'Workers justified to ask for pay increases'
Ex-Labour Court Chairman wants national wages forum
The retiring Chairman of the Labour Court has warned the Government, employers and unions to "get their act together" on pay and set up a national forum to deal with wage claims.
In an interview with the Irish Independent, Kevin Duffy said the Government should consider a rebranded replacement for social partnership to set the agenda on salaries at a national level as industrial relations head into "uncharted waters".
The industrial relations chief was speaking on his last day following 19 years at the court where he has resolved some of the most high-profile, protracted and difficult disputes, including the recent bitter row at the Luas.
He said a new type of social dialogue is desirable as we emerge from the recession, when social partnership collapsed, and workers lodge growing numbers of claims for pay rises after years of wage freezes and cuts.
"As to what might happen into the future, employers, unions and Government should get their act together on pay, because that has become an issue now," he said.
"There was a lot of debate last year, of course, with the election, on the extent we have emerged and who has emerged, but there is no doubt the economic circumstances have improved hugely on those that existed during the recession.
"And there are lots of employments around the place where people haven't, because of the recession, not only they haven't got pay increases for many, many, years, in some instances back to 2008 and 2009, since the collapse of the last social partnership agreement, but people have had pay cuts.
"There's been significant retrenchment around the place and it's understandable and I would think in many cases, justifiable, that people would say, 'Look we kept the show on the road and things have now improved and now we want some of that back'."
He said that needs to be done in a controlled way.
"And you don't want to have it dealt with by industrial disputes, particularly industrial disputes that create all sorts of problems for the public at large, if it can be done in a way that is infinitely better than having every claim to have to be adjudicated on its merits with all of the consequences. You will always be looking over your shoulder at what the repercussions might be."
He said some kind of national agreement would be highly desirable as it had worked very well in the past. But he admitted that the term social partnership sends shivers down some people's spines, and the main party in government is hostile to it.
"In my view, it shouldn't but that is the reality and perception is often the strongest form of reality for some people," he said.
"I'm not talking about full blown social partnership as there doesn't appear to be too many takers for that - though I don't subscribe to the view that social partnership is the source of all the woes that were subsequently visited upon it," he said.
"It had its day and it had its time and I'm certainly not suggesting that you go back to arrangements that existed at the time of social partnership, but there is certainly a need for a forum at which employers generally and unions generally can deal with issues that are emerging and try and develop some kind of consensus around that," he said.
"That's particularly true of issues to do with pay and we are heading into, to some extent, uncharted waters there."
He said the alternative is that employers, unions and state mediation bodies try and deal with every dispute in a reactive way, which will lead to knock-on claims.
"Where the circumstances of the next dispute may be very different, the aspiration will be set by what went before it," he said.
"That's not a particularly desirable way to do business."
The National Bus and Railworkers' Union (NBRU) has lodged claims for bus and train drivers seeking pay increases as a direct result of the Luas dispute, which led to drivers getting an 18pc pay increase up to September 2020.
Mr Duffy, a former bricklayer and Irish Congress of Trade Unions Assistant General Secretary, said the new national forum could, like the old social partnership, lead to pay deals.
Alternatively, it could set guidelines on how pay claims would be dealt with, including where an employer could not afford pay claims or where they could be expected to go beyond them.
He said social partnership had its critics because it eventually "went way beyond wages" and got into "all sorts of areas" regarded as the preserve of government, including fiscal and social policy. But the new forum should not trespass into these areas, he said.
He revealed he had heard "constructive things" from Ibec and ICTU officials about the possibility of some sort of social dialogue to deal with pay policy and deal with disputes.
On the likelihood that we are heading into an industrial action 'Armageddon', he is doubtful.
"There are issues in certain employments mainly in the state sector, and I think the CIE Group is one of them, and there are issues that will have to be addressed there but in broad general terms, there is no evidence to suggest that there is going to be an outbreak of hostilities on the industrial relations front," he said.
"I remember, after the first of the social partnership agreements, putting out a press statement welcoming the fact that the number of days lost due to industrial action had fallen below a million. It was just under 33,000 last year, so it's a very different landscape."
He said one of the reasons for this is the fact that union membership in the private sector has declined significantly.
Mr Duffy remembers negotiating deals for pay increase of 15pc when inflation was running at 17pc, so points out that the current average increases of 2pc to 2.5pc a year offer real spending power.
Referring to the relationship between the Luas drivers and Transdev, he said the "relationship was very bad" and that was the reason he referred them for "counselling" at the Workplace Relations Commission.
He said he had come across this type of hostility between workers and management from time to time, including at An Post in the past.
"That can only get worse, where you have that type of conflict," he said.
"People have to get on with life and I think there was a certain inevitability that that type of situation would arise from the dispute.
"It contributed to the fact that the dispute happened, because it was there beforehand."
Mr Duffy said that former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was like a "one-man Workplace Relations Commission", although as a Labour supporter, they did not share the same political views.
"He had a particular talent," he said. "There's no doubt about that. I always got on well with the man and admired him.
"When it came to things like the Good Friday Agreement, he had that common touch and an ability to conciliate."