independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

We're paying the price of union power

As the economy slides into recession, Dr Ciara Kelly argues that socialism without a social conscience placed workers' rights ahead of society's needs

You'd almost think recession was a good thing judging by the enthusiasm with which analysts are dissecting its causes and solutions.

Maybe there's a strange comfort in the familiarity of recession -- like going back to your roots. Perhaps we're buoyed up by the tacit understanding that we who have previously experienced its bite are better equipped to cope with this downturn -- having more stomach for shopping in Lidl, eating Angel delight, or saving un-franked stamps off the tops of envelopes, than the poor youngsters who have only ever known prosperity.

Recession means both individually and nationally we're poorer. Therefore we must prioritise what we spend our money on. Common sense dictates there are certain things we can't and shouldn't cut back on, but what's clearly foolhardy, is spending money extravagantly, in times of shortage, on mere indulgence.

Individually it's like not paying the mortgage but buying lots of shoes. Nationally it's like abandoning the National Development Plan but awarding ourselves a pay rise. Current expenditure, unlike capital expenditure, adds nothing to our wealth and merely covers expenses; so this is where you cut back. The single biggest item in current expenditure -- some 47 per cent -- is the public sector pay and pension's bill which amounted to €17.542m in 2007. This has grown to its gargantuan size through a combination of pay hikes -- 500 per cent in the past 20 years and ever growing staff numbers.

It's still inordinately hard to effect any improvement to our public services, as it remains so difficult to introduce any change in work practices, within the public sector. The trade unions representing the sector have become so powerful, after 20 years of politically expedient capitulation on the part of the Government through social partnership, that the rights of the few now supercede the rights of the many. It's socialism without a social conscience, putting workers' rights ahead of society's need for health, transport or any other essential service.

The public sector is now run for the benefit of the vested interests within it and not for the benefit of the people.

Furthermore, permanent staff within the public sector, enjoy such good pay, conditions and pension rights (they earn on average 42 per cent more than their equivalent in the private sector) that the expense of hiring additional permanent staff is prohibitive. This results in huge numbers of public sector workers being hired on temporary contracts only, without any hope of a permanent position.

Ironically the unions did such a good job of securing massive benefits for existing permanent employees that they managed to preclude permanency of employment for many other ordinary workers. A permanent public sector job now is like membership of an exclusive club where you get more perks than everyone else. It has also resulted in cobbled-together public services, such as health, where co-location of public and private hospitals is seen as a way of circumventing the quagmire of expanding the public hospital system.

Rather than facing down the unions in their attempt to control what kind of a public service we receive, the Government has repeatedly taken the route of appeasement disguised as consensus.

We've a long collective memory when it comes to poverty and oppression so it's easy to identify with workers -- we're all workers of some kind. But it's time we shook off this post-colonial mind set and realised there's no external power here to put one over on. Irish workers are no longer downtrodden, and it's we alone who are footing the bill for all this largesse.

We, the people, employ the workers in the public sector. We pay their wages and their pensions. Their pensions alone currently amount to €75bn. Promised increases in productivity following previous pay rises never materialised -- as eaten bread is soon forgotten -- but we'll be paying for the crumbs for a long time to come. Every euro now spent on pay increases is a euro forfeited somewhere else. Euro zone countries with higher average wages than Ireland all have correspondingly higher levels of unemployment. Unemployment may not worry you if you're a public sector employee, but for many people it's now a genuine concern. Unions will protect your wages but they won't protect your job.

If there's any chance of avoiding unemployment, spiralling debt and worsening public services, the Government must now stand firm against the barrage of wage claims about to be unleashed in partnership talks. Starting with the Government itself, but extending to all areas of the public sector, a national wage freeze must now be imposed. Increased competitiveness and productivity is our only way out of this recession. Its time public and private sector workers were finally treated equally.

Dr Ciara Kelly is a Wicklow-based GP

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