Monday 19 August 2019

Anne-Marie Walsh: 'Stretching the definition of industrial peace as the bills go up'


(Stock photo)
(Stock photo)

Anne-Marie Walsh

Taxpayers may well question the value they're getting for the €1.1bn being forked out under the current three-year pay deal between this Government and its workers.

In return for this hefty sum funding wage hikes for public servants until the end of 2020, they were promised industrial peace. But it's not exactly been a no-strike zone.

Following an unprecedented strike threat by the guards that preceded this deal, 40,000 nurses began a series of crippling stoppages earlier this year. The Government is still embroiled in a row with psychiatric nurses who also threatened strikes, and more recently began an overtime ban.

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Next week, the Labour Court is likely to issue a recommendation to end a bust-up with 10,000 hospital support staff who took to the pickets recently for pay hikes due under a job evaluation scheme.

Apart from the obvious stretching of the industrial peace clause in the so-called Public Service Stability Agreement, the amount originally committed to the pay bill has long been surpassed.

It cost €50m to pull gardaí back from the brink of what was seen by some as a mutinous strike - plus the €120m knock-on cost to appease the rest of the workforce.

The nurses' more recent deal is worth well in excess of €35m a year and there was also a €200m deal to bring new entrants' pay back to pre-crash levels. The psychiatric nurses and support staff rows will push costs up too.

Kevin Callinan, who took the reins of the largest public sector union this summer, says the deal is unravelling, but you could say it's already in tatters.

It's easy to forget that under the agreement as it stands, there's another 1.75pc across-the-board pay rise due next month. This will be followed by 2pc in October next year.

But Mr Callinan may be about to present the Government with one of its biggest bills to date on behalf of those who played by the rules but saw others get a "reward" for doing their own thing.

He refused to be specific about what will restore confidence in the agreement, in terms of hard cash. So far, a demand has not been tabled by the unions' Public Services Committee powerbrokers with Department of Expenditure officials for an adjustment of some sort in the next budget.

No doubt, if it applies to the 300,000-plus workforce it's not going to be cheap. Mr Callinan argues that increases are justified as the economy is flying, inflation is rising, and private sector pay deals are outstripping the public sector's.

The biggest elephant in the room is the dark shadow of Brexit, less than three months away. But this seismic event also presents an advantage from the union view.

Mr Callinan is aware that the Government will not want to abandon the collective bargaining setup if the economy hits the rocks. Whatever its choppy industrial relations record to date, the Government will not relish the threat of pay anarchy while dealing with the fallout from Brexit and keeping an eye on an upcoming election.

Irish Independent

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