Public Service deal - the battle lines are drawn


With the National Executive of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation coming out unanimously against the Public Service deal and the NEC of SIPTU advocating a yes vote, the battle lines are well and truly drawn.  The next few weeks will see an intense debate in the trade union movement on this deal, and the threats of what will happen to us if we don't comply are already coming thick and heavy from government ministers such as Mary Harney and Brian Lenihan.

Below is a commentary on the deal from my perspective.  I have been an activist in the Irish National Teachers Organisation for many years and am currently Chairperson of District XIV (which comprises Dublin City North and West Liffey branches) and am a member of the INTO Vote No campaign.  I am writing here in a personal capacity.

There are a host of reasons why the ‘Public Sector Agreement 2010 – 2014’ deal should be rejected by teachers. A leaflet distributed by the INTOvoteno campaign at that union’s annual Congress in Galway last week outlined these reasons. This leaflet, and these arguments, will be distributed widely among INTO members by the INTOvoteno campaign when the deal goes to a ballot of the union membership over the coming weeks.

Despite a huge effort by the union’s leadership at annual Congress, they were unable to receive anything approaching an overwhelming backing for their position of recommending acceptance of the deal. Indeed a motion calling on the union to recommend rejection of the deal was only lost by a mere 4 votes – 308 to 304. So the union remains split down the middle and when this is taken in conjunction with the overwhelming rejection of the deal by ASTI and TUI delegates at their annual conferences, it seems certain that there is at least a strong likelihood that the deal will be rejected by teachers.

By accepting the deal, teachers would be accepting
• a longer working week – teachers will be expected to work an extra hour a week for “…at the discretion of management, school planning, continuous professional development, induction, substitution and supervision (including supervision immediately before and after school times). This list is not exhaustive
• a completely re-written teaching contract - the deal will commit teachers to accept the as yet unknown outcome of a “comprehensive review and revision of the teaching contract…to be completed in advance of the start of the 2010/11 school year”
• a worsened pension for new teachers – again we will be committed to accepting the as yet unknown outcome of “consultations” on pension changes “in time for legislation to be enacted to allow for the introduction of the scheme on 1 January 2011”
• an end to pension parity – the current situation whereby pensions are calculated on parity with pay will end and “discussions will take place on the method of determining pension increases for existing public service pensioners and current public servants…”
• a continuation of the moratorium on promoted posts – the deal states that the moratorium on promoted posts will stay in place “until numbers...have fallen to the appropriate level specified…” While the deal does not specify an “appropriate level” we can be certain that posts already lost will not be replaced and that for the foreseeable future the moratorium will remain in place.
• increments will be tied to ‘performance management’ - Payment of increments will be dependent on reaching unspecified ‘performance management’ targets
• The pay cut imposed in the December 2009 budget will remain in place until at least sometime in 2012. Even then there are no guarantees that there will be any restoration of pay. An “Implementation Body” will verify whether vague and unspecified “sufficient savings” have been identified but there is no commitment that any or all of these savings will actually be used to reverse the pay cuts. The “priority” which will be given to “public servants with pay rates of €35,000 or less” by the Implementation Body’s Spring 2011 “review” must be seen in this context. Attempts to sell this deal as being weighted in favour of the low-paid are thus meaningless.
• The pension levy will remain in place
• The income and health levies will remain in place
• The principals’ benchmarking award will remain unpaid
• Pay increases due in 2009 under ‘Towards 2016, Transitional Agreement’ will remain unpaid
• “No cost-increasing claims…for improvements in pay or conditions of employment…” can be made during the lifetime of the deal (i.e. before December 2014) – no matter how much the cost of living might increase by during that time.
• “Strikes or other forms of industrial action…are precluded” - meaning that if contracts or pensions are fundamentally changed, we will be able to do nothing about it.

