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Column Croke Park talks show there is no ease up on austerity

Trumpeting their success with the promissory note last week, up against the unions this week. We are not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot, writes Kieran Allen.

THE MOVES HAVE already been choreographed. After a period of ‘intensive negotiations’ and ‘crisis talks’ the leaders of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) and the government continue to come up with a package for the ‘extension’ of the Croke Park deal.

Last week, the government was trumpeting the progress it made on promissory note. The country, had, it appeared, saved €20 billion and this was considered a price worth paying to copper-fasten debt to the backs of our grandchildren until 2050.

Yet, strangely, despite these ‘savings’, the government feels it must reach into the pockets of nurses, fire-fighters and gardaí to take more money. These particular groups of workers engage in difficult, stressful activity. Sometimes, they are required to leave their families at all hours of the night or on Sundays to do it.

Working hours

One of the most basic axioms of a modern, civilised society is that work during anti-social hours be rewarded. Traditionally, the rate has been set at double time but the government has deemed this an unacceptable luxury. Something else is peculiar about the idea of ‘extending’ Croke Park.

The Croke Park agreement is not due to expire until mid 2014 – more than a year away. Although, it has been lashed by media commentators from the right of the political spectrum, it was accepted by public servants because it guaranteed no further pay cuts. After the union leadership put up only a token resistance to a pension levy and a pay cut that took away 15 per cent out of their income, a demoralised workforce concluded that their best bet was to agree to the deal.

They assumed that it guaranteed their already shrunken pay packets and that was enough. Few examined the small print – so fearful were they of further cuts. But the agreement allowed their employers to change contracts, re-organise shift systems to eliminate overtime, to re-deploy workers up to 45 kilometres from their home, to link incremental progression to ‘performance’ as defined by line managers. In other words, it was a tough deal that brought many changes.

Turn around

But, and here is the point – it still has a year to run. Which begs the question: why are professional negotiators discussing tearing it up and replacing it with one that is worse?

Union officials tend to have a bureaucratic mentality. They believe in rules, procedures and above all adherence to agreements. If one of their members says ‘we should not accept this’ they will invariably be told, ‘Unfortunately, we have signed an agreement and must stick to it’.

The only explanation, I can think, for breaking from this norm is that some of our unions must be very close to the government. There are conflicts of interest between the needs of parties and union members and they must be particularly acute.

This sort of thing has, unfortunately, been happened before. The Croke Park agreement promised that a share of the ‘savings’ gained from extra productivity would go to workers who earned less than €35,000. But that was also torn up – and the unions accepted it without a murmur. The original number supposed to depart the public services was to be approximately 18,000 employees but it rose to 30,000. The unions again accepted – and sometimes even cheered on – the increase.

Pension age

Last year, the government managed to get through one of the biggest changes ever to affect workers. Namely an increase in the pension age to 68 for those currently aged under 50. While the rest of Europe erupted in anger, there was silence in Ireland. All of which indicates that the more sacrifices one accepts meekly, the more the government is emboldened to ask for more.

If we become lulled by a PR machine that claims the government achieved wonders on the promissory note by ‘quiet diplomacy’, is it any wonder we lose the will to resist.

The growing revolt of the 24/7 Alliance and the brewing anger over property taxes may, however, be a sign of a different mood. ‘Enough is enough’ appears to have become a popular watch cry. I do hope it grows louder.

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). To read more by Kieran Allen for click here.

Explainer: What’s on the table in the Croke Park talks?>

Read: Sergeants and inspectors join garda action in protest over pay cuts>

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