MOST PEOPLE JOIN trade unions to better their wages and working conditions. Few expect to be told to make sacrifices to restore the confidence of financial markets. Yet, this is precisely what the SIPTU and IMPACT union leaderships are doing with Croke Park 2.
The proposal is to take another €1 billion from public sector employees in the next three years. That comes on top of pay cuts that already took 15 per cent their earnings.
There is a sweet irony in all this. Hiking taxes and cutting pay in the midst of a recession dampens spending and prolongs an economic slow-down. The government was warned about this but continued regardless. National debt levels then rose and so they needed more money to ‘plug the hole’. The treadmill of austerity is becoming endless.
The original Croke Park deal was not supposed to expire until 2014. But in an unprecedented move, the government is tearing it up so that it can take more. Promises that there would be no further pay cuts have been thrown aside like old electoral manifestos.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time an agreement was broken. A commitment to give workers under €35,000 some of the savings earned during Croke Park 1 was ignored. The union leaders complied in silence and this sign of weakness encouraged the government to come back for more.
Croke Park 2 proposes to increase working hours so that the numbers of public servants can be further reduced – many of whom are working below 39 hours will see a significant increase in their working week. Those on 39 or more hours will have to give a one free hour of overtime. A longer working week means extra child care costs. A free hour of overtime means an effective pay cut for poorly paid workers who rely on it to boost earnings.
Longer hours for nurses means a huge reversal in their long, hard-fought campaign to reduce their working week. It is unusual, to say the least, for a union leadership to recommend something like this, but it is incredible to do so as a way of reducing public employment during a recession.
Croke Park 2 also involves significant attacks on earnings. Those who receive over €65,000 – and this includes allowances – will receive a direct cut of 5.5 per cent. Some will lose, through a cut, the Sunday premiums to time and three quarters; others will lose through a reduced overtime rate of time and a quarter; most white collar employees will lose through a three-month or six-month freeze on increments.
‘Be smart and work for less’
More generally, Croke Park 2 imposes a pay freeze until 2016 and, by then, workers will have spent seven years without a pay rise. Inflation is currently running at 2 percent and bills for property taxes are arriving. Later, there will be water charges and a new communications charge. ‘Be smart and work for less’ appears to be the only survival tip.
Croke Park 2 also contains other bizarre points that will bring out the worst in macho managers. Forcible re-deployment up to 45 kilometres – and on occasion, longer – will be possible. Flexi time and work-sharing will be more limited and at a management’s discretion. Performance targets can be laid down for individuals and sackings can follow for those who don’t meet them. Those on the top of their pay scale can be told to give up an extra two days holidays a year.
All of this amount to a serious reversal of rights won by trade unions over decades. This may explain the extraordinary underhanded games of divide and rule which some unions are playing.
Exclusions from the talks
The Irish Times has revealed a confidential letter sent to fire-fighters which suggested that the ‘totality of their pay structure would be protected’. SIPTU claimed they got this because they stayed at the negotiating table but, in reality, it was a desperate move to stem the haemorrhage of members to the breakaway Irish Fire and Emergency Services Association. But it begged the question: if there is a back channel to do deals for some, why are others excluded? Why should paramedics who arrive at the scene of an accident not also have the ‘totality of their pay’ protected?
When union leaders connive at these divisive manoeuvres, it brings into question their wider role. If the CEO of a major firm told shareholders that there would be no dividend payments for seven years and they would have to contribute more, they would be politely but firmly asked to step aside. Why then should union leaders who repeatedly fail to deliver for members stay in office for life?
Many of the top echelons of the Irish union movement are members of the Labour Party. Indeed, it is well known that advancement in unions like SIPTU may be closely co-related to membership of that party. There is a conflict of interests here. One can either serve the Labour Party and its needs in government or one can serve the wider union membership – it is not possible at the moment to do both.
Rejection likely – then what?
Croke Park 2 is a watershed moment in the Irish trade union movement. Not only is rejection increasingly likely but the position of those who tried to sell it is coming under question. Many are already asking how do we change our leaders or our unions. They are finding that their freedom of association is restricted under ICTU anti-poaching rules and that the right of ordinary members to vote on the election of their leaders in unions has been removed.
When Croke Park 2 is rejected, the unions will need to rapidly deal with these democratic deficits – or face a major period of internal turmoil.
Kieran Allen is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology in University College Dublin. He is the author of Ireland’s Economic Crash (Dublin: Liffey Press 2009). He is also affiliated with the Socialist Workers Party and People Before Profit. To read more by Kieran Allen for TheJournal.ie click here.