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Opinion: How can the government prevent further strikes?

The next few months look bleak for industrial relations in the public sector, writes Dr Michelle O’Sullivan.

Dr Michelle O'Sullivan Dr Michelle O’Sullivan is a Senior Lecturer in Industrial Relations at the University of Limerick.

THE GARDAI HAVE yet to vote on the recommendation of the Labour Court on their pay dispute, the ASTI is in negotiations following their industrial action, and the INMO has announced it is going to ballot for industrial action.

There are also ominous signs from one the largest unions in the country, IMPACT, which has called on the government to immediately discuss restoration of pay cuts.

Luas drivers set off chain reaction

Some might point to the Luas and Dublin Bus strikes as the catalyst for these union actions and while it might have influenced the mood of workers, there are other factors involved.

Critically, the Garda representative bodies and ASTI did not fall in with other unions and agree to the Lansdowne Agreement and their issues have come to a head. The Garda dispute was going to be high stakes for public sector industrial relations as they sought full restoration of pay cuts unlike the ASTI. There was always a strong likelihood that any significant concessions made to the Gardaí would signal to other unions that threatening industrial action is a beneficial strategy.

Luas strike Luas workers on strike at the Transdev depot. Source: Niall Carson

On hawks vs doves

The Garda dispute is not over and the problem now is within the GRA’s own executive committee. In negotiations, a group can be made up of ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’. The hawks are more competitive and far less conciliatory than the doves and the former can be very influential. Hawks were evident amongst workers in the Luas dispute and it seems there are some within the GRA’s executive unhappy with the general secretary.

On the one hand, hawkish behaviour has led to an improved offer on the table but on the other, continued internal GRA fractions will make it more difficult for the executive to sell a proposal to its members. The Gardaí have little experience of industrial action and we don’t know if their demands would have stayed so steadfast if they had taken such action. There is more power in threatening something than actually using it.

Of course there can be hawks and doves on the employers’ side also and the AGSI and ASTI have been angered but what see as reneging of commitments made to them in previous negotiations. The government has said it is committed to a collective approach on pay but this lacks credibility when separate deals are done for some groups.

Other unions who agreed to the Lansdowne Road agreement may feel aggrieved that an outsider is being rewarded. These issues, along with the extent of pay cuts experienced by public sector workers during the recession and their frustration with cuts in services have fuelled union demands. Workers will also be aware of economic recovery evident in the private sector with IBEC staying that 71% of companies are planning pay increases in 2017.

Adrian Donohoe posthumous medal Trainee Gardai at Templemore awards ceremony. Source: Niall Carson

Right to strike?

While it might seem like the country is being inundated with strikes, in general strike levels are historically low and nowhere near the average numbers of days lost from the 1920s to the 1990s. Whenever strikes hit essential services and the public sector, there are some who propose more extreme solutions such as dismissing striking workers and introducing legislation to ban such actions, as Michael O’Leary has previously suggested.

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There are legal and moral issues with dismissing people who are expressing their discontent and dismissals would clearly inflame a situation. Similarly, legislation banning strikes can be a popular but sometimes futile action as we’ve seen with the Gardaí. Such legislation can be practically difficult to enforce and government action penalising workers for taking industrial action can serve to heighten tensions. What can be done is not the same as what should be done.

The government had set positive expectations on public sector pay in its Programme for Government, promising the establishment of a Public Service Pay Commission, reversing public service pension reductions and the negotiated repeal of FEMPI “having due regard to the priority to improve public services and in recognition of the essential role played by public servants”. There is no mention of affordability issues in their commitments on public sector pay but this will obviously be a key concern in negotiations.

The government will likely have to enter collective negotiations sooner than it planned and it has the difficult task of trying to convince the union movement to wait for the outcome of the Public Service Pay Commission. The Commission is expected to undertake an evidence-based benchmarking exercise comparing pay of ‘identifiable groups’ in the public sector with the private sector and equivalents in other countries.

It was only set up in October so it will take some time before it’s completed. How long can the government hold unions at bay without making promises?

Dr Michelle O’Sullivan is a Senior Lecturer in Industrial Relations at the University of Limerick.

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About the author:

Dr Michelle O'Sullivan  / Dr Michelle O’Sullivan is a Senior Lecturer in Industrial Relations at the University of Limerick.

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