Monday 22 July 2019

Public servants don't have a divine right to automatically share the fruits of a recovery

Public sector strikes have demonstrated unions' muscle
Public sector strikes have demonstrated unions' muscle
Eddie Molloy

Eddie Molloy

A new term has entered the lexicon of industrial relations, "pay restoration talks". First coined by Jack O'Connor, I believe, repeated by other trade union officials and now being adopted by some politicians, the concept is loaded with a sense of entitlement to the first fruits of economic recovery.

With a general election in the air the unions, with exquisite timing, are demanding that the Government delivers on promises made, while under duress with their backs were to the wall, to restore public service wage cuts and remove the imposed pension levy whenever the economy recovered. "It's payback time," they demand.

The fact that politicians of all parties and even some ministers are already adopting this storyline is unsettling.

Throughout the crisis, as always, the trade unions made it abundantly clear that their priority was to get the best deal for their members, usually adding , "and we make no apology for it".

That's fine and good luck to them, but their pretensions about promoting fairness went out the window when, for example, unionised teachers took the lion's share of the limited funds available at the negotiating table, pulled up the drawbridge and left newly-qualified, but as yet un-unionised, teachers out in the cold with no option but to accept much lower entry salaries.

Low-paid, un-unionised special needs assistants were left out in the cold and their numbers were severely cut.

Though it will be tempting for political parties, especially government parties, to pander to this "pay restoration" agenda, some perspective needs be brought to bear on any negotiations.

First and foremost, "public services restoration" has to be the priority.

There are 400,000 people on hospital waiting lists and staffing in many parts of the health service are at unsafe levels.

Voluntary bodies who provide vital services to disabled people have had their budgets slashed by 50pc.

Countless services, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable, were cut to the bone. Funding for third-level education is in crisis and we need to invest in housing, water and broadband.

In so many instances, as when setting up the HSE and more recently in the negotiations with unions regarding Irish Water, the Government seems to lose sight of its responsibility to govern for all, as distinct from its role as an employer trying to cut a pay deal with their staff.

The industrial muscle of the unions extracts generous deals that ultimately the general public has to pay for. One reason our electricity bills are so high is that for decades the ESB unions could use their monopoly position to secure such pay deals that prompted Brendan Ogle to tell them that they were in gravy.

One suggestion being floated is that the public service pension levy be dropped. This hardly makes sense given that the levy goes nowhere near funding the pensions due and that the bigger picture of the State's pension liability dwarfs the cost of bailing out the banks and the current national debt combined.

The levy should be left in place as a start to fill this black hole and to create more equity between public and private sector pensions.

While there is a case for some targeted pay increases, for example for the lowest-paid public servants and to attract people into vital medical and other posts, a much more comprehensive and fundamental framework is required before there is any across-the-board "pay restoration". Genuine benchmarking, unlike the charade that was carried out in the early 2000s, is called for.

It is high time that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, together with the CSO, ESRI and other agencies, produced all the facts that would permit indisputable comparisons between public and private sectors in Ireland and between Ireland and its OECD peers.

Comparisons that exclude pensions and other entitlements are meaningless. This is why the documentation that purported to justify the benchmarking pay increases was destroyed. It would not bear public scrutiny.

The unions argue that boosting pay will contribute to further growth in the domestic economy. Employing staff to fill gaps in threadbare services and build needed houses will do even more, by reducing dole queues and getting people back to work and paying tax.

Public servants are not entitled, as if by right, to the first fruits of the recovery. Deliberations about public service pay have got to transcend the narrow, self-serving "pay restoration" agenda of their powerful unions.

In the interest of fairness to those who took the biggest hits during the recession and the wider needs of the economy and society, not least the need to maintain high-quality public services, a broader, more inclusive perspective is called for.

The deliberations must be open to public scrutiny and must deal in facts, the full facts.

Irish Independent

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