Sunday 25 September 2016

Brendan Howlin: No conspiracy, just a fair deal that workers can now vote on

Published 06/03/2013 | 17:00

Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin
Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin

THE conclusion of the talks between public service management and unions on the successor to the Croke Park Agreement ended what was an extensive six- week process. The outcome is a difficult one for public service workers but I think it is clear that every effort was made, given the complexities of the public service, to craft a package that was broadly fair to all concerned.

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Since the publication of the LRC (Labour Relations Commission) proposals there has been a flurry of comment on what was agreed at the talks. Aspects of this commentary have confused matters. To some people it must seem that the process of negotiation is ongoing. It is not.

The fact is that this agreement:

• Protects the basic pay of those who earn less than €65,000. This represents 87pc of the workforce. Indeed, throughout the agreement it is clear that different approaches were taken to overtime rates, increments and pay for those on the various income bands of €0-€35,000, €35,000-€65,000 and over €65,000.

• Delivers the largest proportion (€450m) of the savings arising from the measures associated with the higher paid (13pc of the workforce) and through savings from reduced public service numbers, with less than €100m of the €1bn savings coming from the elimination of twilight pay and the reduction in Sunday or bank holiday premia. Up to as many as 70pc of those who work in frontline services, like nurses, do not do overtime.

• Ensures that the pay reductions at senior levels are significantly higher because people on those income levels can bear more. Within the higher pay cohort the pay reductions being applied are progressive – rising from 5.5pc to 10pc across the income range from €65,000 upwards.

The reality is that this was a negotiation between two sides, both professionally represented, and the outcome represents a compromise between them both. Moreover, the agreement was done under the auspices of the Labour Relations Commission at the talks, not before or after.

The draft agreement is both an overarching and a sectoral agreement. It includes modified approaches in different sectors – different ways of achieving the indicative savings necessary for Government. No sector or set of circumstances are exactly alike.

Clearly the unions that remained in the talks succeeded in mitigating some of the measures put on the table by management and ensuring that some of the "unions' agenda" was addressed also. These are not sweeteners; they are hard-won concessions.

Some of those concessions were sectoral, some were overarching. They are the inevitable outcome of the give and take of industrial relations. Some unions chose not to pursue this path. I think that is unfortunate. It is impossible to negotiate with those who aren't there. Nonetheless, their members also stand to benefit from some of the measures negotiated by those that remained. Measures like the reduction in the public service pension levy on incomes between €15,000 and €20,000 will be available to all public servants if the agreement comes into operation'

Contrary to the suggestion in yesterday's editorial in another newspaper, there is no pot of money available to incentivise workers to accept the agreement. The agreement is what was concluded the weekend before last. Its net value to the State in terms of savings is €1bn. The cumulative value of the savings measures is in excess of €1bn. Net of the cost of concessions to the union side, the savings amount to €1bn.

There have been suggestions too that letters of clarification issued by my department or other employers are somehow separate from the talks process. This is not the case. The purpose of letters of clarification is simply to clarify issues at a level of detail not appropriate for the draft agreement.

What happens now is clear. All unions affiliated to the Public Services Committee of Congress will put the proposals to ballot. Each individual member will have their say on the agreement.

If the agreement is accepted by a Congress ballot then it is deemed by us to be accepted by all Congress unions. All its measures will apply to those unions. However, unions which put themselves outside the process will have the benefits of the process removed from them.

What is required now is time and space for public service workers to consider these proposals.

There is no conspiracy here. We have a set of proposals agreed at the LRC. We have clarifications on that agreement in terms of how it applies to each sector. We know that the savings achieved are broadly in line with the Government's targets. Government sat down and discussed issues with those who were prepared to discuss with us.

We have a clear process by which this agreement will be adjudicated on by the union members involved.

I for one would rather that this agreement was not necessary. I know that public servants have already made sacrifices in the public good. Yet given the share of national income that the public service pay and the pensions bill amounts to, not to seek a further agreement from public servants would lead to an unsustainable reduction in frontline services.

I have made it clear that I believe this will be the last ask made of public servants in terms of their income. I think I can do so with much greater confidence than those that made the pledge back in 2010 when the first agreement was signed – before the advent of the troika.

I have been upfront all along that Government requires the savings from this process. I say this as a statement of fact rather than a threat. The scale of our remaining budgetary challenge is understood better by public servants than most.

Irish Independent

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