When he undertook the current round of shuttle mediation, all of the commentators remarked how impossible Kieran Mulvey’s task seemed to be. Given the large margins of rejection in several of the public service unions including teachers and higher civil servants, and given the rawness of the feelings of victory and defeat within the unions, even the timing was problematical. The Government says it needs to save €300m of its €1bn annual cost saving starting in July. In this light, time is not something that seems to be available.
It looks like the situation will become clearer within a week or so, if not sooner. But what will that situation be?
The Government is adamant that it will legislate to force through pay cuts in some shape or form in order to secure its targets for cost savings. If it fails to do so its political standing will take a severe battering both domestically and at EU level. Despite recent trade union pressure on Labour Party backbenchers it seems that there will be no collapse of support for Government in the Labour ranks arising from legislation to cut public service pay. Right now all the political heat is around the abortion legislation and not public service pay cuts.
The unions are adamant that if the Government does legislate to cut pay they will ballot their members for industrial action. A number of unions have stated that industrial action will mean strikes and not just works to rule such as overtime bans or refusals to carry out certain duties.
It remains to be seen how big an appetite the ordinary members have for losing pay by going on strike to defeat decisions that will be made in Dáil Éireann. The last time the public service unions took on Government over a Dáil decision was in the mid-1980s when the teachers’ unions fought against a Dáil decision not to proceed with a pay increase. If the unions were to falter on this occasion it would make them look weak.
Needless to say, such disruption, if it does happen, will ensure that public service pay and public service trade unionism remains centre stage at political and media levels. Traditionally, certain public service groups, particularly nurses, and also teachers and lower paid civil servants, have enjoyed considerable public support in their battles with Government. Some recent opinion polls suggest that such support may still be available in the wake of the rejection of Croke Park 2.
ICTU’s David Begg made a sober intervention last weekend when he urged both sides to step back from the brink. He suggested that they could end up in a major dispute that neither said wanted. Interestingly, he suggested a degree of unrealism on the part of the ‘no’ unions who have indicated an unwillingness to contemplate any form of savings arising from pay. He also suggested that it would have been worse for ICTU had there been a small margin of votes in favour of the deal with a significant body of ‘no’ voting unions already committed to a rejection of any such decision.
Perhaps of greatest concern to Government and public service managers is the prospect of a long ‘trench war’ between the unions and management fought over incremental changes across the public services. There was a degree of this form of attrition in the period before Croke Park 1 was agreed and it effectively ground the process of organisational change to a halt. Croke Park 1 then led to accelerated change based on the range of issues agreed in that deal and also based on the dispute resolution procedures that guaranteed final decisions where change was contested. Minister Howlin is on record as acknowledging how crucially important those procedures were to effective public service change management.
But the Government is now suggesting that, if there is no Croke Park 2, Croke Park 1 and the protections against redundancies that it affords public servants will fall to the wayside. If that proves true then it follows that the dispute resolution procedures will also fall. This looks like a classic ‘lose-lose’ result.
What are the likely scenarios for the coming weeks? One clear possibility is that there will be no further talks and that the Government will legislate, perhaps ushering in a period of industrial action or at least a period of great tension and uncertainty. How this would affect unions that supported the deal such as IMPACT and PSEU is not clear. There has been some talk of it being possible to give their members the choice of the terms of the agreement they accepted or the legislation that would be the alternative. This is unexplored territory.
Another possibility is that Kieran Mulvey will find some way of extending the talks process, thus leading to a rewriting of certain parts of the agreement, and of a second round of ballots among some but not all unions. What the implications of such a development would be for unions that remained aloof from such talks and that remained firmly in the ‘no’ camp are unknown at this stage.
Yet another possibility might be the negotiation of sectoral agreements where the unions and public service management wanted this. For example, there might be strong majority union opinion in favour of new collective agreements in both the civil service and local government, but not in other sectors such as education and health.
Given the rapid pace of current developments it is unlikely that we will have to wait long to see what scenario unfolds one way or the other: if there are further talks or if the talks process is definitively abandoned for the present.
John O’Dowd is a specialist in HR.