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Aaron McKenna: We must sacrifice industrial peace to save the nation

We have been treating nurses and gardai as equal in importance to receptionists and quango directors, they are not equal in importance, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

THE DEATH OF the second Croke Park agreement between government and public sector unions is being billed as a great crisis. I think it’s an opportunity to break from the cosy relationship of social partnership that has morphed from a laudable program of everyone-in-it-together into a rent seeking, hand binding gun held against the head of governments trying to look out for the national interest of all of us. The promise was peace in our time, but peace at what cost?

It is the first time in decades that the two parties have come to serious blows outside the pantomime that was upwards only salary reviews during the Celtic Tiger, when it was a case of throwing strops over whether an increase would be ten or twelve per cent of gross. Barring a few small industrial disputes, such as by secondary school teachers earlier in the last decade and a day of action near the start of the recession, we haven’t had much union-led strife for quite some time. There is an unsettling feeling about what it would look like if the government was to go to unilateral war with the unions.

Economic trouble in the past

The week in which Margaret Thatcher was buried provided plenty of images from the 1970s and 80s in Britain, a period of great economic trouble and industrial strife. In the 70s the country was prone to rolling blackouts, rubbish piled up in the streets and – though stories are overblown as to their scale today – the dead went unburied. Ireland had its own worries, losing hundreds of thousands of days of work to industrial action. (Today, it’s worth pointing out, thanks to privatisation we likely wouldn’t see the rubbish piling up.)

The sight of little old ladies being loaded onto army vehicles as a replacement for striking bus drivers is considered a quaint image today of an Ireland that is for the history books.

It is also not necessarily an image of how industrial discord must play out today. During the 70s and 80s Ireland was stuck in a rut even deeper than today when you consider where we got to in taxation, spending, even emigration. Our boom and bust has been bigger than it was then, but the government of today has more flexibility in dealing with the problem – if it shows that it has enough steel to put the national interest ahead of peace in our time at any price.

Social partnership

A core pillar of the social partnership is that unions would be negotiated with and subject to collective agreements. This is why there have been no compulsory redundancies and many voluntary schemes have been available all across the public service. Effectively, we have been treating nurses and gardai as equal in importance to receptionists and quango directors. With respect to the contributions given by all those in public service, when the government is borrowing nearly €1.3 billion per month to run the show and hard choices need to be made, they are not equal in importance in terms of the things we need versus the things we can afford.

This disunity is emerging from within the union ranks themselves. Shift working nurses and gardai, who work unsociable hours under difficult conditions, are rejecting a collective agreement that they see as being to the benefit of nine to five office workers. Every time that public sector pay and conditions are mentioned, the frontline services are held up as the baby that must not be smacked. Quite right, too.

But behind the frontline stands the vast majority of the near 300,000 people in state employment. We must begin to make difficult choices about what it is we’re paying them to do so that we can protect services that are truly vital in a period where there is no question that we are running an unaffordable government.

Equal treatment

We have a situation today where completely equal treatment of all public sector employment means that in one region of the country we can lose a third of our midwives while in another we merge two quangos but fail to reap efficiencies because you cannot slim down the number of support staff they carry over. It is not a personal attack on these individuals to say that they should be made redundant: It is simply arithmetic, that if you need to be able to afford to replace midwives who are responsible for lives then you perhaps need to consider reducing the number of receptionists or HR or senior management people in the bureaucracy.

If you think of an analogy, the Irish state is a passenger liner crossing the Atlantic. It can’t afford all of its crew, so a voluntary redundancy scheme is offered. All the engineers take it up. We now have a bridge crew, porters, cooks, entertainers and all the rest. But we’re going nowhere. Instead we might make choices: Cut the number of porters and cooks and entertainers, even slim the bridge crew. The journey will be less pleasant for the passengers, but at least we’ll get there.

Letting our systems fall

It is immoral to allow services like our health system and policing to fall to ruin in order to protect peace with unions at any price, no matter where your party funding comes from. It shows weak character for ministers to threaten that rejection of a deal will lead to unilateral consequences, only to row away from the claim as quickly as they can when that rejection arrives.

The government ought to take this opportunity to make peace with those who are most critical to the running of our country – the frontline services and workers in individual departments, offices and even quangos that carry most value – and let the rest take the pain upon their rejection of a reasonably fair deal. It is the unions, not government, who have turned their back on collective bargaining.

Instead of asking new nurses to take a pay cut versus their colleagues, we should roll up various elements of the vast government bureaucracy into a slimmer organisation that fits the profile of what we can actually afford. We should recruit gardai and fire fighters and ambulance crews on a 1:1 basis with cuts made elsewhere.

Unions on the streets

Yes, it’s unilateral. Yes, it’s distasteful. Yes, it will bring some unions out onto the streets. But I’d rather live in a country where gardai or firemen can get onto the streets when we need them than one in which unions are kept quiet and happy by way of corrosive us-and-them deals and a few sloppy payments into opaque bank accounts to pay for junkets here and there.

The Croke Park 2 agreement was seeking €1 billion in savings over three years from the public sector, the pay and pensions bill of which represents a third of all government spending. Over that same period the deficit will be €34 billion, and payments on debt interest €20 billion. In the absence of the growth of a money tree in Dublin 2, government needs to develop a pair and get on with it.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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