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Ireland: Croke Park negotiations - Don’t give an inch

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While the opening skirmishes in the renegotiation of the Croke Park Agreement have played out behind closed doors, the battle lines have been drawn for some time. Within months of the General Election  Fine Gael TD’s were baying for Croke Park to be torn up or at least savaged. The employers organisations, and of course all the fine ladies and gentleman of the press have all weighed in. As we have reported previously one particularly unpleasant Independent journalist even tried to bring poor James Connolly in on the side of the Government. No one with even the minimum knowledge of Connolly, or the miserable counter revolutionary history of the Independent would be fooled by that one.

howlin-and-noolanHowlin and NoolanThe Government backed by the Troika and the aforementioned dubious cast of extras are determined to cut € 1 billion from the State wage bill over the next three years. While we had major concerns over the Croke Park Agreement – because of the threat of massive restructures and other attacks on the public sector, the agreement to protect wages has been an important defence for the public sector workers. It has annoyed and irritated the bosses and the press some of whom have argued that the trade union movement had duped the Taoiseach into agreeing to preserve pay levels and then opposing “change”.

In fact the scale of reorganizations and the effects on services have created big opposition from union members and the public, meaning that it has been difficult for the government to go as far as it wanted. There are many examples of local communities fighting to defend hospital services and facilities, including this demonstration in Navan:  10,000 march against health cuts in Navan Fightback 30/10/10. More recently 12,000 marched last November against the downgrading of Waterford Regional Hospital.

Fierce Opposition

It is likely that the government’s attempt to undermine wages and conditions in this round of negotiation will generate fierce opposition. Already UNITE with 5,000 members and IMPACT with 63,500 have threatened to ballot members in the event of imposed cuts in wages, while the leadership of the  Civil, Public and Services Union have said there is little chance of an agreement being reached. Second union warns of strike if Croke Park II talks collapse Independent 17/1/2012. It is likely that other unions will be forced to take similar action as the talks continue. Certainly the experience of the last few years is that groups of workers such as the teachers will be forced to take action to defend them selves.  At present many Branches of INTO, for example, are holding Annual General Meetings where Croke Park will be high on the agenda. Here is an excerpt from INTO’s report of the early negotiations posted on 18/1/2013:

No one should doubt that these will be the most difficult set of negotiations ever undertaken and there is no guarantee of success. The process has just begun. There has been predictable speculation about the talks, a great deal of which has focused on the union side. However, it is arguable that government also requires a deal. While the Croke Park agreement has protected wages for serving public servants to date it has also delivered significant industrial peace, workplace change and payroll savings.

The experience of the negotiations leading to the signing of the Croke Park Deal in 2010 was of seemingly endless talks about talks about talks. Because of the crisis conditions the government had  very little room to manoeuvre, they were being driven towards austerity by the crisis in their own system, they had the bosses and the speculators on their back, but they were facing a political meltdown also. The state finances were in freefall, it was not until the autumn of 2010 that they could even identify the cost of bailing out AIB. In reality Cowen and Lenihan were in a very weak position.

Social Partnership

The ICTU leaders on the other hand were resting upon the old policy of social partnership that they had operated during the Celtic Tiger years. They were desperate to seek a deal with the government that they could sell to the members. As we explained at the time:

“The talks between the government and ICTU have collapsed following pressure from the FF back benches. Apparently they had been pressured from “the private sector” to oppose plans for unpaid leave proposed by the union leaderships. Make no bones about it. What this really means is that the Irish bourgeoisie and the multinationals are putting on the pressure and demanding that the public sector takes huge cuts. It raises the temperature in what is already a charged situation. If the Irish Congress of Trade Unions had a fighting Socialist leadership; Ireland would be on the brink of a general strike. But that is far from the case. The public sector workers have demonstrated, struck and were ready to strike again. 250,000 were on strike on 24th November; that was the background to the talks over the last few days. But instead of using the militancy of the workers as a battering ram to stop Cowen and Lenihan from attacking the working class; David Begg and McLoone preferred a polite and gentle knock.

We have criticised the union leaders for their over reliance on social partnership and it’s obvious that their political outlook and programme has brought them to this stage. The programme of “unpaid leave” was as much dressed up to give the membership the impression that something had been won, as anything else. As we explained last week it was short time working by any other name. Remember that we have had talks about talks for months now and each time the outcome has been more cuts. Sisyphus was a character in the Geek myths who was forced to push a boulder repeatedly up a hill for eternity, just to watch it roll down again every time it got to the top. This is the same scenario that the ICTU leadership find themselves in. Each time they try and resurrect the long dead promises of social partnership and troop in to see the Taoiseach they end up with more cuts and levies.” Talks break down: where next for ICTU? 6/12/09

In the run up to the signing of the deal in 2010 there had been massive demonstrations against the pension levy and huge demonstrations against the austerity culminating in a huge strike of 250,000 workers on 24th November 2009, which followed on from a series of crushing majorities for strike action from most of the public sector trade unions.

As Trotsky explained, under conditions of crisis the Trade Union Leaders will endeavour to strike a deal with even the most reactionary governments. But pressure from the bourgeois and from the working class means that these deals often collapse, the reason being that the crisis itself undermines the possibility of agreement. But, it can also force the Trade Union Leaders to go further than they intend.

Enda ups the ante

Enda Kenny has been seeking to up the ante and take a few sound bites over the last few days. Stating that he would take a pay cut from his €200,000 salary . Frankly we would rather he shipped out altogether and of course we stand for the principle that TD’s should only accept the wage of a skilled worker, Enda’s salary reflects the salaries of the people he genuinely represents. Don’t worry about Enda, he’ll make his money from his memoirs and his speaking engagements once he hangs up his suit. Although we suspect he won’t be in the big league of after dinner speakers.

