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Thursday 14 December 2017

Lenihan: How unions are bullying politicians

Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

MINISTER for Finance Brian Lenihan has broken with Government policy to sharply criticise public-sector unions which, he says, are engaging in a campaign of "threat" to politicians.

In an interview with the Sunday Independent, Mr Lenihan said a union initiative to “blacklist” politicians supportive of an Oireachtas decision to cut the pay of publicsector workers amounted to a “serious threat”.

The Government has, until now, adopted a restrained approach to industrial action taken by the unions as part of their campaign to reverse pay cuts implemented across the public sector earlier this year.

Mr Lenihan is adamant that those cuts, announced in his Budget last December, will not be reversed, and he has warned the unions against escalating the dispute.

The Government’s softlysoftly response to the dispute so far is part of a strategy to negotiate reforms throughout the public sector rather than impose further pay cuts.

On Friday, Taoiseach Brian Cowen told journalists that another €3bn in public spending cuts would be imposed next year and a further €3bn in 2012.

However, also on Friday, the unions escalated their campaign to include strike action, a move which would disrupt a range of services, including social welfare.

The Civil Public and Services Union (CPSU), which represents 13,000 lower-paid civil servants, has also warned that any attempt to remove its members from the payroll following such action would lead to an immediate picket on the location involved.

At the Sinn Fein ard fheis yesterday, Siptu general president Jack O’Connor warned that the trade unions were “embarking on an intensive campaign of industrial action to leverage a negotiated agreement in the public service pay dispute”.

Declaring that the unions had “a great deal to learn” from Sinn Fein, Mr O’Connor admitted the industrial action would “inevitably have consequences for fellow citizens”.

Mr O’Connor did not make an outright call for a reversal of the pay cuts; but he did call for negotiations with the Government.

Government sources have recently said that Mr Lenihan was open to the option of scrapping the tax deduction available on trade union subscriptions.

Speaking in UCD on Thursday, the human resources director of the Health Service Executive, Sean McGrath, declared that the unions’ prime interest was in serving their paying members rather than the provision of quality public services.

“They put their subscriptions first and patients’ interests second,” he said.

A decision to end tax deductions on subscriptions would only likely take place should the current dispute be further escalated. The Government will, however, only embark on meaningful negotiations on the basis that the pay cuts will not be reversed.

The Government is also unhappy with the “threatening” nature of the public-sector unions’ action so far.

Mr Lenihan told the Sunday Independent: “There has been an element, and I have to say it hasn’t been right across the service, but there has been an element within the Civil Service of non co-operation with the system, in terms of answering telephone calls and in terms of facilitating deputies of all parties.

“In the last week I have noticed a more serious threat emerging where councillors and deputies of parties who support the Government are being threatened by some local government unions.

These are serious developments. The further this difficulty escalates the less likely that anyone will gain from it.

“It is a fact that the State is not in a position to pay the salaries as they were last year.

The decisions have been made by parliament and we have made it very clear to the union side that there is no scope for restoring the reductions that have already been made.

“Subject to that, we are prepared to engage with the staff side to see if industrial peace can be restored to the public service. The big danger of an escalation of this dispute is that it will lead to an all-out confrontation.

“That hasn’t happened yet. The Government has been very restrained and we have been restrained because we are anxious to see discussions to bring industrial peace back to the public sector,” he said.

Asked what form these “threats” were taking, Mr Lenihan said: “There was a suggestion that deputies and councillors who support the Government would in some way be blacklisted by local authority staff.”

The CPSU has warned of selective strike action of indefinite duration in some cases and for limited periods in others to take effect from Monday March 15.

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