Sunday 15 September 2019

'Copper-fastened' deal all comes down to the nuts and bolts

The cracks are beginning to show already in the Croke Park agreement, writes Emer O'Kelly

There's a nice, copper-fastened deal, apparently. And it's full steam ahead. The Croke Park deal on public service pay and pensions has been ratified by the Public Services Committee of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions. Well, nearly. Well, sort of. Well, just about.

The workers within the public service, reluctantly, but in the interests of the national welfare and good fellowship with the vast numbers of unemployed in the private sector who had no guarantee of a job for life, have taken on board the logic as put forward by the broker of that deal, Kieran Mulvey, and have bowed to the force of his logic and that of the trade union leaders who have accepted that the price of national recovery will be painful and long-term. Well, some of them. Well, a few of the leaders. Well, about two thirds of the workers in the public service. Actually, 65.8 per cent of them.

Copper-fastened indeed. But then, there'll be an Implementation Body set up to oversee the deal in action over the next couple of years. And naturally, the brokers of the Croke Park deal weren't stupid enough not to set down in stone the terms for that Implementation Body, and its membership, all decided and, well, copper-fastened, before the deal was put to the vote among the membership of the unions. Kind of. The terms provide for representation from public service employees and management only. Except that a lot of what will happen will inevitably have a follow-on effect in the private sector.

And guess what? Ibec is kicking up hell (very politely, of course) because it wants representation (which hasn't been mentioned, much less agreed) on a body whose work will probably have a huge impact on work and conditions across the board. And, of course, on wages. And even in the boom times, Ibec spent its time bitching about the inability of industry to pay, sometimes even the minimum wage. So how its members will react to the implementation of a deal which envisages, in terrible times, no further pay reductions, indeed a reversal of the current reductions, can only be imagined.

It's envisaged under the terms of the deal that the savings and reforms to be introduced in the public service will allow the employer, ie the Government, to give back the same amount to the workers: roughly the €2bn pulled out of their pay packets by means of the pension levy and salary cuts. But that's only if there's a considerable staff reduction from the top-heavy current number of 300,000 employees paid out of the public purse. And the remaining workers are guaranteed that there will be no further pay cuts at least until 2014.

But the rub lies in the clause in the agreement which promises no compulsory redundancies. So every one of those 300,000 public service employees is entitled to sit tight and refuse to walk. And given that the Government has undertaken to reverse the pay cuts if there are verifiable savings, starting with those earning less than €35,000 per year, can't you see most of them hanging in there and waiting for the good times? Because nobody has spelled out the meaning of "verifiable". And you can bet your bottom euro (it's probably the only one in your pocket right now if you're unemployed or working in the private sector) that the Congress interpretation of "verifiable" will differ significantly from the Government's, leading to another unholy row. And it won't be the first.

Peter McLoone, the chairman of the Public Services Committee of Congress, in announcing the ratification of the Croke Park deal, saw fit to set the standard with inflammatory and truculent language: the Taoiseach, he said, needed to "get off his backside" to ensure that managers who operated like "islands" implemented the terms of the agreement. Dead right, despite the unparliamentary language. But you'd forgive Brian Cowen if he replied that Mr McLoone might try getting off his own backside to tell his dissenting unions that this is supposed to be a democratic society, and it is grossly unacceptable for them to say they will not co-operate with the agreement, whatever the outcome of the majority vote. Mr Cowen would be within his rights, even though most of us would agree with Peter McLoone that he does need to get off his backside in more areas than the implementation of the Croke Park agreement.

The anti-democratic charge, with its potential to scupper the agreement, has been led by the Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI) and the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT). It's hard to believe that the men and women entrusted with the educational formation of many of our citizens at second level, and all of our citizens at university level, can behave in such an unprincipled fashion. At least, it's hard to believe of the IFUT; we're used to the outrageously selfish impropriety of teachers at primary and secondary level. But how uneasy does it make you feel to envisage the intellectual elite of the country being taught ethics, philosophy, and particularly, politics, by people who refuse to abide by a democratic, if reluctant, vote?

And that is what these two unions have done: they have said that they will not accept a ratification of the agreement, come what may. Nineteen unions affiliated to the Public Services Committee of Congress voted on the Croke Park deal; nine of them rejected it, (including the nurses, whose leadership has been at the forefront of militancy) but were and are prepared to abide by the majority decision. It was left to two of the teaching unions to reject democracy. Admittedly, it's believed that the TUI will move to industrial action only if the Government attempts to revamp teachers' contracts. But many people would be of the opinion that those contracts should be the first target of Government in any attempt to reduce and rationalise the public service, and this would probably bring the whole agreement tumbling around our ears.

In addition, both Unite and the Civil, Public and Services Union, who were the two largest unions to reject the agreement, have refused to say they will be bound by ratification, and will convene their executives shortly to discuss the outcome of the Congress ballot.

It's less than a week since Congress completed its procedures and ratified the Croke Park deal. Already, the holes through which it can start to leak are clearly visible. In fact, it's possible to wonder if it's worth the paper it's written on. And it's also possible to wonder gloomily if it wasn't all a waste of time and money, achieving a ridiculously low common denominator of agreement, and ignoring the awkward factors which everyone concerned knew would scupper it when self-interest kicked in, as it always does.

Sunday Independent

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