WHAT IS IT about democracy in Ireland? When people vote and give the wrong answer, they are asked to vote again. The government did it with the Lisbon Treaty referendum and now the union leaders are doing the same with the Croke Park proposals.
Some ‘tweaks’ have been made on the last version. Clever people with calculators have worked out how many concessions need to be given to particular groups to ‘get it over the line’.
But the overall equation remains the same. The government is tearing up an existing agreement to take another €1 billion from the pay and pensions of public sector workers. The original Croke Park 1 was not due to run out until mid 2014.
Everyone out for themselves
Every concession made to one group, therefore, will have to be paid for by another. Instead of developing an ethos of solidarity, the unions seem are embracing a ‘me fein’ attitude. Key groups are asked to study how the deal affects them and then vote pay cuts and longer hours for other workers.
Meanwhile, the government is using a psychological technique known as ‘anchoring’. They made the most outlandish demands the last time – namely, that premiums for Sunday working should be abolished; that workers work longer hours for free; that increments are frozen. When people said No, concessions were made but everyone’s focus remained on the original ‘anchor’.
The frames of reference are changed and people start to measure against the outlandish government demands rather than what they have at present. Instead of asking ‘what have we lost?’ the question becomes ‘ how much did we get off with?’
The new Haddington Road deal
The Haddington Road proposals still contain some pretty outrageous suggestions. Those of less than 35 hours must now work 37 hours a week; those of 37 must work 39; and those on 39 give an hour’s overtime for free – for charity, you might say. And this is happening to people who have already lost an average of 18 per cent in pay cuts.
Their employers get new powers to ‘aggregate’ these extra hours so that they can both get rid of even more jobs and change the rosters of those who remain. Sunday premium payments are still in place but with the change of rosters there will be fewer working on Sundays.
There will also be a pay freeze until 2016. That means eight years since there last was a pay rise – even though property charges, Universal Social Charge and a host of other charges have been introduced, not to mention our modest rate of inflation. The promise about giving ‘savings’ from extra productivity to those who earned under €35,000 in compensation for pay cuts has simply been buried.
Those who earn over €35,000 – and that includes allowances – will see their overtime rates cut to time and a quarter. Those at the top of their pay scale will have to work six days extra for free – or take further pay cuts.
Looking to public sector to fill the gap
All of this is occurring against a background of revelations about tax dodging by corporations like Apple. If the Irish government closed the loophole which enabled an Apple subsidiary to be incorporated in Ireland but not registered for tax, it could garner billions. But instead it chooses to attack long suffering public sector employees.
There is one aspect of the agreement that is far worse than the last version. The government and the ICTU leaders want to use legal compulsion as a lever to get workers to comply with the views of their union leaders.
The inappropriately named Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Bill 2013 gives the government the power to reduce the wages of public sector workers at the stroke of a pen. It can also increase their hours in the same fashion. And there is no sunset clause to indicate when these powers run out.
This draconian piece of legislation would not go amiss in a dictatorial regime because it wipes out genuine collective bargaining between the government and its employees.
The role of the unions
Yet there has been no word of condemnation from the ICTU or SIPTU leaders. Aside from the fact that they do not want to embarrass their friends in the Labour Party, they may be calculating that this Bill is useful for them.
This is because the only way workers can escape a legal change to their hours or pay rates is to sign a registered agreement. This allows the union leaders to act as the soft cop to the state’s hard cop.
Some of the union leaders must be looking with envy on their counterparts in Singapore. There a deep form of authoritarian corporatism prevails and the unions operate as ‘delivery organisations’ for the state when it seeks wage cuts and longer working hours. Similar laws such as Financial Emergency law exist and workers are virtually compelled to join unions and so more subscriptions flow into a union bureaucracy. The down side is that the unions cease to listen or respect their own members. They have no need to – when repressive laws intimidate people into repeatedly answering Yes.
It really is time to call a halt and to change an inept and politically compromised union leadership. A loud No a second time around could do the trick.
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.