Friday 28 October 2016

Public sector unions fight for a fantasy, not fairness

Teachers are trying to pretend that the Irish economic crash was just a blip, and that things can and must go back to the way they were before. In that way, lies madness

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 16/10/2016 | 02:30

'There will now be seven days of stoppages, starting at the end of October, with a withdrawal of supervision and substitution duties to follow when schools return in early November'
'There will now be seven days of stoppages, starting at the end of October, with a withdrawal of supervision and substitution duties to follow when schools return in early November'

There's a common misconception right now that the public sector unions are looking for pay rises. They're not. They're only after "pay restoration".

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In other words, they want to go back to the pay levels which would have existed if the economy hadn't ground to a halt and their members had continued to receive all the increases and increments that they were expecting.

Once that's been achieved, then they'll come looking for the actual pay rises, and the fun will really begin.

The unions are basically rewriting John Lennon's famous ditty: "Imagine there was no recession. It's easy if you try."

Easy if you're detached from all reality, that is.

Latest to join the bandwagon are members of the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland (ASTI) who, it was announced on Thursday, have voted for strike action. There will now be seven days of stoppages, starting at the end of October, with a withdrawal of supervision and substitution duties to follow when schools return in early November.

Hundreds of schools will be forced to close, causing the usual inconvenience to hundreds of thousands of parents and employers, aka the people who pay public servants' wages in the first place. Some may even be forced to come into school to provide cover.

This isn't about teachers as such. Teachers are great. They mark homework in the evenings, and supervise lunch break in the playground, and, oh, everything. That old chestnut about them being the best paid in Europe and having longer holidays than Kim Kardashian shall not pass our lips.

It also doesn't seem fair that new entrants to the profession should get paid less than others doing the same job. Isn't "equal pay for equal work", as the ASTI placards declare, one of the foundation stones of, well, equality?

Actually, no. It isn't. People get paid different rates of pay for the same work all the time, depending on how good they are at their jobs and what they can negotiate. That's certainly the case for union bosses, whose salaries can vary widely, depending on which groups of workers they represent. Shouldn't they all be getting the same remuneration in the interests of egalitarianism?

Even within the public sector, some workers are in the Lansdowne Agreement and some aren't. Some have agreed to new conditions and some haven't. That makes a difference to pay. It's one of ASTI's other bones of contention, though it could be solved by just signing up on the same terms as the other unions.

In truth, equal pay for equal work can just as easily mean the dedicated, hard-working teacher who gets more of his students across the line, getting paid the same as the useless time server, who's more interested in putting one over on the Government than making sure his charges know their onions. That might be equal, but it's not fair.

Parents are entitled to a suspicion that this strike is less about fighting for the rights of newly qualified teachers, and more about laying down a marker for future pay disputes, with their children as bargaining chips.

Restore pay now, raise pay later. That's the real agenda.

But when you think about it, the notion of pay restoration is very strange. Why should pay in the public sector be the same now as it would have been if the Irish economy hadn't been totalled in the biggest financial pile up since the Great Depression?

No one else's pay has been restored. At the height of the boom, workmen could basically charge what they liked for changing the washer on a tap, and were snapping up apartments in Spain on the proceeds. Should they start jacking their prices back up in the name of pay restoration?

Last week, there was even an outcry because, following on from changes in the Budget which saw first-time buyers qualifying for rebates of up to €20,000, some developers immediately put up the price of some new builds by €45,000.

This was seen as a cynical fleecing of buyers. Why? Developers are just seeking "pay restoration". They too want to be earning what they were getting before the crash.

There was further annoyance at the €5k salary hike for TDs. Shouldn't their pay be restored too? Sure, it's all the rage these days.

The question is: should employers be allowed to change the pay and conditions of workers over time? If they cannot do so, then it leads to permanent wage inflation unless, in a downturn, all agree to a wage reduction, and that isn't going to happen. The only way would be to sack them all, then rehire staff on new contracts.

That's even more unlikely when the employer is the Government and these particular employees, such as teachers, nurses and guards, have the ability to bring the country to a standstill. So instead, the Government sets aside €290m in the Budget for this so-called pay restoration, with a promise of more to come, whilst buying some time by setting up a Public Sector Pay Commission in the hope of deferring more stoppages - because gibberish sounds much more authoritative when it comes from a body with a fancy name.

The recession should ideally have led to a permanent restructuring of expectations, but that never materialised, because people might have been prepared to endure some short-term pain. But they didn't want to hear that things can never go back to the way they were before.

So the Government cuts a bit of this and slashes a bit of that, but long-term structural reform? Forget it. They didn't dare. Still wouldn't. Never will. It would be electoral suicide to admit that the crash was not a glitch in the matrix that can be fixed by pressing control, alt, delete and resetting the computer.

It was the inevitable consequence of an unsustainable economic model. In short, we couldn't afford to live like that. And if we couldn't afford it then, we absolutely can't afford to live that way now.

We are all working harder for less money. That's the new reality. It's not nice. It would be lovely if we could all be magically restored back to where we were in 2007, and then some. But that's the way it is. Sometimes, the value of particular goods, or jobs or services, changes. It used to be worth X and now it's worth Y.

There's nothing particularly radical or shocking about that notion. The fact that some public sector unions seem to regard it as heresy is what you get when certain groups in society decide that reality is an optional extra.

Though why wouldn't teachers go on strike when everyone else is doing it too? Hell, we should all stage a walk out to demand the previous decade be cancelled. Last one on the picket line's a sissy.

Sunday Independent

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