Public servants’ strike - Floods wash away public sympathy

INDICATIONS over the weekend that tomorrow’s 24-hour strike by public servants would go ahead regardless of rain or floods were a classic no-brainer. Up to 250,000 public servants were going to refuse to turn up for work as a warning to the Government in relation to the coming budget.

Public service unions have been insisting on the strike as a warning that they will not even countenance discussions on the Government’s demand for €1.3 billion cut in the public service pay bill, unless they get reassurances about services in the coming years.

In effect, they are demanding that they should be consulted about the budget provisions in advance.

Whatever public sympathy they might have expected was likely to be washed away in the floods. Nobody should doubt that the public service unions are capable of causing enormous disruption if the workers withdraw their services, but neither should it be doubted in a democracy that the unions would not survive if they flout strong public opinion.

Public service workers are, after all, part of the public. In flood-affected areas, many of those workers are helping out above and beyond the call of duty. Those workers in Galway, Clare and Cork have already deferred any strike action.

In those areas this week all attention will be on the effects of the flooding. When the danger of further flooding recedes, it will still be necessary to deal with the perilous state of our public finances.

Public service unions have been insisting that they are being forced into strike action by Government intransigence. It might have seemed like a good time to take on the Government, which has been floundering at an all-time low in the polls.

During the Celtic Tiger years the Government was awash with money, due largely to the unprecedented flood of income resulting from the building and property booms. It courted public popularity by engaging in unprecedented spending and bought industrial peace with generous pay concessions.

From 2000 to 2008 public service pay rose by over 59%, which was well above the level of inflation. But now we find that much of the Government’s money was little more than delusional, because property values were grossly exaggerated. Many people – thinking their property had become more valuable – took out second and even third mortgages on their homes. They, and those who bought their homes at the height of the boom, now find themselves with negative equity.

So it is not just banks and property developers who got into financial trouble. Society as a whole is in serious trouble, and everyone has got to play a part in extricating the country. That includes the politicians and the public service workers.

This is no time for anyone to emulate the uncaring ways in which politicians gouged the public purse. By their selfish and indifferent behaviour in the midst of this current weather crisis, the union leaders could achieve the seemingly impossible in becoming even more unpopular than those gouging politicians.


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