Many public sector workers view the events of the last 12 months through jaundiced eyes. Trade unionists had their hopes raised on a number of occasions when the union leaders actually called major demonstrations and strikes. Yet, instead of driving home their advantage and following up these actions by escalating the strikes and mass mobilisations against a weak government, the union leadership chose the path of conciliation, “partnership talks” and compromise. What they got in return from the government was a kick in the teeth, the ending of “social partnership” and savage cuts in pay and funding of public services.
It is not surprising therefore, that many public sector workers question the purpose of taking further industrial action. This is not because they accept the pay cuts but because they have no faith in the union leaders. The dogged adherence to “social partnership” by ICTU as a substitute for a concerted campaign of strike action has directly led to the major cuts in public sector workers pay.
The culmination of this strategy that was doomed to fail was the humiliating spectacle of ICTU trying to negotiate a deal with the government to deliver fundamental “reform” in the public sector. “Reform” that would have resulted in thousands of job losses, major cuts in overtime and allowances (which many depend on to supplement poor levels of basic pay) in return for a “voluntary” 12 day lay off, in effect a 5% pay cut.
The trade union leaders’ failure to stop the imposition of the public sector pay cuts has laid the basis for a major assault by employers on pay across the private sector and in semi state companies. The government has also made it clear that they intend to impose further pay cuts in the public sector. The cuts in unemployment benefit and in particular the draconian cuts in rates for young people are preparing the ground for a cut in the minimum wage.
A major attack on the pay and living standards of every worker is now on the cards. Yet we keep being told there is no alternative – “we” need to be more competitive. According to trade union economist Paul Sweeney, “It is worth noting that Ireland still has one of the highest levels of productivity in the world. However, the last three quarters…saw the biggest fall in unit labour costs in the 30 state OECD occurring in Ireland…This again undermines Minister Lenihan’s claim that Irish unit labour costs are the highest in the Eurozone”.
The government outrageously claimed that if they had not cut public sector pay then they would have run out of money to pay wages by this spring. Yet an RTE Prime Time Investigates programme on the banking system estimates that a further €15 billion will be given to the banks this year. They can find €15 billion for the banks but nothing for public services or wages!
This fact alone is proof that all of the cuts in funding for public services and the public sector pay cuts are avoidable. The budget cuts are part of a strategy to maintain a low tax regime for big business, who if they paid tax at the same rate as PAYE workers, would be contributing an extra €10 billion this year towards the funding of public services.
Jack O’Connor has said the unions need a concerted campaign of industrial action and even spoke of the need for an all out public sector strike. Yet behind the scenes he is apparently involved, along with others, in talks with Fine Gael and Labour about resurrecting the failed “social partnership” system after the next election. Is this an indication that some union leaders have accepted defeat and are pinning their hopes on getting their “foot back in the door” with government after the next general election?
Instead of engaging in a long drawn out campaign of work to rules, selective action and lobbying of Fianna Fail TDs, from which there is little prospect of victory, there should be a united struggle that collectively involves every public sector worker.
The government and the employers have embarked on a full-scale assault to cut wages. The trade union movement needs to respond with the same type of vigour – take off the gloves and fight to defend pay and jobs.
A campaign of strike action beginning with a one day public sector strike and escalating towards and culminating in an all out strike is the type of action needed to defeat the government.
ICTU’s shambolic proposals need to be challenged by union members and activists. All workers (public and private) are faced with a choice. Either struggle to defend what you have or accept further pay cuts, job losses and stealth taxes. Further strikes and struggles are inevitable as the government and the employers are determined to drive down pay and conditions even further. To stop the sell outs and rotten deals which have been a feature of the last period workers need to get organised with the aim of gaining more control over their disputes. They need to reduce the influence of full time officials and impose the democratic will of the membership based on a bottom line of what we have we hold!
In the Irish Times on 5 January 2010, Elaine Byrne wrote:
“The recapitalisation of AIB and Bank of Ireland and the nationalisation of Anglo Irish Bank have to date cost the exchequer €11 billion. The recent RTÉ Prime Time Investigates programme on the banking system estimates that a further €15 billion will be pumped into consolidating the banking sector this year. Including the estimated €54 billion for Nama, the banking crisis has cost the taxpayer €80 billion to date.”