Monday 20 January 2020

Rolling back 25 years to public versus private sector conflicts

Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe speaking to the media yesterday Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe speaking to the media yesterday Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
John Downing

John Downing

When his career was on the rise, Bertie Ahern was seen as a 'Mr Strike-fixer'. The future Taoiseach, and eventual national anti-hero, had an adept conciliator's touch which he deftly deployed to help fix big and intractable disputes, including the ESB and Dublin Fire Brigade rows amongst others, during his term as Labour Minister from March 1987 until February 1992.

The ironic side of things was that his colleague in the Finance Department for some of that time, Ray MacSharry, aka 'Mac the Knife', notorious for his public sector cutback regime, was less sure about "the Bert's heroics".

Just as MacSharry had his account books looking half-way straight, he had to find some extra money to fund public sector settlements. But the battered Irish economy stumbled its way along.

Looking back at those days now, we seem to be looking upon our own futures. This week, the Dublin Bus drivers emerged with 11.25pc pay rises over the next three years, after a series of damaging one-day strikes, emulating their Luas colleagues, leading us all to think nationwide transport crews in Bus Éireann and Iarnród Éireann are not too far behind in that queue.

And this week also, the gardaí abruptly upset what seemed to be an almost-done deal on restoring pay, and announced that they were "withdrawing service" on four consecutive Fridays next month. That's not just a pay dispute - it is a move by rank-and-file members of An Garda Síochána to assert their fuller trade union rights.

It is unfinished business which reaches back to the 1960s, and specifically the 'Macushla Revolt' of November 1961, when young gardaí first made a big bid for better pay.

The current Garda dispute is mirrored by a similar stance being taken by nurses. As TDs and senators returned to Leinster House this week they were met by hundreds of young nurses.

These nurses were protesting that those who graduated between 2011 and 2015 got a raw deal on pay. They are looking for parity with colleagues.

Add in the secondary teachers from the ASTI who are at war on two fronts with the Education Department. Again, this is about pay parity for newly qualified teachers, recruited on a lower rate. The ASTI has a separate row about implementing the new Junior Certificate system of ongoing assessment.

With the gardaí, nurses and teachers taking up the cudgels, it is not hard to imagine a chain reaction across the public sector. The Government is on a dangerous corner and rows over the Budget on Tuesday week are suddenly trivial indeed.

Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe will be severely tested here. He sets a lot of store by his Public Sector Pay Commission. But he may need more comprehensive industrial relations structures to manage the struggles which are coming quickly upon us all.

The garda situation is compounded by similar militancy among the sergeants and inspectors in the AGSI. There is also the danger of this one becoming a dangerous row within a row.

It is technically illegal for the rank-and-file leadership in the Garda Representative Association to induce the 10,500 membership to effectively go on strike. But the prospects of returning to scenes reminiscent of the Macushla Ballroom meeting of 55 years ago, where senior officers noted names for future disciplining of junior gardaí attending a union rally, are completely unthinkable.

We need talks about garda pay which encompass the issue of union rights. Gardaí certainly are a special category of worker. But creative ways must be found of addressing their constitutional rights in the workplace.

Gardaí and nurses, though not so much the teachers, have a deal of public empathy behind them as they ramp up their struggles. Policing the world over involves a 'Faustian Pact' whereby citizens allow themselves be coerced to a degree by the police in return for the greater good of law and order.

Gardaí will never be universally popular because they have an invidious role to fulfil. But they do enjoy a relatively high level of respect and regard.

Few of us want poorly paid police officers, it opens doors to some sinister places inimical to societal well-being. Anyone who was recently ill, or had someone close to them in that unenviable position, will be sympathetic to the nurses' case.

But moving to other sections of the public sector, and we are quickly at the doors of antipathy between public and private workers. In the 1980s and 1990s private sector workers were frequently irked by the level of tolerance extended to trade unionists in State and semi-State jobs.

Private sector workers will often argue that public sector workers have to see their longer-term job security and pensions as a trade-off for sometimes lower rates of pay.

There has also been a certain see-saw effect in how public and private sectors were perceived. In the really roaring days of the dreaded Celtic Tiger, it was difficult to recruit people to the public sector. The high-flying brats in technology and finance were the envied ones.

When the crash happened in autumn 2008, the permanent and pensionable ones were seen as the far better fixed, even with reduced pay and perks.

In the struggles to come, the challenge for politicians and union leaders will be to manage this innate public versus private spleen.

Now that's a conflict utterly no good can come of.

Irish Independent

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