TALKS on a new Croke Park deal have hit another obstacle after the country's largest union rejected government plans to increase public servants' working week.
SIPTU is the second union to dismiss the proposal, which along with pay cuts for high earners is expected to deliver €350m of €1bn payroll savings over three years.
It took a hard line on the measure, which is a central pillar of the Government's savings plan, as the talks near endgame this weekend.
IMPACT, which is also a major negotiating union, has already warned it will not back an agreement that increases members' working week by five hours.
In a letter to members, SIPTU said it had made clear in talks yesterday that the union would not accept any increase for members already doing 39 hours.
It said it also dismissed as "unacceptable" the employers' demand for an increase of five hours in the working week for those on less than 39 hours.
However, there may be room for compromise on the Government's opening gambit, if the unions accept a lower increase in hours for those working less than 39 hours.
The unions at the centre of talks moved to reassure their members on their bargaining position as the discussions enter a critical phase.
Chief negotiator and IMPACT general secretary Shay Cody told his members he had not yet agreed which high-earners would be hit by a pay cut.
He said the size of the pay cut being sought by the Government, and the wage bracket they would fall into, would be one of the final cuts agreed.
The Irish Independent revealed this week that the Government was seeking a threshold for the wage cut between €60,000 and €70,000 a year.
Almost 52,000 public servants would be hit by the wage reduction if staff earnings over €60,000-a-year are included.
Mr Cody also said cuts to pay increments, which have been on management's agenda since the start of talks, would be a "very difficult issue" until the end of discussions.
In a letter to members, he said talks on a possible extension to the Croke Park Agreement would intensify this weekend and may end next week.
The Government deadline for talks is on Thursday.
However, sources said yesterday that Labour Relations Commission officials had given a clear indication they wanted to end negotiations tomorrow.
Mr Cody said any package that emerged from the talks would include a contribution from those on 'higher pay'.
The wage reduction was likely to be achieved by a mixture of public servants 'stepping back' to an increment they were on a year ago, as well as pay cuts.
He said that IMPACT was determined that any package that was ultimately brokered would be based on equity.
"By that we mean that those on low and middle incomes should have the most protection and, taken as a whole, the final package should not place a disproportionate burden on any sector or category of staff," he said.
Mr Cody said the situation on other cuts, including working hours, premium attendance payments, allowances and top pensions had not changed much. In relation to premium pay, the Government wants to reduce Sunday premium pay from double time to time and a half, and axe Saturday and twilight payments.
It is also trying to get rid of some allowances, but this is only likely where staff are no longer carrying out the function they are being paid for.
In addition, the Government may have to buy out the payments so it is unlikely to lead to big savings.
A cut to top pensions, which would affect former Taoisigh including Brian Cowen and Bertie Ahern was likely to be a popular move.
The Labour Relations Commission has organised talks into six strands, so key issues are gone through with all unions in a bid to narrow the gap between the sides.