Wednesday 18 September 2019

Winter of discontent: How the unions and Government are playing a high-stakes game

We could now be facing the worst spate of industrial unrest in almost three decades. But what lies behind the strikes and what are the risks for those involved?

Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

The Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe likes to repeat the mantra that the Lansdowne Road agreement on public service pay is the "only show in town".

In the coming days and weeks, as gardaí, teachers and quite possibly other workers go on strike, we may see if Paschal's "only show in town" ends up as a harrowing tragedy, or dismal farce.

Nearly six months after the hotchpotch of a Fine Gael government entered office, we are now facing the possibility of the worst winter of industrial unrest in three decades.

The Lansdowne Road agreement, signed by Donohoe's predecessor Brendan Howlin last year and aimed at an orderly restoration of public service pay, seems to be unravelling at alarming speed.

Howlin, now Labour leader, tells Review that the Government's handling of public service pay has been a "disaster".

By Thursday of this week, with the start of a teachers' strike and a garda strike looming for next week, we faced the possibility of schools shutting down for an indefinite period - idle teenagers staying in bed all day or wandering the streets, and calls to gardaí going unanswered in emergencies.

Education Minister Richard Bruton talks to the media about the second-level school strike Photo: Tom Burke
Education Minister Richard Bruton talks to the media about the second-level school strike Photo: Tom Burke

As one seasoned observer of union affairs put: "The idea of gardaí going on strike is historic and unprecedented. We have never seen anything on this scale before."

Some public sector unions, angered by severe wage cuts in the recession, have been emboldened by the large pay rises given to Luas and Dublin bus workers after strikes.

And the sense of grievance has been heightened by a worsening housing crisis, which is making many in low-to-middle income jobs struggle to keep a roof over their heads.

As the teachers took to the picket lines on Thursday, there were familiar gripes from the public about pampered public servants, fat pensions, secure jobs and long holidays.

Pay fight: Orla Quinlan, of Kilkenny, at a teachers' protest outside the Dail earlier this month Photo: Arthur Carron
Pay fight: Orla Quinlan, of Kilkenny, at a teachers' protest outside the Dail earlier this month Photo: Arthur Carron

Other public sector workers such as gardaí and nurses attract more sympathy. Perhaps, deep in our psyche, we all have an unhappy memory of a bad teacher.

According to Government sources, there are much greater concerns about the dispute with the gardaí, and the danger that unrest will spread across the public sector if they cave in, leaving little cash to spend on public services.

Transport Minister Shane Ross Picture: Tom Burke
Transport Minister Shane Ross Picture: Tom Burke

The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation has signalled its intention to take industrial action if bed numbers and services are not cut to match the number of staff available. And the nurses' union has also called for the immediate acceleration of pay and pension restoration.

Junior doctors are also airing their grievances and warn that they could take industrial action if a "living-out allowance", paid to cover accommodation costs, is not restored.

If the crisis worsens, and the contagion of industrial unrest spreads to hospital wards and beyond, there may be attempts by ministers to point the finger of blame elsewhere.

But at least part of the blame lies with the politicians in the government, who heightened expectations of income rises during the election campaign.

Teachers on the picket line at Pobalscoil Neasáin in Baldoyle, Dublin Photo: Mark Condren
Teachers on the picket line at Pobalscoil Neasáin in Baldoyle, Dublin Photo: Mark Condren

In hindsight, we can now see just how disastrous the Fine Gael slogan "Let's keep the recovery going" was.

It not only failed to win the party votes, but according to Bill Roche, Professor of Industrial Relations at UCD, it helped to ramp up the demands of workers in the public service.

"In the run-in to the election, politicians talked up economic recovery and the need to share in it, adding to growing impatience in the public service," Prof Roche tells Review.

Class war: Teachers on the picket line at Pobalscoil Neasáin, Baldoyle, on Thursday. Photo: Mark Condren
Class war: Teachers on the picket line at Pobalscoil Neasáin, Baldoyle, on Thursday. Photo: Mark Condren

Regardless of the botched election campaign, Prof Roche believes that concerns over public service pay were likely to bubble to the surface at some point.

We are now seeing a pent-up fury that has built up since the height of the recession being released.

The crash came as a traumatic blow to public servants, whose financial security seemed rock solid. Until then, wages only seemed to increase. Not long before that, former teachers' union boss Joe O'Toole likened doing a benchmarking deal with the government to "walking up to an ATM machine".

How times have changed. Now, a clerical officer in the civil service starting on little more than €20,000, is barely earning above the minimum wage.

Blair Horan, former general secretary of the Civil, Public and Services Union (CPSU), says: "On €20,000 a year, someone would find it hard to rent in Dublin, never mind buy a house."

Those in the private sector may still look with envy at the security of public sector jobs and the gilt-edged pension, but the cuts in take-home pay for public servants were unprecedented.

Prof Roche says the cuts to public service pay were between 8pc for lower paid workers to 20pc for those on higher salaries.

There was similar trauma in the private sector, of course, but that came mostly through redundancies rather than swingeing pay cuts.

At the peak of the recession in 2009, an estimated 23pc of private firms cut pay, according to Prof Roche, while 34pc cut staff numbers and 29pc cut hours worked.

"Pay cuts, though by no means insignificant, were not pervasive across the private sector, and nothing like the generalised pay cutting experienced in the public sector," says Prof Roche.

