Wednesday 21 March 2018

Constant government talk of recovery is fuelling the expectations of workers

Aer Lingus chief executive Christoph Mueller
Aer Lingus chief executive Christoph Mueller

Martin Frawley

The temperature is rising in the workplace as unions gear up to try to regain ground lost in the downturn.

While there have been virtually no strikes since the recession took hold in late 2008, in the past 12 months commuters have been hit with strikes in Bus Eireann and Dublin Bus over pay cuts while train drivers in Irish Rail are threatening action over the same issue.

Almost 30,000 passengers had travel plans disrupted when Aer Lingus cabin crew staged a 24-hour stoppage over rosters. More action has not been ruled out.

Even doctors took to the streets last October in a row over working hours, while secondary teachers, members of the Asti, engaged in limited industrial action against changes to the Junior Cert.

Like the electorate, which voted last month against austerity, the unions, too, are saying 'enough is enough'. Earlier this year and shortly after the troika departed, Siptu president Jack O'Connor announced a "major push" for pay hikes across the private sector.

Jimmy Kelly, of the more militant Unite, dismissed a tentative government offer of tax cuts for a wage freeze as "a false trade-off", which would not benefit workers or the economy.

Public-sector workers have signed up to the Haddington Road Agreement, which precludes any pay increases until the agreement expires in 2016.

But even here, unions have warned they will pursue pay claims before the agreement expires if the Government's borrowing requirement dips below the target of 3pc of GDP.

But it is expected the real battles for now will take place in the private sector, where jobs, and to a lesser extent pay, have been savaged over the past five years. Jack O'Connor says that to date his union has secured almost 200 pay increases averaging over 2pc.

Mandate, which represents retail workers, has quietly secured a number of pay increases in multinational retailers such as a 2pc increase in Boots.

The recovery – such as it is – is a two-speed one. Some companies, notably in the pharmaceutical and IT sectors, have been barely scratched by the crisis. Others, particularly in manufacturing and smaller companies, will take years to recover – if they ever do.

But the Government's crowing about the 'recovery' is only fuelling expectations among workers for pay rises – expectations unions are finding hard to manage.

Employer groups such as Ibec and Isme have warned against rising expectations, saying many companies still cannot pay any increases. A study by Patrick Gunnigle, Jonathan Lavelle and Sinead Monaghan of the University of Limerick notes employers are seeking to exploit the weaker bargaining position of the unions in the wake of the crisis.

This new approach is evident at Aer Lingus, where management has threatened to move 300 Irish jobs to the US in a dispute over rosters.

Proposals by Bausch and Lomb in Waterford to cut pay by 20pc and make 2,000 workers redundant sent shockwaves through the trade union movement.

Unions fear that if this type of austerity is allowed, it will spread throughout the multinational sector.

If the unions are up for the fight, as they say, then expect some bitter battles ahead as the country inches its way out of recession – or not, as the case may be.

Irish Independent

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