In return for this there is a ‘promise’ of “No further reductions in the pay rates of serving public servants”. But this ‘promise’ is far from being a guarantee.
• It is predicated on there being “no currently unforeseen budgetary deterioration”. But within just 24 hours of the deal being published on Tuesday 30th March there were two “unforeseen budgetary deteriorations” – the need to pour a further €10billion into Anglo Irish Bank, and the appointment of administrators to the Quinn Insurance Group. Three days later, on Friday 2nd April, the exchequer returns were published, revealing that tax receipts were €266million behind target for the first three months of the year. We all know that there will be plenty more “unforeseen budgetary deteriorations” in the next 4 years.
• If the cost of living increases over the next 4 years, a pay freeze is a de facto pay cut.
• The reference to “serving public servants” opens the door to the possible introduction of lower pay rates for new entrants to the profession.

It is clear that by accepting this deal we would be accepting a huge attack on our working conditions and on our standard of living – an attack that would have lasting impact on the terms and conditions of employment of serving teachers, and of people entering the profession over the next number of years.

It’s the pig-in-the-poke nature of many of these changes that has worried a lot of teachers. As stated above, in relation to changes to the teaching contract, the deal would commit us to accept the as yet unknown outcome of a “comprehensive review and revision of the teaching contract…to be completed in advance of the start of the 2010/11 school year”. At the end of that ‘review’, if we don’t like the outcome we would already be committed to accept it.

Likewise in relation to pension changes – by accepting this deal we would be committed to accepting the as yet unknown outcome of “consultations” “in time for legislation to be enacted to allow for the introduction of the scheme on 1 January 2011”. And again, if we don’t like the outcome of the ‘consultations’ there would be nothing we can do about it.

Usually in a deal there’s an element of give and take – a quid pro quo whereby we give something in exchange for something but there’s no ‘deal’ involved here – we give and they take and we give again. In return for all that we give we get a ‘promise’ that our pay will not be cut again. But that ‘promise’ isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Section 28 of the deal, as quoted above, states that “The implementation of this Agreement is subject to no currently unforeseen budgetary deterioration”. It’s the get-out clause to beat all get-out clauses.

Anyone who thinks there won’t be ‘unforeseen budgetary deterioration’ in the next three years must live on a different planet’. Speaking in the Dail on Tuesday 30th March during the debate on the transfer of the first tranche of impaired loans to the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), just over 12 hours after the publication of this deal, Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan stated “At every hand’s turn, our worst fears have been surpassed…. The banks have played fast and loose with the economic interests of this country”. Does anyone seriously believe that there aren’t more ‘surprises’ in store for us on the economic front? 3 ‘unforeseen budgetary deteriorations’ are mentioned above. The chances that we’ll get through the next couple of years without an “unforeseen budgetary deterioration” are somewhere between slim and none.

This deal ties the trade union movement and public sector workers in general into accepting and being part of the government’s economic and political agenda for dealing with the financial crisis. In a document entitled ‘Shifting The Burden’ published on its website on Thursday 1st April, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions stated

“In the latter half of 2009, the Government formulated a plan to deal with the economic crisis. Key elements of that plan were unveiled on Budget Day in
December. But there are parts of the plan they won’t reveal in public because, at its core, lies a determination to load the full cost of the collapse onto working people and the poor. Be they wage earners, pensioners or social welfare recipients, their pockets will be picked to finance the ‘recovery’.

But there will be no recovery as a result of this strategy - it will simply make matters worse. This is confirmed by the latest CSO figures (March 2010), which show the economy mired in the worst slump in 60 years with no signs of improvement.
The Government plan is failing because it is based on false assumptions, a complete misreading of the global crisis and it ignores all the warnings from history.
As the shocking figures for the bank bailout show, it poses a real threat to our future economic health and will erode whatever elements of social cohesion have survived the downturn. It could turn Ireland into a social and economic wasteland for a decade or more.

And while working people and the poor suffer for the mistakes and greed of others, the wealthy are to be spared and key components of the economic system that brought about the crash will be preserved.

At some point in the future, when the financial floodwaters have subsided, it will be back to ‘business as usual’: back to the high risk, low standard, crony capitalism that has destroyed the economy and Ireland’s reputation overseas. That’s their plan.
Like disciples of a dead faith, they cling grimly to the wreckage instead of starting over with a new vision.”

“There will be no recovery as a result of this strategy – it will simply make matters worse…..It could turn Ireland into a social and economic wasteland for a decade or more.”

If somebody put forward a suggestion that by public sector workers accepting wage cuts, wage freezes, changes to working conditions and huge cuts to the public services that we work in and depend on we would be contributing to economic recovery, that’s at least a sensible suggestion could be debated on its merits.

