Unions are as greedy as any banker
Public sector unions are not equal partners in running the country and they need to be faced down now, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
IF IRISH trade unions were as good at thinking of ways out of the current economic mess as they are at covering their own asses, the country would be out of the woods in no time.
The recent mass protests in Dublin were a classic example of this strategic genius being put to the wrong use. Originally planned by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions as a concentrated protest against the imposition of the pensions levy on public sector workers, Ictu then decided to broaden it out into a generalised cry of discontent against the Government's handling of the economy.
Personally, I wouldn't go to any event organised by unions even if they were handing out free money, but with the latest opinion polls putting satisfaction with the Fianna Fail-led administration at a mere 10 per cent, the result was predictably impressive: tens of thousands of angry voters thronging the streets, all of whom the unions could then claim to be right behind their cause. It was like hiding behind a human shield in wartime.
The outcome would have been less newsworthy if they'd had the honesty to invite the Irish people along to a demo under the banner: 'Pay for our own pensions? Are you nuts? We'd rather get the rest of you suckers out there to cough up instead, even if it does bankrupt the country'.
Look at last Thursday's one-day stoppage by the Civil Public and Services Union, which closed down social welfare offices across the country. Strikers organised a picket line outside the Dail, but it was clear from the pictures on the Six One News later that this had failed to spark off a workers' revolution across the capital. In fact, the protest looked more sparsely populated than Ireland's Eye in the middle of December, and the air was noticeably free of supportive beeps on the horn from passing motorists.
A series of follow-up regional protests have also been planned, and it's unlikely they'll be any more awe-inspiring. The reason isn't hard to find. On the evening of the strike, I asked an acquaintance whose politics would be much more attuned to liberal consensus than mine whether he had any sympathy for public sector workers. He did not.
As far as he could see, they paid a little bit of their salary in return for very generous pension arrangements, were now being asked to pay a bit more, and, well, that was it. Where was the scandal in that?
Public sector workers genuinely do not get this, and the union leaders, who do get it because they know how bad things are, aren't in the mood to tell it to them straight, preferring instead to retreat into a fantasy world where all can be solved by whipping up crowds with rhetorical denunciations of bankers, as if that's going to solve anything.
That was obvious from the words of one striker spoken to by RTE, who declared: "Why should we carry the can for the whole of society?"
The short answer is: You're not. You're being asked to pay more for your own pensions. And if you still want to know why you have to, here's another short answer: because the rest of us can't afford to do it, even in the unlikely event that we wanted to.
Which bit of this are they not understanding? Most of us out here in the private sector don't even have pensions, certainly not pensions which guarantee vast returns for relatively small investments, which is what the public sector unions have wangled on behalf of their members. The only assets we have to protect ourselves in the future are our houses, and they're currently worthless. As for job security, forget it. If this is what they call carrying the can, then where are the cans? We'd all like to be carrying one of those.
BBC Radio Four's Thinking Allowed last week looked at research which has been conducted on the effects of economic recession on the physical and mental health of the population. A couple of interesting points emerged. One, which backs up what the public sector unions are saying, is that people generally feel better in a recession if they see the wealthy suffering too. That's why, politically, the banking class needs to start feeling some pain. It may only be symbolic, because it won't make much difference to the financial state of the nation either way, but symbols matter. Ictu is right about that.
Where they're dead wrong was revealed in the second point to come out of the available research, which was that, whilst those hit by recession die younger, have poorer health in the meantime, and are at greater risk of depression, 80 per cent of that has nothing to do with the reduction in income. People can manage on less money. What cuts them to the core is the feeling of rejection and worthlessness that comes from losing their livelihood.
It couldn't be more stark: those who ride out the recession in the best shape are those who keep their jobs. And who is it in Irish society whose jobs are safest? In fact, what is the only group of people in Ireland whose jobs will be safe throughout the coming maelstrom?
Public sector workers, though, have been seduced by the siren song of the unions into taking on a poisonous cult of victimhood which is totally at variance with the facts and which serves no purpose other than to stir up insatiable discontent.
Like others on the Left, trade unionists invariably present themselves as being in the vanguard of some progressive movement, whereas in truth they are among the most regressive and conservative forces in society. They don't want change. They're all right, Jack. They want the boat unrocked, and if others get hurt in the process, that's their lookout.
So it was last week when the civil servants went on strike, leading to inevitable delays in the processing of claims for social welfare from people in desperate need.
Trade unionists are as greedy and self-centred as any investment broker. The difference is, the financial whizz kids don't go around pretending they have the good of society at heart. Unions might like to think they are blameless in what went wrong, but it wasn't only banks lining their pockets with the profits of the Celtic Tiger. Public sector unions, through social partnership, took a huge slice of that cake for themselves.
It was this cosy social partnership which encouraged them to think they were equal partners in running the country, in the same way that British unions in the Eighties had practically pumped themselves up as some form of alternative government. They needed to be faced down then, and Irish unions need to be faced down now. Enda Kenny leaving the Dail to show support to the strikers last week was just about the worst signal he could have sent.
A majority in the polls want an election right now, and if he wins it, the Fine Gael leader can't possibly believe he'll get far by sucking up to the public sector unions.
Or, secretly, does he not really believe he'll ever have to make those tough decisions because he'll only ever be a leader of the opposition at heart?