stake through the heart of social partnership as a concept”.

However, the truth is that social partnership ended on February 3 this year when the pension levy was implemented. The talks in recent weeks were not a failed resumption of the social partnership process but a discourse between public sector unions and their employers (as one union leader emphasised to me). The Government seems willing to engage — on its own terms — with the public sector unions but appears to have no interest in forcing new deals upon the private sector.

This makes one of Begg’s less reported comments this week even more interesting. He said the ICTU would first engage with employers in the private sector regarding their commitment to the 6% pay deal negotiated in September of last year. This is incredible. The majority of private companies have cut staff or frozen or reduced pay: there are very few who have done better over the past year. To expect them to pay more money is unbelievable.

The suspicion is that it is a tactic to put pressure on the semi-state companies and the banks, who just happen to be the biggest members of the IBEC.

This is a warning shot against any desire to cut incomes. I wrote in September 2008 that it was unbelievable that IBEC signed up then to pay increases, but I should have emphasised that IBEC barely represents the real private sector. It will ignore this sabre-rattling.

But if that represents another avenue of attack for the unions the real trench warfare will take place with the Government. The ICTU public services committee is delivering pre-Christmas lack of cheer to the Government with the announcement of details of a campaign of industrial action against the pay cuts. Mindful of the lack of public support for last month’s day of action it seems that it may take the form of a work-to-rule which could cripple the effective working of State services while safeguarding pay for those involved.

However, the main union bosses have their own crosses to bear. Peter McLoone of IMPACT should always be remembered for his chairmanship of FÁS at a time when its waste of public funds was most rampant.

HIS handling of the crisis involving director general Rody Molloy was abysmal and his negotiating skills are also in question. He and his colleague Bernard Harbour were most prominent in suggesting a pre-budget deal could be done with the Government whereby a temporary pay reduction would be agreed in return for 12 days unpaid leave. That disclosure undermined the unions very badly.

Unfortunately for the unions the subsequent revelation of the details of public sector reform that was being offered to the Government came too late, and was too little, to overcome the impression that has been fixed in the public mind of a bloated public service that is unwilling to offer meaningful change without getting something in return.

The unions may seem to regard themselves as ethically and morally superior to just about anyone else but they cannot escape their share of the responsibility for the disaster now befalling us: they demanded the increased spending on public pay and employment that cannot be afforded now. They did so without taking into account the vulnerability of tax revenues so largely derived from the property bubble.

Notably, Begg was a member of the board of the Central Bank of Ireland during the crucial period where regulation of the banks failed: nobody noticed him resigning in protest at the time or resigning since out of shame for being part of the failure. It is hard to demand that the Government be ousted when you were part of the establishment that created the crisis.

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.


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