Public sector unions launch action against pay cuts

The public sector trade unions in Ireland have published a broad strategy document that sets out a series of possible protest actions aiming to persuade the government to reverse its decision to implement over €1 billion in pay cuts as part of an overall €4 billion fiscal adjustment in the 2010 state budget. Although the trade unions had conceded that savings were necessary, they are seeking a gradual reversal of the wage reductions from 2011 onwards.

Trade union campaign strategy

Public sector trade union leaders have drawn up a detailed campaign strategy document as part of their attempt to persuade the Irish government to reverse its decision to cut the wages of over 300,000 public service workers by an average of 7% (IE0912029I). The document sets out a range of low-key industrial action options aiming to affect the efficiency of public services, eventually leading to possible strike action in specific cases.

The strategy promises a ‘strong and sustained’ response to the pay cuts, through the use of methods such as blocking future change, ‘working to rule’, overtime work bans and ‘selective’ strikes. The actions began in the week commencing 24 January 2010 and largely consisted of employees working to rule or refusing to carry out duties not specified in their contracts of employment.

The trade unions state that they will refuse to cooperate with what is known as the ‘transformation agenda’, on which the government and the trade unions had come close to agreement prior to the breakdown of national-level talks in early December 2009 (IE0912019I). That collapse of negotiations has effectively led to the end of the social partnership process that had marked the regulation of government, employer and trade union relations in Ireland on a range of issues, including pay and employment law, since 1987 (IE1001029I).

Coordinated industrial action

The trade unions explain that their response to the government’s position on pay cuts, pensions and potentially compulsory redundancies ‘will include coordinated industrial action’. This will first come in the form of total non-cooperation with the management change agenda. According to the trade unions, the Public Services Committee (PSC) of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU)

‘will coordinate joint union meetings and communications to ensure that members understand and support the strategy – and to guarantee that members get full support if management attempts to victimise them for supporting the campaign. The PSC strategy includes provision for further strikes if necessary.’

The trade unions have declared that there will be a blanket refusal to cooperate with transformation proposals.

‘The union campaign will also include a managed withdrawal from most local partnership arrangements. The campaign will also be manifest in strict ‘work-to-rules’ at certain times and in certain areas, to cause maximum inconvenience to senior management.’

The trade union campaign will furthermore involve ‘extensive and ongoing political and public relations work and an exploration of the legal options in the face of pay cuts and future changes to pension entitlements’.

Moreover, the trade union document continues:

‘To ensure its success, the campaign will require members of all unions to support and to participate in the actions agreed by the PSC. Their unions will work together to coordinate and to maximise the impact of the campaign, while ensuring that individuals and groups of workers cannot be sidelined or victimised by management for participating in the campaign to protect their jobs and incomes and the services that they provide to the public.’

Commentary

The central aim of the public service trade unions is to demonstrate that they have the ability to hit services, and that their members will not be an ‘easy target’ for further cuts in next December’s budget for 2011. The trade unions fear that passivity on their part will open the way for the government to take further steps to reduce remuneration. They realise that the pay cuts for 2010 are irreversible, as they already conceded in principle the need for such savings in the overall government pay bill, albeit in the form of an unpaid leave arrangement in return for public service transformation. When those discussions collapsed, the government moved unilaterally to implement over €1 billion in pay cuts as part of an overall €4 billion fiscal adjustment in the 2010 state budget.

The trade unions are seeking a gradual reversal of the wage reductions from 2011 onwards, by availing of the formal review of the decision to cut wages, to which the Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan, committed in his 2010 budget speech. Another reason behind the strategy is to maintain and restore credibility with trade union members after their failure to prevent the government from implementing the pay cuts – in addition to a special pension levy introduced in February 2009 (IE0901039I). The average cut in remuneration for public servants in a period of less than 12 months has been almost 15%, a situation that poses a major challenge for the trade union leadership.

Brian Sheehan, IRN Publishing

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