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This I like… Some clever tactical thinking down at SIPTU regarding national pay deals. August 9, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Unions.

Don’t know what they’re on down at SIPTU but heartening to see that they’re working to a Plan B in relation to the national pay deal. An unusually strong stance by the unions at the negotiations between ICTU and IBEC on said deal led to an unusually strong outcome…

PRIVATE SECTOR trade unions have said they are working on the assumption they are no longer involved in a process to negotiate a new national pay deal and will now begin lodging wage claims with individual companies.

Nor were they shy about pointing the finger of blame….

Mr Shanahan [ICTU chairman of the private sector committee] said the Government had also contributed to the breakdown in the pay talks. He said it had not brought forward measures sought by the unions on collective bargaining, agency workers and pensions: “If they had made substantial proposals in those areas, it would have coloured the thinking of unions on the pay side.”

Mr Shanahan said that, following the breakdown of the national talks, unions had been waiting for the committee to produce guidelines on lodging claims.

And lo, they have.

Mr Shanahan said the pay deals for many thousands of workers had either expired or would run out over the coming weeks and months. “Workers expect us to lodge claims. Inflation has not stopped, price rises have not stopped,” he said.

Now for those of us who work(ed) in the private sector it has been long apparent that national pay deals have been so ring-fenced by opt-outs and such like that the fulfillment of claims by employers has – for a significant portion of those within that sector – been largely notional. So to hear that ICTU (and by extension SIPTU) are pushing for wage claims in a much more aggressive fashion is heartening. Nor is this strategy without nuance, as indicated by the fact that…

Under the guidelines, unions are to seek flat-rate increases of €30 per week for low-paid workers and rises that match inflation – about 5 per cent – for those above this threshold. Unions will look for further rises in profitable companies.

Mr Shanahan said members and their representatives would decide which companies could pay increases and what alternative strategies had to be adopted in cases where the firm was facing difficulties or job security issues. “At the end of the day, responsibility will rest with the members. They will make the final decisions,” he said.

But better again has been a rabbit pulled from the SIPTU hat that underscores what is possible, and how a constructive but forceful approach can work.

Siptu announced today it had agreed a 3 per cent pay rise for workers in the motor industry.

In a statement, the country’s largest union said it had secured the increase for up to 5,000 workers in the motor trade to cover the eight months from May 1st to the end of the year.

And crucially this reflects back on the failed national pay deals in two stark ways. Firstly it indicates that unions can bargain with employers and make significant gains and in such a way as to belie the sort of language that sees such deals as indicative of some sort of national catastrophe. And while most of us (I hope) take a different view from the latter it is strikingly difficult to persuade many workers of their interests in union activities. Indeed as it happens I was talking to someone this week who while in a workplace situation that was characterised by a near de facto constructive dismissal was afraid that by raising any sort of criticism or taking it to a union that would somehow mark out this individuals future career.

That mindset is one that a broader discourse in the media and in the society generally seeks to utilise to suppress union activism and membership.

Or as SIPTU President Jack O’Connor put it:

The SIMI agreement is important because it provides an example of what can be achieved with reasonably minded employers. It also shows that local bargaining is already beginning to work.

And as importantly points up a further aspect of the pay deals as noted by SIPTU:

“The fact that a major group of employers such as SIMI was prepared to agree such terms suggests that the Ibec agenda in the talks was driven by a hard line minority determined to use adverse economic conditions to put the boot into the most vulnerable sectors of the workforce.”

Hard to disagree. Or with the proposition that:

“It [the agreement] also underlines how unrealistic were the terms proposed by Ibec last week, which involved pay pauses ranging from six to 12 months, followed by increases worth 2.5 per cent – or nothing at all if employers were feeling pessimistic about the future.”

In a context where the graphs have had a generally upward trajectory for over a decade it is remarkable how this – relatively slight – blip in that trajectory is being used by employers (and to note the cognitive dissonance of a media unable to decide whether we’re really really in a recession which – if true – spells the end of their pretensions as regards their ‘commercial’ and ‘domestic’ property supplements or their lifestyle sections and the impulse on their part to give in to their faux-puritanical mode, mentioned the other day, and give a good kicking to workers for daring to y’know, consume) to shout ‘catastrophe’. This is a time of significant danger for workers, and as someone who eschews hyperbole in all matters I don’t use that term lightly. The possibilities that our new(ish) government, unused intellectually and practically to the deals necessary between unions and state to keep the road on the show, may make a massive misjudgement are considerable, weakening the position of workers.

Still, IBEC ever quick to sneer, responded with:

Ibec director of industrial relations Brendan McGinty challenged Siptu’s portrayal of the “new” deal.

“This deal was reported as far back at May 29th. There is nothing new in this,” he said. “To represent it as a breakthrough in the context of a reversion to local bargaining is misleading.

“To represent this as some kind of achievement in the wake of the collapse of the national pay talks is untrue.”

Which is interesting because it wasn’t reported in the Irish Times in May. And a quick Google doesn’t show any place where it was reported.

And to support the broader thesis an interesting snippet in this weeks Phoenix noted that the situation under Cowen has changed.

ICTU head David Begg is the most unlikely militant and he made it clear both during and after the talks that he would have accepted less than the 5% inflation rate as an agree wage rise… the 2.8% offered by employers was regarded as derisory but somewhere in between cuold have been agreed if some other non-pay element was introduced. Hints from the unions about last year’s Supreme Court ruling that denied negotiating rights to non-unionised workers were either ignored or dismissed.

And interestingly: … this is an are that Bertie would undoubtedly have pursued had he been in situ.

And the perception of the unions is that this is a legacy of the Harney reign at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment where government and civil servants ‘have set their faces against any further reform of industrial relations legislation [to the benefit of workers]’. And problematically, ‘the country solicitor Cowen’ has no instinctive understanding of the area.
Good to see the unions for once running rings around both government and IBEC.


1. crocodile - August 10, 2008

No mention of the public sector in this – and a general sense that if IBEC and the Stephen Collins/Kiberd tendency keep on saying that public servants have security and pensions and must therefore keep quiet, then it will be so. The fact is that nurses and teachers, to name but two prominent groupings, are still smarting from the last benchmarking report and feel that their unions were sold a pup in the last partnership talks. No amount of lecturing by May Harney or Mary Hanafin or Mary anybody will change the bottom lines of those mortgage statements and energy bills.
Is the implication of Shanahan’s remarks that, so long as low paid workers are taken care of, public service groups like those in health and education will settle for below inflation rises? If so, he hasn’t been talking to any lately.


2. WorldbyStorm - August 11, 2008

That’s very true crocodile and I completely missed it. Benchmarking suffered a serious set back when it came out – surprise surprise – with such optimal outcomes for those at the top…


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