UNION LEADERS and government representatives yesterday agreed on the terms of a possible new national pay deal – including measures extending the working week and cutting down on overtime premiums for most workers.
The proposals being put forward by the Labour Relations Commission also involve pay cuts for those earning above €65,000 a year, and the abolition of particular allowances given to workers in the prison, justice and education sectors.
Already individual unions have begun debating the measures, with national executives deciding whether they will recommend a Yes or No vote to their members.
But how does the whole process work – and how exactly do the country’s 292,000 public servants decide whether to accept extended working hours if it means no mandatory redundancies for another three years?
Here’s how it works.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions is the vehicle through which the measure is ultimately rejected or accepted. ICTU, as the representative body for each of the country’s trade unions, is the body approached when the government decides it wants to begin talks.
ICTU then gets representatives from each of its own member unions – excluding those who have only private sector membership, because they are not party to any agreement – to take part in talks with the government representatives.
(This has other implications too: because Gardaí are formally forbidden from joining trade unions, and only form ‘associations’, those bodies are not permitted to join ICTU – something Gardaí are challenging at a European level.
This ultimately means that Gardaí cannot take part in the talks – though Garda associations attend in a separate room and are briefed on the progress in the talks in the main room.)
The talks are mediated by the Labour Relations Commission, which accepts the arguments on either side and tries to come up with a compromise text. When that is done – as was achieved earlier this week – the document is then sent back to each ICTU member union for its consideration.
There, it is discussed by each union’s Executive – which does not simply make the union’s decision all by itself, but instead makes a recommendation to its members on whether they should accept or reject it.
The executive can also defer a recommendation until they get further information from the Labour Relations Commission – as happened earlier this week when the INTO delayed a decision on whether to recommend that primary teachers approve it.
15 (or more) separate referendums
Ultimately, however, it’s the ordinary workers who are the ones affected by a deal – so it’s those workers who must be given a say.
This means that each of the ICTU member unions, whose members are affected by the result, hold a referendum of their members to decide where they stand.
This can take some time to arrange – with some scattered professions like teachers, who work in thousands of venues around the country, requiring slightly more logistical work to ballot.
While some unions like prison officers will be able to ballot at their workplaces, others like teachers have to conduct their vote via post – which can take several weeks to undertake, return, count and certify.
Workers are under no obligation to follow the instruction or recommendation of their union’s leaders – though in practice many do, as workers feel that their union’s leaders are probably more familiar with the deal and the ultimate impact it will have.
Adding it all up
While each union therefore adopts its own stance on the deal, ultimately the stance of individual unions does not matter – because the national result is determined not by the stance of unions, but by the stance of members.
ICTU’s public services committee, which helps to arrange the talks, has said the ratification process for Croke Park II will be the same as the one adopted by Croke Park I – where the final outcome is based on ‘one worker, one vote’ and not simply one union, one vote.
This means that the members of smaller unions, who may only have about 5,000 members, could vote overwhelmingly to reject the deal – only to have its stance completely diluted by a strong approval among other unions.
Therefore the deal could be easily rejected by a half-dozen unions with smaller membership, but end up being approved thanks to a broader base of support from larger unions like SIPTU or Impact.
What about the unions who walked out?
Liam Doran of the INMO outside Lansdowne House where the talks were held. The INMO was the largest union to leave the talks, with 40,000 members. (Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland)
Many will wonder what happens to the unions who walked out of the talks – and whether they can be bound by a document they didn’t originally agree to.
The answer is that their participation (or lack of it) in the talks has no bearing on this process. Unions like the INMO, who left the talks before a deal was reached, still have the chance to vote on whether the final document should be approved or not.
The sole effect of those unions deciding not to take part in the talks is that they give up any opportunity to have input into what the final LRC proposals should contain.
Of course, the flip-side to this argument is that those unions believed their input would be ignored, so it simply saves them the hassle of making redundant suggestions.
It’s entirely up to the members of those unions to decide what they want to do. Situations could yet arise where a union whose representatives walked out of the talks could still choose to approve the agreement.
And what about the unions who say no?
As mentioned earlier, the final measure of whether this ballot is approved is taken on a ‘one worker, one vote’ basis – so a wide margin of approval in a big union could overpower a rejection by a series of smaller ones.
Think of it as being like one of the constitutional referendums we’ve had in Ireland in the last few years. It doesn’t matter if people in the constituency of Donegal North-East voted No in the referendum on children’s rights – their No vote is overpowered by the approval of voters elsewhere.
Once the outcome is approved on a national basis, it then applies to all who are affected by it. A constitutional amendment applies across the country, and not just to the people whose constituencies decided to vote for it.
A similar setup applies in this case – union members can decide to vote no, but the final decision rests with the majority of public workers who either say Yes or No.
This isn’t without precedent: in 2010 members of a few unions – including the TUI and the ASTI – voted against Croke Park I by a significant margin.
However, both unions ultimately became parties to the agreement – because the majority of public workers affiliated to ICTU voted to approve the deal, irrespective of which trade unions they were part of.