AS the feared reality of a winter of discontent on the public pay front dawned this week, organisations representing some second-level school teachers, rank and file members of An Garda Siochána and their immediate superiors have been trying to hold the country to ransom over their pay grievances. However, the government is – as it must do – sticking rigidly to its stance that public pay issues must be sorted out within the parameters of the Lansdowne Road Agreement, which two of the militant organisations involved in the current disputes refused to sign up to.
Members of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) and the Garda Representative Association (GRA) refused to sign up to the Lansdowne Road Agreement on public sector pay – the only two major blocs of workers in the public service not to – and obviously felt that the best tactic was to go straight for the jugular in their efforts, primarily, to get a restoration of previous pay rates for new teachers and gardaí so that there would be equal pay for equal work.
Nobody is denying their right to that and the pay restoration should be phased in as quickly as the country can afford it. At the moment, the government is still borrowing money to fund some of the country’s day-to-day spending needs and the national debt is still huge at around €200bn, which is also costly to service, therefore it needs to be prudent in how it finances the provision of public services.
Pay is a significant element of the cost of public services and a lid has always needed to be kept on it, both in good times and in bad, which is why we have the Lansdowne Road Agreement in place now and which the vast majority (almost 90%) of the country’s 300,000 public sector workers are signed up to. The current militant actions of two parts of the sector should not be used to tar all public servants with the same brush, as their unions have made and adhered to a pay deal that will help the government to manage the ongoing recovery process, which is slower than all of us would have wished for.
But we are where we are and reality must prevail as we face into possible further economic uncertainty with the fall-out from the upcoming Brexit also looming. The government has no extra money budgeted for next year to make any concessions to the militant teachers and gardaí over and above what those who signed up to the Lansdowne Road Agreement are entitled to – and, anyway, why should they?
If they were to give in to them, it would unravel the current agreement as the other workers would want the same and it would send out a message that union militancy trumps collective bargaining. As we said, in good times and in bad, national pay agreements gave workers a sense that they were sharing in the fruits of their labour and also ensured that pay rates kept pace with inflation – which has been negligible in recent years – and kept strikes at bay.
The teachers and gardaí leading the current stand-off obviously feel that they can more easily twist the arm of a fragile minority government to meet their demands, however they will have to weather quite an amount of public antipathy towards them also as schoolchildren will be the main victims of the teachers’ strike action, which will cause schools to close, while the garda mutiny – they are not allowed to go on strike – will undo a lot of the goodwill the public has towards the force.
While public sector workers had to take pay cuts like all others across the country when the economic downturn nearly sank the country eight years ago, they were not forced to endure the job losses that hit the private sector as their jobs were protected and still are guaranteed, as well as their pensions. Teachers already can engage with the Workplace Relations Commission, if they want to, but gardaí – the GRA is not a union per se – may also need to be provided with a parallel forum to try to solve the current impasse in an equitable manner.