Sunday 23 October 2016

If Government surrenders to union muscle it will hurt us all

Eddie Molloy

Published 04/10/2016 | 02:30

Commuters walk to town along the Luas tracks at Ranelagh during the Luas strikes in February. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Commuters walk to town along the Luas tracks at Ranelagh during the Luas strikes in February. Photo: Steve Humphreys

It looks like we are in for the proverbial 'winter of discontent', with young and old walking home in the rain and disruption to other vital public services, unless the growing demand from trade unions for large pay increases is met by the Government. We've been here before but there is something different about it this time in the strategies and demeanour of the trade unions.

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An anarchic, lawless element has entered the fray. Luas drivers withdrew services when their initial demand for a 50pc pay increase was refused and they went on strike again when their 30pc demand was denied. This prompted Kieran Mulvey, probably the most experienced and impartial industrial relations practitioner in the country, to express dismay at these exorbitant demands. He feared they would set a benchmark for other unions' demands, ultimately precipitating a collapse of the still precarious public finances. In a matter of weeks his fears are no longer seen as scaremongering but a real possibility.

The behaviour of the ASTI is another example of excessive pay demands, resistance to (educational) reforms and apparent indifference to the consequences of going on strike. Although only a net 25pc of teachers - that is 60pc of a meagre 40pc turnout - rejected the Lansdowne Road Agreement, school closures are threatened. Colm O'Rourke, former Meath footballer and a school principal, has suggested that a Trotskyite group has taken control of the association and others have suggested similar influences at work in the Luas strikes.

The threat of strikes by both rank-and-file and senior gardaí takes the lawlessness to another level, putting the security of the State and protection of citizens at risk.

In addition to being reckless there is a predatory aspect to the timing and ruthlessness of these manoeuvres.

Seizing upon the weakness of the Government and the shameless adoption of populist positions by opposition parties, regardless of the longer-term public interest, the unions have struck.

This emerging crisis will test the democratic credentials of every political party. Already the Anti-Austerity Alliance have shown theirs, rushing to support the gardaí.

Of course, the withdrawal of gardaí from the streets would create the perfect conditions for the extra-parliamentary mobocracy that is their preferred modus operandi.

When challenged, union leaders declare "our job is to improve the pay and conditions of our members", invariably adding, "and we make no apology for that".

So any pretensions about social solidarity - 'All for one and one for all' - is an empty slogan. It's now a case of every man, or every vested interest, for itself with industrial muscle determining the distribution of the available 'fiscal space', rather than principles of social justice and the wider, longer-term public interest.

Politicians are largely to blame for this situation. Ever since the first green shoots appeared in spring 2014, all parties have encouraged "legitimate expectations" of "pay restoration" with promises to "abolish the hated USC", to "keep the recovery going", to "put more money back in people's pockets" and to provide free water, childcare, education, rubbish collection and other public services.

The Government and all other political parties have failed badly in one of their primary tasks, to manage expectations, and they are now reaping what they have sown.

Right now the key question facing the Government is this: which should take priority, pay restoration or service restoration?

Given the growing pressure on the public purse from unions the Government would do well to heed the advice of the Nevin Institute, ironically the economic thinktank of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

Leading figures from the institute have recently stated that the best way to put more money back in people's pockets is to invest in our health and education services, fund childcare, and build houses. They add that this policy would most benefit poor and otherwise disadvantaged people. This, of course, is a more difficult message to sell than the populist vote-winning promise to put more money back in people's pockets and fund services from general (meaning other people's) taxes.

In considering its response to union demands and creating the imminent Budget, the Government might consider these statistics: 550,000 citizens are waiting more than a year for a hospital appointment - more than one in 10 of the population - while this year there will be close to 1.5 million Irish visits to Spain.

This means that about 150,000 visitors to Spain will return to wait a year to see a doctor.

Add to this picture that 6,500 children deemed to be at risk have no assigned social worker and 1,000 families are living in tenement conditions in hotel rooms, while car sales are going through the roof and wine sales have hit record levels.

What is the essence of political leadership and good government in this context? Is it to allow raids on the public purse by powerful interests in advance of the Budget, thereby leaving little in the kitty to address deficits in public services that are a scandal for a prosperous European country?

The Lansdowne Road deal, endorsed by most public service unions, was such a pre-emptive raid in April 2015, when €300m of the €1bn 'fiscal space' available for the 2015 Budget was already spoken for before any other interest or need got a look in.

Perhaps the Government should consider re-introducing the structures and processes of the much-maligned (by me included) Social Partnership.

For all its faults, particularly in its latter years, Social Partnership facilitated the vital dialogue among a wide range of interests, including advocates for the most vulnerable in society.

Involvement in such a forum might have the benefit of inculcating a more balanced, fairer, longer term and, dare I suggest, more patriotic perspective among those trade unions that seem hell-bent on getting 'What do we want?' and getting it 'Now!', regardless of the consequences for the rest of us. Especially those who are powerless to do anything about it.

If ever we needed good government, 'new politics' and wise trade union leadership, we need them now.

  • Eddie Molloy is a management consultant

Irish Independent

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