However, an Taoiseach was keen also to underwrite the government’s negotiating position with the threat of legislation to cut wages.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said the Government reserved the right to legislate for reductions in public sector pay if agreement on a proposed extension to the Croke Park agreement cannot be reached.

Mr Kenny said he hoped extra savings of €1 billion could be agreed by consent where possible. The savings were necessary to protect frontline services, he said.

“We’ve made it perfectly clear that Government have the right to legislate for changes that we need to achieve these savings,” he said.

Asked if there would be pay cuts in the event of failure to agree, Mr Kenny said: “Government of course reserve the right to legislate for reductions in pay if agreement can’t be reached.”

Public Sector pay cuts "a possibility" Irish Times 20/1/2012

The immediate crisis that faced Cowen and Lenihan in 2010 has passed, while things are still very tough for workers and young people. The bailout allowed an element of stability for the new coalition government, at the cost of handing over a great deal of power to the Troika. Government spending and the mechanics of the public sector have come under intense scrutiny from the IMF, ECB and the EU. Essentially, Labour and Fine Gael have followed the Troikas strategy to the letter. With three years left in office the coalition see the end of the time limited Croke Park agreement as an opportunity to shift the burden onto the public sector workers. For Fine Gael in particular it represents a policy move that will appeal to “their” people.

Gilmore

Eamon Gilmore’s much vaunted defence of working people by entering the government has been proven to be worth nothing at all. It is no surprise that Labour is struggling in the polls. Brendan Howlin has attempted to justify the wage cuts on the grounds that it would allow the state to get out of the bailout early.

The aim is to ensure a proportionate contribution from the public service pay and pensions bill to the remaining adjustment in public expenditure levels. And, in addition, to secure productivity measures to maintain the delivery of public services as the number of employees continues to fall.

Any discussion about pay with employees is complex. When the agenda is between an employer in a difficult financial position and their staff about immediate reductions in payroll costs, the level of complexity increases exponentially.

Add the fact that we are talking about the pay of more than 290,000 people at all pay levels and in all roles in the public service – from hospital cleaners to third-level academics – and you can understand why the negotiations will be enormously complex.

In my view, this is one of the most important challenges facing the Government and the country. The prize, though, is clear – a further move away from the current troika funding arrangements. Brendan Howlin: With public service co-operation we can finally escape troika's iron grip 14/1/2013

There are some limited stirrings inside the Labour Party, as evidenced by the position adopted by Colm Keaveney as well as the formation of a new left group in the party. Cian O’Callaghan’s recent article expresses some of the concerns among the Labour members: Time for Labour Members to Break Free from the Leadership Irish Left Review 7/1/2013.

That concern is likely to grow. It is unfortunate that the United Left Alliance appears to have hit the rocks at just the point when the possibilities for a widespread opposition to the government’s proposals for the public sector are becoming more clear.

So what is the coalition trying to achieve?

Trade union leaders reported that they were shocked at the draconian scale of public service management proposals:

Trade unions have described proposals for public service reform tabled yesterday by the Government as “draconian” and have warned the new talks process could break down at a very early stage.

At the opening session of talks on an extension to the Croke Park agreement, public service management proposed radical measures.

These involve pay cuts for some grades, increased working hours, the elimination of increments, a reduction in premium and overtime rates, and reforms to supervision and substitution payments for teachers. They also involve greater flexibility in redeploying staff.

Unions said the issue of compulsory redundancies – one of the core guarantees in the Croke Park agreement – was not specifically mentioned but that management signalled it wanted provision to offer exit packages to staff who did not opt for redeployment offers.

Separately, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin is expected to seek Cabinet approval for targeted voluntary redundancy schemes under which 1,500 health staff, more than 500 in agriculture and 350 in education would leave.

Croke Park extension demands 'draconian', say unions Irish Times 15/1/13

€ 1 billion over 3 years amounts to €1,000 per worker per year on average.  That represents another substantial cut for public sector workers. It will of course affect the low paid even more.  Were the government to impose pay cuts to reach the € 1bn target that might come out at around 7% a huge figure, even when inflation stands at 1.2%. Already new entrants into nursing are being offered a starting wage just 80% of the existing rate.

While there may be an element of “what can we get away with” in the management’s proposals it’s clear that there is very little on offer that the Trade Union Leaders could easily sell by way of a deal to the members.

Over the past period workers in the public sector have learned a great deal from the austerity. It is clear that Croke Park has been an important factor in defending workers living standards. It has also been an important factor in preventing a major escalation of the class struggle in the state. After the Croke Park Deal was signed in 2010 the focus of the trade union movement altered towards local and sectional negotiations and struggles. Prior to Croke Park or rather up until the end of 2009 there was a growing mood of  anger and a rising tide of industrial struggle. After Croke Park the working class began to look more towards the political front, as Fianna Fáil and the Green Party struggled towards the general election. There was a massive swing to Labour especially in Dublin.

After two years of FG/Labour coalition the grounds are being prepared for a new explosion of class struggle in Ireland. The best guarantee of defending public sector workers lies in an intransigent class position on behalf of the trade unions. The risk is that the trade union leadership will simply attempt to roll out the same old programme of social partnership.  There are no short cuts, the best of the trade union activists will be preparing the ground to mobilize and convince the members that if they want to defend their wages and conditions they will have to fight for them. The experience of the last few years is unequivocal, trade union members and their families are willing to fight, but ICTU needs a militant programme and a clear strategy of how to defeat these draconian cuts.

These negotiations and the government’s plans will be discussed in every workplace over the next few months. What is obvious however is that the public sector employers and the coalition won’t be easily moved. It will require concerted national strike action – even a general strike in the public sector to defeat Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore’s austerity.

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