Siptu boss has gone for jugular on pay talks - and it's totally reckless
As president of Siptu, Jack O'Connor, on behalf of his members, has threatened the Government that unless a decision is made within a week to begin talks by February to accelerate "pay restoration" for public servants, he will ballot his members on strike action.
His comments were echoed by Patricia King, general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, who said this initiative had to begin "immediately". In the background, their political mentor, Labour leader Brendan Howlin, spelt out what they have in mind, "a process that will ensure that the pay of every public servant is restored to where it was before the crisis".
These demands are belligerent, opportunistic, predatory, reckless, and grasping and, for organisations that like to characterise themselves as interested in social justice and who purport to identify with the political left, they reflect disregard for the plight of the most disadvantaged people in our society.
Can anyone remember such an aggressive ultimatum: a ballot for strike action unless our democratically elected Government bends to the will of Siptu within 10 days, not on a matter of substance, mind you - such as the terms of a new pay deal - but merely on failing to get talks under way according to its timetable?
When Robert Short suggested to Mr O'Connor in an RTÉ radio interview that he should wait until the newly established Public Service Pay Commission reports in June 2017, he said he knew nothing about the Commission and dismissed it as irrelevant. It is, of course, highly relevant because the Commission will likely address a number of matters that may present difficulties for Siptu, such as the disparity between the fully-loaded pay, pensions, allowances, job security and working conditions of public servants and those of private sector workers. With so much to consider, the Commission will be hard put to submit a thorough picture by June 2017 but this timing would not suit Siptu's strategy.
Here is how it works: In the spring of 2014, when the first green shoots of recovery appeared, Mr O'Connor started to call for "pay restoration", sentiments echoed by Mr Howlin at the time. By April 2015, the Lansdowne Road Agreement had guaranteed the first down payment on "pay restoration" in the October 2015 budget. The pay-off from this pre-emptive move was that 30 to 40pc of the available "fiscal space" was already in the bag six months before an additional penny was allocated to dealing with homelessness, just for example.
Right now a similar sequence would suit public service unions: get the deal done ahead of the posse, say by April, and sit tight while, for example, €22m is cut from the €35m promised pre-budget to address the 20pc shortage of staff in our mental health services, as happened just before the recent budget.
In securing the first slice of available money before anyone else gets a look in, the Siptu strategy is cleverly opportunistic and grasping, "taking for themselves whatever little resources we have", as John Moran, former secretary general of the Department of Finance, expressed it in the 'Sunday Business Post' at the weekend.
The strategy is also predatory in its timing and ferocity. Seeing an already weak Government, further weakened by forced concessions to gardaí and the transport sector, Siptu has gone for the jugular. Do what we say, or else.
Demands for "accelerated pay restoration" are reckless. Mr Moran says that unfair demands of public service unions will "wreck the country's finances". He sees the economic recovery as losing momentum and public finances ''teetering on a new precipice'' because of challenges facing the country from outside shocks, though the bigger threat is from these extravagant demands from within.
When challenged in the Robert Short interview whether more caution was needed in the light of Brexit and other potential shocks, Mr O'Connor listed all the positives about our economic performance, such as the fall in unemployment numbers and buoyant consumer spending, arguing that every pay agreement has to reflect the particular circumstances at the time. He cited as an example cuts to pay when the public finances collapsed eight years ago. However, now that things are flying again he says there is no point "speculating" about possible troubles down the road. Echoes of Charlie McCreevy's "while I have it, I spend it". The impact of Brexit is no longer a matter of speculation. Ask the workers who lost their jobs in the mushroom industry because they couldn't take 18 to 20pc out of their costs overnight in order to save their contracts with UK supermarkets.
Paradoxically, there is credit due to Mr O'Connor in that his intervention is designed to forestall a free-for-all with one union after another following the example of Luas drivers, the Garda Representative Association and ASTI in holding the Government to ransom until they get their way.
He is correct about the urgent need for a process that will prevent a descent into chaos, a mere decade after the last catastrophe. The remit of the Commission and any subsequent agreement, however, simply cannot be to enable "accelerated pay restoration...back to where it was before the crisis".
The challenge for Government is to recalibrate public service pay, resetting pay levels so that they are fair when compared to relevant local and international benchmarks and sufficiently competitive to attract vital expertise. Reverting to the unsustainable levels that were obtained before the crisis, levels that were founded on the earlier, highly questionable, benchmarking process, is not tenable.
This process must, above all, be inclusive, to guard against powerful public service unions gaining an unfair advantage over less powerful and at least equally deserving groups. As Mr Moran puts it: "If we let them (gain unfair advantage), other more deserving people who can't ransom us with threatened industrial action will pay the price. Or we will borrow to buy everyone off. This will wreck our finances."
One of the main reasons we find ourselves heading for another crisis has been the Government's failure to manage expectations, and the blatant populism of Opposition spokesmen seeking to ingratiate themselves with public servants. On this complex subject, the next few months will test the integrity and regard for the public interest of all parties and independents.