Tuesday 21 November 2017

Revealed: how pay cut 'spin' duped the nation

Civil servant unwittingly caught up in unions' propaganda war

Jody Corcoran and JOHN WHELAN

A woman put forward as the face of "harrowing stories" caused by the Government's decision to cut the pay of public-sector workers turns out to be the wife of an unemployed private sector worker, the Sunday Independent can reveal.

The case of Mary Duffy, a civil servant, was presented by her public-sector union last week as a metaphor for what it said were the devastating effects of the decision in the last Budget to cut public- sector pay.

Ms Duffy, who is paid €450 a week, is undoubtedly suffering as a result of the recession, as are many other people throughout the country, particularly the 425,000 mainly private-sector workers, such as her husband, who are out of work.

Her story was highlighted last week by prominent trade union leader Blair Horan, of the Civil and Public Service Union. He spoke on RTE of "absolutely harrowing stories" when he defended his union's decision to impose a work-to-rule as part of industrial action to pressurise the Government to reverse pay cuts.

Ms Duffy herself has also spoken publicly of how she and her family have been affected by the Government's decision, to the extent that she was forced to default on her mortgage and hand over the keys to her home.

A clerical officer with the Department of Education, Ms Duffy lives in Laois-Offaly, the constituency of the Taoiseach, a political dimension which was seized upon by Labour leader Eamon Gilmore as he referred to her unfortunate case in the Dail to embarrass Mr Cowen.

However, the Sunday Independent last week established that while Ms Duffy did indeed lose her home, it happened last August, shortly after her husband had lost his jobseeker's allowance, having lost his job as a plasterer in the first wave of redundancies throughout the private sector in January last year.

Ms Duffy, who was unwittingly caught up in a propaganda war, was last week reluctant to discuss how her and her family had been thrust into the limelight by her union as part of its campaign to force the Government to reverse its decision to impose pay cuts in the public sector.

There is genuine sympathy for the situation in which she and her husband now find themselves, as there is for everybody continuing to suffer as a result of the ongoing economic crisis.

The Government, however, remains reluctant to be drawn on the specifics of the Mary Duffy case, or on its wider ramifications, as it gears up yet again to engage in negotiations with the trade unions.

Senior government sources last week said it was interested only in "getting back to the table" following what one source described as the "guerrilla" actions of elements within the public sector.

"There is a desire to get this resolved, because civil servants have an enormous capacity to disrupt the running of of the country," one senior figure admitted -- a clear indication that the Government remains intent on engaging with public-sector unions even though they have not deviated from their insistence that the pay cuts be reversed.

The Government's tactic seems to be to persuade the unions to end their industrial action and to engage in meaningful talks on public-sector reform in return for a guarantee that further cuts to public-sector pay will not be imposed next year.

The stance of public-sector unions are supported by the Labour Party, whose leader, Eamon Gilmore, last week highlighted the metaphor for hardship that is the Mary Duffy story.

In the Dail last week he said: "We heard the story, for example, of Mary Duffy who is a clerical officer. Her husband lost his job and his jobseeker's benefit has now run out. We heard how that family is now trying to get by on Mary's pay of €451 per week and how they had to hand back the keys of their house.

"As a result of the pension levy which was imposed last year and the cut in pay which was imposed by the Budget, Mary's pay has been cut by €77 per week."

Ms Duffy herself also spoke of her predicament at the CPSU conference in Dublin on Tuesday. From the podium, she declared: "In August 2009, we discussed our mortgage with the bank, our only option was to hand it back; if we volunteered this option, we wouldn't be taken to court, so the day we had dreaded so much had arrived. On my son's first day at school we moved into rented accommodation in Tullamore."

Nobody in the body politic could accuse the Duffy family of exaggerating their genuine hardship. However, the desperate situation in which the Duffy family find themselves only came about after her husband lost his job as a plasterer in January last year in the first wave of job losses in the private sector. He subsequently lost his jobseeker's benefit in August.

A Government source said: "Look, the case of Mary Duffy is undoubtedly difficult. Undoubtedly so. Nobody wanted to cut her pay, but it had to be done, broadly speaking, or the country would have gone bust. If you ask me, while I'm sorry for Mary, I'm more sorry for her husband. He is out of a job after all."

The fact that Ms Duffy's predicament in losing the family home came as a result of her husband losing his job was not emphasised by Mr Horan of the CPSU in a media campaign last week against the pay cuts for low paid public sector workers.

When asked to give an example last week of the harrowing stories he had encountered, he said: "Well, there's a woman in Tullamore whose total cuts in the last year were €80 a week. She's earning just over €400 a week, her husband has lost his job and she's lost her house. She's now in rented accommodation with a young lad."

Sunday Independent

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