Forget pay rises, the unions should be focusing on winning greater job satisfaction for the workers
Whenever I mention in public that I feel reasonably rich, there is always a swift intake of breath - it is taboo to say such a thing because it comes across as arrogant and smug.
But just because I feel sufficiently wealthy doesn't mean that I'm a millionaire; I don't have any health insurance, I don't have a pension, I drive a 13-year-old car and I have gone on two holidays in the last 10 years - we went to London last summer and we did a house swap in France about five years ago.
On the other hand, I live in a nice house, in a lovely town, I can afford the luxury of having a cleaner and I enjoy my work, so it is for these reasons that I feel content with my lot.
But feeling rich is a very subjective experience; my husband thinks we're paupers and he laughs derisively when I say that I think we're rich.
Equally, a friend of mine recently cancelled a proposed night out because she was too strapped for cash. I couldn't help but question her - both she and her husband work as teachers and so I couldn't understand why she felt so poor. It was only then that the extraordinary differences in our spending habits emerged. Unlike me, my friend has top-notch health insurance, she has a college fund for the kids and she has a holiday fund to which she contributes regularly so that the family can go away every year. She has already been to Disneyland Paris with the kids and they are going to Disney in Florida next year (whereas when my kids plaintively asked me if they could go to Disneyland Paris one day, I burst out laughing).
We all choose to spend our money in different ways and so my friend is horrified that I would throw my money away on a cleaner when I could just as easily do it myself.
The choice about how we live our lives is the key reason why myself and my friend can have a good-natured debate about our spending habits - we are both happy enough with our choices and so we don't feel the need to tear each other limb from limb.
To have good psychological health, humans need to feel that they have some choice about how they spend their lives. Sadly, in my work as a psychotherapist, I often meet clients who hate their jobs in the public sector and who feel utterly trapped by financial constraints. These hardworking individuals can't face leaving their jobs because the money is too good and the pension is much too good. Workers in the private sector are far more willing to move jobs if they find the job depressing because they don't have the same "golden handcuffs" that force many public servants to choose security over happiness. This is why I believe that the union leaders are entirely misguided by their determination to get more money for their members.
If the union leaders weren't so obsessed with money, they could actually do what they are meant to do and work to benefit the working conditions of the workers; not with more money nor by striving to create ostensibly equitable pay scales but by providing a more satisfying working day. Instead, the union leaders' intransigent, narrow-minded obsession with money has created the dysfunctional situation whereby public servants are demanding to be financially compensated for their miserable jobs instead of campaigning for a better working life.
Trade unions were originally established with the noble aim of supporting exploited workers but, even with the current cuts in salaries, the OECD shows us that Irish teachers are among the best paid in the world, while the pay scale for gardaí is perfectly in line with rest of Europe. So gardaí and teachers can hardly argue that they can be described as poor, exploited workers who need more money.
Indeed, the only reason why gardaí and teachers feel poor these days is because of the infamous property market. If we can focus minds on controlling the lunatic property market, then this problem will disappear.
The perceived equity and security of a job in the public sector has also led workers to believe that they are being unfairly treated. Just like the sibling who is told that they can't have the same pocket money as their older sister - the teachers are yelling, 'It's not fair!'
But the truth is that nothing in this life is fair and bleating on about fairness only makes public servants come across as petulant and immature. It's not fair that some people have the opportunity to study to become a teacher while others don't. It's not fair that some kids are privileged enough to have parents who are willing to pay for grinds to ensure they get enough points to go to third-level while other kids are left to fend for themselves. Life is very unfair and it's sophistry to pretend otherwise.
Everyone supports the concept of a good transport system, an effective police force, a good education system and an improved health system. However, throwing more money at public servants' wages hasn't yet proved to be helpful. When benchmarking was introduced, we didn't see a marked increase of happier public servants; indeed the complaints continued unabated.
Union leaders aren't supposed to be fumbling in the greasy till or adding the half-pence to the pound.
The union leaders allowed the current working lives of gardaí, teachers, nurses and doctors to become untenable as they were too busy arguing about pay scales to focus on the rest of their job. The average working day of public servants is so filled with petty considerations, tedious frustration and toxic hostility that job satisfaction has pretty much gone out the window in these vocations.
The false promise of consumerism has led to chronic dissatisfaction among public-sector workers but the reality of progressive reforms, better resources and more autonomy within the public sector could actually lead to more satisfied workers.
Of course, this won't happen today or tomorrow but the long road of recovery from consumerism could start today with union leaders taking the first step and realising that they have a problem.