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Thursday 28 August 2014

Eoghan Harris: Croke Park II challenges the centenary celebrations

Eoghan Harris

Published 20/01/2013 | 05:00

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THE centenary of the 1913 Lockout cannot be celebrated with clear consciences by the Labour and trade union movement. The future looks fraught for both. Croke Park II reveals the twin reasons: the decline of the industrial working class and the rise of the white collar public sector unions.

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Last week the trade unions threw shapes at the opening of talks on Croke Park II. This weekend the Labour Party deals with internal tensions. But no matter what make-up the spin doctors apply, the lethal links with the public sector unions are leeching life from the Labour and trade union movement.

The public is cynical about the cosmetic Croke Park talks. They are cosmetic because to raise a billion the Government has only two choices: cut public services or cut public service pay, particularly increments.

But there is no chance the Labour Party will let Fine Gael do the latter. And by failing to act with good authority – by severely cutting its own cut of the public purse – the Government has lost the right to ask sacrifices of the general public.

The Government is not alone in not acting with good authority. Last Monday's Irish Times reported that Dr Michael Murphy, the president of UCC who earns €232,000 and is the highest paid head of a university, did not take a voluntary pay cut.

The gap between the Government and the governed is not good news. No wonder ministers wants to muffle media. Truth is never good news to governments. As Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian communications guru, observed: "The only good news is bad news."

Last week, however, two television programmes, one fact, one fiction, shed a lot of light on the link between the rise of the white collar public sector unions and the problems this poses for European Labour parties.

* * * * *

Pat Kenny and his Frontline team did their homework for a first-class scrutiny of Croke Park II. The panel was well-balanced between public and private. But it was Kenny himself, helped by the audience, who let in the most light.

Proof that the Frontline team had done its homework was provided by the graphic showing the steady rise in public sector numbers over the past 12 years – and how resistant they have been to reduction, no matter what Minister Howlin might say.

Back in 2000, public sector numbers stood at 270,000. By 2005 they had risen to 292,000. In 2008 they peaked at 320,000. In 2010 they went down slightly to 306,000. But by 2012 the core number was still only down to 291,000.

In sum, the Croke Park deal of 2010 has made no real dent in public sector numbers, while costing us a fortune in early retirement schemes. Meanwhile, the public sector unions have selfishly protected the full pay of their well-padded members rather than persuading them to take a small pay cut so as to create new jobs.

Pat Kenny pointed out the contrast with German trade unions. "Remember we met the German ambassador and he pointed out that in Germany, when they had their crisis, the German trade unions negotiated a three-day week to keep everybody in work?"

The audience agreed. John Molloy, boss of an engineering firm who had been forced to cut the salaries of his workforce, spoke for the general public. "It's better to have a thousand people working for €800 a week than 800 working at €1,000 a week."

Frontline focused firmly on the equity of the excessively generous Croke Park early retirement deal of February 2012. Basically, this meant the taxpayer paying thousands of public sector workers in the prime of life to give up work and go off and play golf.

Kenny summarised the deal from the public's point of view. "Anybody could go, irrespective of how much had been invested in their talents, or how vital they were – senior gardai, for example. If they said, 'I'm out of here because it pays me to be out of here', they were allowed go."

* * * * *

Last week's Borgen, the brilliant Danish drama on BBC4, eerily echoed the current and future problems faced by the Irish Labour Party and trade unions. Titled The Last Worker, the episode dealt with issues ranging from early retirement to the loss of the Labour Party's traditional base among industrial workers.

RTE should have bought Borgen long ago. As a political drama it is sharper and less sentimental than The West Wing. Set in a small European country, it is also more relevant to the Irish Republic.

Last week's story was so topical in Irish terms that I took on the task of transcribing some key moments. To set the scene: Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg, of the Moderate Party, leading a fragile three-party coalition of Labour and Greens, needs to find 10bn crowns to fund free state schools by 2020. She proposes to get it by phasing out Denmark's early retirement system.

But Bjorn Marrot, the old-school Labour leader, a former welder who is now foreign minister, takes his time convincing the trade unions. Kasper Juul, Nyborg's sharp spin doctor, caustically comments: "Marrot is married to the trade unions. He worked for them."

Meanwhile, a faction of the Labour Party, led by Troels Hoxenhaven, the justice minister, sets out to depose Marrot by leaking damaging stories mocking his lack of culture when meeting foreign counterparts.

Hoxenhaven would fit neatly into the Irish Labour Party: bourgeois background, tailored suits, white shirts, cosmetic red tie, smooth as a cat's back. What I call a student prince.

But Marrot under media fire shows a bit more bottle than Pat Rabbitte when reacting to adverse press comment. "Of course being hounded by the press isn't nice, but it comes with the job."

Marrot's difficulties go deeper than media, however. The Danish equivalent of David Davin Power states them succinctly. "The Labour movement faces two problems. One, there are no workers. Two, there is absolutely no movement."

At a cabinet seminar, Troels Hoxenhaven finally drops his deceptive mask and launches an open attack on Marrot, who bellows back at him: "Not all Danish citizens are white collar workers and academics like you. There are people in need in our society whom we used to care about in the party."

But a supporter of Hoxenhaven cuts Marrot off sharply. "You're talking about a Denmark that no longer exists. The people you worry about receive disability, retirement and benefits."

Marrot resigns and Troels Hoxenhaven takes over. Later, Marrot stoically tells a sympathetic Nyborg that his kind of Labour Party is dying of success. And as long as they are linked to a privileged public sector elite, his analysis will also apply to the Irish Labour Party and trade unions.

"We had no more needs to meet. All the people who had been living in tenements with outhouses, now lived in a house of their own. Who would have guessed that I'd be the last worker in the Labour Party?"

Sunday Independent

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