The pay affairs of private sector workers do not attract headlines, but provided that their employer is on a sound financial footing, many have quietly received annual pay rises of 1-2pc since 2011. Last year, under Howlin's Lansdowne agreement, it was agreed that public service workers would receive pay rises that will work out at around €2,000 by 2018.

Particularly aggrieved in many of the unions are the younger entrants, whose pay was slashed by 10pc in 2010. Teachers also lost qualification allowances worth up to €5,000 and new gardaí lost rental allowance of €4,000.

As she went on the picket line at Muckross Park College in Dublin, teacher Breda Ryan told Review: "We are striking for justice for lesser paid teachers. It seems to be the only way to force the Government to listen to us."

The Government has offered to restore some of the pay for new entrants as well as allowances for those in some unions, but the deal has been rejected by ASTI and the Garda Representative Association.

While most unions accept the Lansdowne Road deal, including the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI), some groups seemed to have become more radicalised in recent months, and sometimes this militancy has come from unexpected quarters.

Having initially accepted a deal, the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors - hardly a hotbed of Trotskyism - rejected it, taking industrial action in pursuit of a 16pc pay rise.

Horan says there is no particular reason why ASTI and the gardaí should be striking, rather than other public service workers.

"It is hard to put your finger on it and say that the groups that are now going into the frontline are uniquely disadvantaged compared to the rest of the public service."

Horan says in the past, ASTI has tried to make the running ahead of the other teachers' unions.

Critics believe ASTI's strategy has been deeply flawed, and that they should have accepted improvements to pay and conditions, while negotiating a better deal later on. The fact that the teachers are disunited on the issue, with other unions accepting the government deal, makes their case less convincing.

While ASTI militancy is par for the course, Horan says the action by the gardaí is a development that nobody was really expecting.

"I wouldn't like to predict what the outcome will be, because the dynamic can change so much."

There are severe dangers for both sides in these strikes, particularly if they continue for a prolonged period.

As they prepare to strike, gardaí may have a lot of public sympathy, but how long will that last if something goes wrong and there is loss of life?

"I have been involved in difficult disputes where farmers could not sell their cattle, or people couldn't get passports to go on holidays," says Horan. "You have to be prepared to take the flak for it.

"The one thing you can't do is put people's lives at risk - 'life and limb' we call it."

If a disaster happens during a garda strike, there is also a possibility that the Government will be blamed for not settling the dispute. "If the Government decides to tough it out," says Prof Roche, "they will hope that public opinion will turn against the strikers and they will be isolated."

On the other hand, a prolonged period of widespread dispute could create a sense of malaise that permanently tarnishes the image of the Government and makes it look political ineffective.

Prof Roche adds that the Government will want to avoid a situation similar to that in Britain in 1978-1979. In terms of industrial relations, that was the original 'Winter of Discontent'. There was a spate of industrial disputes that brought the country to a standstill with oil tanker drivers, railway workers, rubbish collectors and even gravediggers coming out. The spate of strikes is believed to have contributed to the defeat of Jim Callaghan's Labour government in the 1979 general election. But the outcome was not a happy one for the trade unions, with the election of their nemesis, Margaret Thatcher.

If the Government decides to reach a deal by significant restoration of pay, there is a danger that it will blow a hole in the Lansdowne Road agreement. Other public sector workers would inevitably make similar demands and this would affect government finances.

Education Minister Richard Bruton said this week it would not be fair to conclude sectoral deals with particular groups of public servants to the exclusion of others.

"To do so would also mean that we do not have the money left in the public purse to provide increases in social welfare payments for vulnerable groups, tax reductions for people at work, or investments in improvements in public services."

Most union bosses seem to want to negotiate pay rises through national agreements, covering all public sector workers rather than particular groups.

This week, Bernard Harbor, head of communications with the union Impact, said it was unacceptable that some groups of public servants would be favoured with accelerated pay increases at the expense of the rest.

It remains to be seen if Minister Donohoe is up to the job of dampening down industrial unrest, while at the same time keeping a lid on public service pay demands.

The public mood was not helped by the choreography at the time of the Budget, when it emerged that TDs would get a €5,000 pay rise, and ministers would also receive substantial hikes. The Government had to backtrack and announce that ministerial pay would be frozen.

Critics of the Government wonder whether Labour's involvement in the last administration gave them a better handle on public service pay.

As a Labour minister, Howlin had better lines of communication and contacts in the unions. In government from 2011, he pushed through some of the most extensive cuts to public service pay ever implemented.

"There is no doubt that my familiarity with the trade union movement and its leaders was an important part of building trust for an agreement," says Howlin. "I kept in touch with them constantly."

He adds that this Government does not have the same feel for dealing with unions. The Labour leader argues that the issue of public service pay was mishandled by this Government from the start.

"Shortly after the election, the Government should have invited the public sector unions in for a co-ordinated discussion about a new pay agreement, so that they didn't allow powerful unions to make the running.

"This would continue the payback to the public servants in an orderly and affordable way."

According to Howlin, the Government is involved in bi-­lateral discussions with individual groups. If there is any leeway given, there will be a disorderly queue of others making demands.

For the Government, the stakes are huge as we face into a Winter of Discontent. Howlin says he's been told by a senior minister that if the Lansdowne Road pay deal collapses, as unions ramp up pay demands, the Government will collapse with it within two or three days.

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