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Martin Frawley: Despite voting down Croke Park, unions' position remains weak

TRADE unions are facing the possibility of losing their collective negotiating rights following their shock rejection of Croke Park II.

The reality is that if a compromise proves impossible and the Government imposes pay cuts, then any future government would be extremely reluctant to get into protracted negotiations with a fractious trade union movement when it can simply impose pay cuts.

And if some of the more militant 'No' unions believe a government with Labour in it would never contemplate such an anti-union move, there are plenty in Fine Gael who would have no such qualms about softening the unions' cough.

As one senior union negotiator warned while advocating a Yes vote: "They did it before and they can do it again."

While initially the bigger unions, such as SIPTU and IMPACT, entered talks on Croke Park II to take the edges off the Government's more extreme demands, the longer-term strategic rationale was to stave off legislation and maintain their collective negotiating rights.

"We should at least try to pick a time and place when we wouldn't have to take on the entire European establishment, as well our own," said SIPTU president Jack O'Connor, when recommending that his 63,000 public sector members accept the medicine for now.

Defending his stand after his members had voted 53.7pc against his advice, Mr O'Connor said he made a judgement that it was the best approach in the circumstances, in order to avoid redundancies, compulsory redeployment up to 100km from the workplace and widescale outsourcing.

These previously unthinkable proposals for the trade unions were all top of the Government's agenda under Croke Park II. And the unions were told in no uncertain terms that if the deal went south, then they would end up back on the table.

Both SIPTU and IMPACT believed this was no idle threat and set about limiting the damage.

Mr O'Connor added that the Government had "other unstated objectives" which would loom large if the deal was rejected.

But this was a very unpalatable message to public sector workers, who have seen their pay cut by an average of 14pc over the last three years, with the prospect of more to come.

If Mr O'Connor and IMPACT's Shay Cody were looking around the corner, their members were staring austerity in the face and they said: "No more."

The unions' room to manoeuvre now is very limited and, critically, it depends on the Government's approach. Already a shell-shocked Brendan Howlin and a much calmer Enda Kenny have said they still have to save €300m this year from the public service pay bill.

While renegotiation or 'tweaking' of the deal has been mooted, it will be extremely difficult to secure the same €300m savings this year while turning around a decisive vote against Croke Park II.

Those unions that campaigned against Croke Park II – the nurses' union, the INMO, the doctors union, the IMO, UNITE and the CPSU – having won what they see as a victory against the Government, are hardly going to lie down next time.

And this exposes another problem for the unions – a potential split that was masked by yesterday's vote at the ICTU.

Had just 2,000 of the 63,000 SIPTU members voted the other way, it would have voted Yes and the overall ICTU vote would have been just over 51pc in favour.

Most of the 'No' unions had said before the ICTU vote that they would not be bound by an aggregate ICTU vote. This fault line in ICTU is likely to resurface if, as threatened, the unions engage in industrial action if the Government moves to impose pay cuts.

Jimmy Kelly of UNITE, and even Jack O'Connor, have said that while they would prefer the consensual rather than the confrontational route, they have the financial muscle to fight if needs be.

But it is one thing to thump the table, it is another to ask your members to engage in what could be a lengthy and costly campaign of industrial action without any guarantee of success.

For those unions who campaigned for a Yes vote, it is questionable whether they would engage fully with the 'No' unions in a campaign against the Government which Mr O'Connor has already said is likely to lead to "mutually assured destruction".

Having spurned Mr O'Connor's advice to run away and live to fight another day, the troops are hanging around the battlefield, waiting to see what comes next over the hill.

Martin Frawley is a journalist who specialises in industrial relations.

Irish Independent