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In place of strife? That public sector union agreement… March 30, 2010

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Irish Politics, The Left.

Well, it’s no secret that union members are demoralised. This has been a bad two years for both those in unions and the public sector (not always the same group, or rather that union membership stretches far beyond the public sector – whatever the media might like to suggest). It has been an unprecedented time actually. I can’t recall any period in my life, stretching back to vague memories of the early 1970s when unions and public sector were so reviled by the commentariat. I’d never previously bought into the idea that people were becoming detached from unions, in part because numbers were increasing, but now it seems to me that there is a significant section of people who have absolutely no understanding, indeed no experience, of the function of unions. That there knowledge of them is almost entirely received.

In part this dovetails with the current trope of a private sector somehow held in thrall to the public sector. Massive systemic failures by private enterprise? The resultant deficits are held by some to be the responsibility of a ‘bloated’ and inefficient public sector (the line in the Sunday Business Post and Irish Times has almost constantly been that the first area to be addressed – indeed in some ways the only area to be addressed – is the PS). Flexible markets exhibiting their flexibility by off loading tens of thousands in redundancies – somehow in some intangible fashion ‘solidarity’ is demanded of the public sector, implicitly or sometimes explicitly in terms of wage cuts (this proposition was directly made by Marian Finucane at the weekend. And so on.

I’ve noted before that on the latter issue this is a bizarre and self-serving distortion of the very proscriptions that private enterprise has demanded as regards the environment within which they operate. They have sought the freedom to shed jobs as required – although thankfully so far employment protections remain, and the quid pro quo has been a welfare net which is by their own reckoning as much social ‘solidarity’ as is necessary (although that hasn’t saved benefit from cuts). At least hitherto. Not for them the situation as extant in some of the continental states, still influenced even distantly by social democratic thinking, where redundancies are more difficult to impose, even closing a company is a process with more steps than here. To now hear the demands for further ‘solidarity’, particularly from those who eschewed any such language at the height of the economic boom when the mantra was much more along the lines of ‘we have what we hold’ is as ironic as it is inevitable.

And in this context, paradoxically at the point when they are need most unions are presented as a part of the problem, rather than as a necessary bulwark against capital.

But then unions are – in their machinations in the broader scheme of things – their own worst enemies. By colluding with social partnership in the way they did, by tacitly agreeing with a firesale of taxes (albeit unions have not and are not as powerful as they are painted by some, and in these areas were merely trying – much like a Labour Party which as recently as 2007 was arguing for further tax cuts – to keep up), they too have a measure of responsibility. Nor have they argued for the extension of provision across the society, as they should have, in a range of areas from pensions onwards. Indeed they’ve appeared on too many occasions to be overly eager to be pragmatic, sensible. So when government decided to shut them out who is truly surprised at their eagerness to be get back in?

The headlong flight towards ‘reforms’ appears to me to be muddle headed. It presupposes that our public services are broken in a way which I, as a consumer of many of them, and others simply cannot see. This isn’t to say that there are areas that could be improved. Of course there are. But the argument that there are systemic problems when in truth we have a public sector that is more characterised by its variation than any great uniformity (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing), seems profoundly incorrect.

No word of the historic underfunding of our public services, of an ideological hostility to them that has only recently become entirely overt, of a partiality in the dealings of the state – exemplified by the preferential treatment to higher civil servants in terms of their wages in the very recent past. No sense that in international terms our public services are smaller than average and relatively efficient given the levels of funding, that the workers within them are not outrageously well paid (although true that in some areas and at higher levels wages have been too high). And so on and so forth.

Is the agreement any good? I’d be cautiously pessimistic. It seems to me that there are far too many opt outs, too many hostages to fortune. Who seriously believes that the economic situation is going to have righted sufficiently by early next year that increases could be contemplated (I write that sentence entirely disagreeing with the precepts on which it is based but writing it in the context of the prevailing orthodoxy which unions appear to have bought into).

The thing is that I suspect very few in the public sector have genuinely believed that there would be any return to the status quo ante, that the pension levies (indeed I’ve stated it here previously, I’m not hugely exercised by them albeit the means and manner of their introduction appeared gratuitous in the extreme) or the wage cuts would be rolled back. But, I wonder (and remember I work on contract with the PS) whether many expected the unions to agree so readily to changes above and beyond those measures.

To see the unions align – as far as one can tell unquestioningly – with a predominant narrative on those changes is dispiriting.


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