Public sector pay claims may threaten social partnership

In September 1999, with public sector employees rejecting a variety of pay offers well in excess of limits set under Ireland's current Partnership 2000 agreement, the consensus process which has been at the heart of the country's economic success for 13 years may be coming apart at the seams.

The pay stability which has served to underpin Ireland's various national programmes since 1987 could unravel if recent public sector pay disputes involving nurses, the police and transport employees are not resolved within the confines of the current three-year Partnership 2000 (P2000) national agreement (IE9702103F).

The key group is the country's 27,000 nurses, who rejected an IEP 60 million pay recommendation from the Labour Court on 22 September 1999 and announced plans to commence industrial action on 19 October. The prospect of finding a solution before then is bleak. While four unions represent the nurses, it is the largest of these, the Irish Nurses Organisation (INO), which has driven their three-year campaign for higher pay and improved status in relation to other groups, such as fellow health service professionals and teachers (IE9702104N). The latest offer made by the Labour Court, when added to other increases over and above national norms during the past two years, would mean an average total pay increase for nurses of 22% over the same period, excluding basic increases already paid under P2000.

Meanwhile, rank-and-file police officers (Gardai) are considering a 4.5% pay offer and changes in working conditions which would mean an additional 14.5% on top of the provisions of P2000. A group of Dublin-based commuter train drivers are threatening strike action after rejecting lump-sum pay offers, while Dublin's bus drivers are looking for a 20% pay rise.

"Waiting in the wings" are other public sector groups, such as middle-ranking civil servants and teachers, all of whom have a direct pay relationship with the nurses. Thus, if the nurses succeed in securing anything more than a token improvement in the terms of their Labour Court offer, these related groups will lodge "knock-on" claims. This would threaten another round of so-called "special" claims on top of these already agreed over the past two years (IE9812266F). It would also end the sort of pay discipline which has been one of the bedrocks of Ireland's successful social partnership experience since 1987. A fine balance between pay moderation and limited tax reform been achieved since the first of these three-year agreements was negotiated.

The private and public sectors have diverged on workplace change. In the public arena, a traditional "pay for change" culture has remained largely intact, while in the private sector, competitiveness has been a force for change. Public sector unions, however, have agreed to study a set of performance-related pay proposals recently commissioned by the government. These proposals are likely be included in talks later in 1999 aimed at securing another national agreement (IE9906281N). The key question is not whether there will be a new deal or not, but what will it cost and will the "price" be worth paying?

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