Ireland: New deal paves way for talks on next public service agreement

A public service ‘anomaly’ deal, negotiated in January 2017 as an improvement to the current agreement, has set the stage for talks on a new national agreement covering the public service. The deal was triggered by a special arrangement for the police agreed in 2016. 

Introduction

In January 2017, all public service unions within the Public Services Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) agreed a special arrangement with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER) to grant over 250,000 public servants a €1,000 pay rise from 1 April 2017 instead of 1 September.

The special agreement includes an understanding that the work of an already agreed Public Service Pay Commission would be completed in late April to early May 2017 in order to provide union and government negotiators with a framework report on public service pay and pensions. This report would inform intensive negotiations on a new public service agreement to replace the current Lansdowne Road Agreement (2014–2018). These talks were scheduled to begin in mid-May and conclude in time for the provisions of any new agreement to be included in the Budget for 2018, which would be announced in October 2017.

Securing a new agreement would allow the government to complete the orderly winding down of current emergency pay legislation under the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (FEMPI) Act, which was used to achieve savings in the public pay bill during the financial and economic crisis.

Deal for police trigger to ‘anomaly’ agreement

Talks on the special January 2017 deal were triggered by anomalies contained in a Labour Court recommendation issued in late 2016, which added approximately €20 million to a €30.5 million offer already made to the members of the Gardaí (the Irish police) by DPER. The offer was made following other special arrangements agreed under the Lansdowne Road Agreement for groups such as teachers and firefighters whose allowances had been cut under previous agreements. The Gardaí sought a similar clawback of allowances given up during the crisis. However, the final €50 million offer to the Gardaí, which was accepted by their various representative bodies, was ultimately made against the backdrop of an informal strike threat by individual members of the Gardaí.

Because the organisations representing the police are merely representative bodies without official trade union status, they cannot threaten strike action in the same collective manner as officially registered trade unions. These representative bodies are also prohibited from advocating industrial or strike action, but a threat of action by individuals would, in theory at least, absolve their representative bodies from accusations that they were organising concerted action. A similar form of unofficial action has been taken by individual members of the police in the past. This precedent meant that the recent threat was taken seriously by the administration and it was this concern that led to an ad hoc intervention by the Labour Court, as requested by the government.

The bodies representing the Gardaí tend to follow public service agreements negotiated by the Public Services Committee of ICTU, which is the umbrella body for 20 public service unions. By threatening unofficial industrial action, however, in this instance the Gardaí had secured a package worth €50 million. It was an achievement that, in effect, forced the ICTU public service unions to seek a similar arrangement. The unions also demanded that talks on revising the Lansdowne Road Agreement be brought forward due to the much improved economic situation and the consequential improvement in the government’s fiscal position.

The result was an ‘anomaly’ agreement conceded by the government, which DPER Minister Paschal Donohoe stated would cost €120 million and would benefit some 250,000 public servants. The money he said was to come from ‘available public resources’, with the Minister insisting that existing spending commitments would not be affected. 
Moreover, national level talks between the unions and DPER, originally not due to begin until autumn 2017 at the earliest, were brought forward to May/June 2017.

In a joint statement (PDF) by the government and the Public Services Committee of ICTU, public service unions acknowledged that the additional payment under the special agreement is:

being offered by government on the understanding that there will be continued adherence to the terms of the Lansdowne Road Agreement , and in particular, its mechanisms to resolve disagreements before they escalate into industrial disputes over the remaining period of the Agreement. 


An important innovation was the establishment of a new Oversight Group, which will meet regularly ‘in order to take an active role in addressing any major disputes that arise ensuring compliance with the relevant terms of the agreement over its remaining term’. 


The next phase

DPER Minister Paschal Donohoe described the agreement (MS Word) as ‘phase one’ of a new two-part public pay strategy on behalf of the government.
Phase 2 will be the negotiation of a successor to the Lansdowne Road Agreement. He said the government’s priorities were to:

  1. secure the continued implementation of the Lansdowne Road Agreement;
  2. maintain the productivity, industrial peace and stability provided by the agreement;
  3. ensure that issues of mutual concern to the parties are addressed in a fair and reasonable way but in a manner that safeguards existing government expenditure commitments and the broader fiscal position.

The Minister reiterated the importance the government places in the value of collective agreements because these ‘provide for the stable industrial relations environment which has been a pillar of our domestic recovery and restored international reputation’. 


The joint statement by the government and the ICTU’s Public Services Committee stated that the additional payment:

is being offered by government on the understanding that there will be continued adherence to the terms of the Lansdowne Road Agreement … The requirement therefore to adhere to industrial peace will be fully observed in all sectors. 


Only one ICTU public service union, the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI), remains outside the terms of the Lansdowne Road Agreement. ASTI is opposed in principle to the agreement, protesting in particular against the withdrawal of certain allowances for new entrants to the profession. 
Its members have, however, missed out on some of the key restoration benefits of the Lansdowne Road Agreement, leading to tensions within that union.

Commentary

The public pay talks between the government and officials from ICTU’s Public Services Committee officials are expected to centre around five central issues:

  • how quickly full pay restoration can be achieved;
  • how to complete full restoration for the higher paid while securing pay rises for those lower paid workers who have already secured full pay restoration;
  • how much public servants contribute to their own pensions;
  • possible agreement on specific measures aimed at addressing critical skill shortages;
  • maintaining productivity measures introduced in the crisis years, changes that the government considers are permanent, but some of which such as extra working hours for no extra pay that unions argue should now be ‘given back’.

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