Strike fear eases as Taoiseach proposes union talks
THE threat of an escalation of the public sector disputes will be lifted today after Taoiseach Brian Cowen last night invited unions back to talks.
However, low-key industrial action including work-to-rule phone bans and office closures by up to 300,000 public servants will continue.
In a major breakthrough, Mr Cowen invited the unions to preliminary talks. Both sides agreed to ask Kieran Mulvey and Kevin Foley of the Labour Relations Commission to act as facilitators for new talks on pay and public service reform.
Those talks are due to begin today. Mr Mulvey and Mr Foley are expected to ask unions to lift the threat of further action.
Peter McLoone, chairman of the public servants' committee of Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), said: "I welcome the initiative and the union side will be approaching this to achieve a just settlement to this dispute."
Senior union leaders said they hoped to have an agreement on the basis of 'pay for change' before Easter.
The basis for discussions is believed to centre on a union proposal that workers swap major reforms, such as a longer working day, in return for a reversal of the pay-cut over a period of time.
The last set of talks collapsed before Christmas on the issue of public sector workers taking two weeks' compulsory unpaid leave. Mr Cowen invited ICTU officers to a meeting last night which was also attended by Finance Minister Brian Lenihan and Environment Minister John Gormley.
In a statement released afterwards, they said that, with a "shared sense of urgency", it was agreed to resume discussions between the two sides.
The breakthrough comes as unions were due to hold a crucial meeting today at which they were planning to set a date for strike action. That meeting will still go ahead. However, following last night's developments, no decision will be taken on a date.
The Civil, Public and Services Union (CPSU), representing 13,000 lower paid members, had agreed to hold off on work stoppages from Monday to agree a joint strategy with the two other major civil service unions. Tensions were raised yesterday after civil servants disrupted communications in the Oireachtas during a formal Dail sitting for the first time by refusing to deal with emails.
The unions claimed the action had a "severe impact" on business at Leinster House including committee meetings, during the last Dail sitting before the St Patrick's week break. Staff had refused to transfer emails, including those relating to draft legislation and amendments, between departments.
The state workers also impeded the public from having access to the houses of the Oireachtas, including individuals scheduled to give evidence at committee meetings.
However, a spokesman for the Houses of the Oireachtas refused to comment on the impact of the industrial action.
The HSE was also forced to go ahead with a board meeting without a performance report, due to staff refusing to compile information on services.
CPSU assistant general secretary Theresa Dwyer said the pressure on Dail and Seanad proceedings would intensify unless there were "meaningful negotiations" with the Government.
"It is unfortunate that our members have to engage in such action but it shows the deep anger felt by workers who provide a first-rate service to the TDs and ministers," she said.
"These are the same workers who have been targeted by this Government for pay cuts that are not just unfair but are morally wrong".
IMPACT national secretary Louise O'Donnell said the action was directed at the Government and not the wider public. Referring to the ongoing dispute, Tanaiste Mary Coughlan said: "In certain circumstances, ministers are not in a position to obtain facts.
"It is unfortunate but that is the current situation."