But the political analysis of the trade union movement is that the political and economic policy which underpins the entire strategy is only going to make things worse and “could turn Ireland into a social and economic wasteland”. So surely it behoves us as a movement to stand up against that, and not to accept that the futures of workers in general – be they public or private sector –, and the victims of the recession who have been thrown onto the unemployment scrapheap or forced to emigrate, are mortgaged for decades to come to bail out the wealthy financiers and property developers who have brought about this mess.

This deal is predicated on the strategy of, as ICTU put it, “loading the full cost of the collapse onto working people and the poor” while protecting the wealthy.
This deal buys the trade union movement completely into the Fianna Fail/Green party strategies of TINA and WAWA.

TINA – ‘There Is No Alternative’ would have us believe that there is only this strategy and refuses to countenance that the strategy of pouring good money after bad into the big black hole that is Anglo Irish bank, for example, is pure economic lunacy. It’s a strategy that refuses to even consider the fact that the huge wealth disparity in Ireland whereby 1% of the population owns 34% of the wealth must be tackled if we are to even begin the process of economic and social recovery. It’s a strategy that chooses to ignore the fact that the wealthiest 450 people in Ireland increased their personal wealth by €41billion in the years 2004 to 2007. It’s easier to take money out of the pockets of ordinary workers than it is to tackle that wealth disparity. But if we as a trade union movement have any self-respect left we should be saying clearly that until that wealth disparity is tackled it is unacceptable to be expecting ordinary workers to continue to shoulder the burden of the crisis.

The government’s other mantra is WAWA – We Are Where We Are. They would prefer that we don’t ask difficult questions about why this economic crisis came about. Let’s not look back they say, let’s look to the future. But if we don’t analyse what caused this mess, then we’re doomed to repeat it.

And that’s the challenge for each of us – we need to fundamentally re-evaluate the type of society we want to live in. Are we content to allow the politics which brought us this economic mess to continue unchecked? Are we willing to allow them to go “back to ‘business as usual’: back to the high risk, low standard, crony capitalism that has destroyed the economy…” Or are we prepared to ask some fundamental questions and set about the task of creating a new way of doing things – of building a society which puts the needs of the many before the greed of a few?

This deal is being sold to us on the basis that There is no alternative. But there is an alternative, there has to be an alternative. And the trade union movement should be to the fore in discussing, debating and formulating what that alternative should be. That alternative has to involve the wealthy being made to pay their share.

Those trade union leaders who are in favour of this deal keep repeating that without it there will be “industrial relations war”. They are doing everything they can to frighten people into voting for the deal by painting a doomsday scenario. If the deal is rejected and we have to take to the picket lines to protest our pay and working conditions, let’s be prepared to do that. But let’s do it in a thoughtful and thought-out manner. Let’s sit down together and work out a strategy to defeat the government. That strategy doesn’t have to involve immediate all-out strike. We can work out a strategy of rolling strikes and industrial action designed to hurt the government and force our agenda and our analysis of how the financial crisis should be responded to onto the agenda.

The reality is that the trade union movement needs to sit down and discuss and organise this strategy anyway. All of us are aware that even if this deal is passed, a Plan B has to be worked out to prepare for the inevitable situation whereby the government can be expected to renege on any ‘promise’ it contains. We have no ‘guarantees’ that our pay will not be cut again and we certainly have no guarantees that pay cuts already imposed will be reversed. So it would be foolish of the trade union movement to put all our eggs in the basket of this deal. With or without the deal we can expect to find ourselves in an ongoing battle with the government. It would be more honest of us as a movement to reject the deal and prepare for that battle.

If we vote no to this deal, at the very least things won’t be any worse than they currently are. The government will still want to impose its agenda of protecting the wealthy at the expense of workers. Let them come ahead and try to impose it and at each step of the way we will consider how we want to respond. Why oh why though should we buy into that agenda? Let’s retain our dignity as workers and as trade unionists. Let’s tell the government that we are not willing to see a continuation of economic policies that protect those who caused the crisis. Let’s reject the deal and begin the process of discussing how we can build a decent society out of the rubble of this economic mess.