Public Sector Pay Deal Poses Hard Questions for Labour Movement

Earlier this month public sector workers in the South voted overwhelmingly for the latest pay deal.

After nearly a decade and half of being hammered by Right wing governments, it is perhaps understandable that public servants would be glad to see the first apparently decent pay rise since 2007.

A sense of relief as well perhaps that this agreement was not accompanied, as so many previous agreements have been, by cuts to terms and conditions dressed up as ‘efficiencies’.

The Coalition cabinet and the upper echelons of the trade union leaderships will also no doubt be satisfied at another deal done and dusted and at having averted the prospect of industrial action during a cost of living crisis.

However, from the perspective of workers the deal, despite its approval, is unquestionably a poor one. By the time the final part is paid in October of next year every worker in the public sector will have taken a real term pay cut.

Inflation for 2022 will average 8.5% and in 2023 is projected by Finance Minister Pascal Donohue to be above 7%.

Under the deal, a public servant on the average industrial wage of EUR 45,000 per year will see their pay increase by 10.1%. Yet, with inflation over 2022 and 2023 totalling 15.5%, they will be at least 5.4% behind after the end of this agreement: a difference of almost EUR 2,500 per year.

So why was a deal that will leave public sector workers worse off by the end of it, voted through so overwhelmingly?

This is an important political question for the labour movement. To start with there are few alternative voices within the public sector trade unions who are capable of organising and mobilising effectively against these agreements. Arguments pointing out the impact of inflation on the terms of this agreement, the key argument against it, that it amounted to a pay cut overall, were simply not available to the vast majority of the workers who cast their ballots.

Secondly, the ghost of social partnership lingers on. In exchange for access to government and the civil service, the trade union movement in the public sector seems to have abandoned, with some exceptions, industrial action as a method for securing pay increases. Instead, the approach seems to be to co-manage, in partnership with the State, the slow, steady diminution of living standards of the public sector workforce in the name of maintaining the South’s ‘competitiveness’ and ‘attractiveness’ to investors.

Global capital is acutely sensitive to assertive trade unions. For the South of Ireland to remain an immensely profitable tax haven for global capital, the number one political objective at all times for the establishment, the workforce has to be very closely managed and large scale industrial action avoided. This is particularly the case where simultaneous and co-ordinated industrial action across the public sector could take on the character of a general strike.

The trade union movement in the South celebrates unapologetically militant trade unionists from Britain, like the RMT’s Mick Lynch and Eddie Dempsey. Both have been to the forefront of a long campaign of industrial action that has proved popular with the British and Irish working class. Yet there is a paradoxical determination to reject the RMT’s methods in Ireland. The labour movement’s silence when the State moved to smash striking Debenhams workers is a good example of how this paradox operates.

Instead, the focus is on trading influence with government, in the hope of extracting minor concessions, in exchange for lowering class-consciousness and engagement by members. This has proven an enormous strategic error for the labour movement in the South. Steadily declining density and disengagement from the norms of the labour movement cannot be reversed if workers are never mobilised to defend their living standards. Indeed, recent research from UCD shows that just 1 in 4 workers are members of a union, with trade union strength overwhelmingly concentrated in the public sector. Pushing deals that result in real pay cuts is not a way to address the problems the labour movement faces.

Militant Left consistently argued for rejection of this deal and for a campaign of industrial action to push for an inflation busting pay rise. The money is there: a 6.4 billion euro surplus so far this year. An immediate 10% pay increase would cost just 2.5 billion euro. The threat of strikes forced an increased offer from government. Strike action itself would have forced even bigger increases. Strikes are key to building a vital trade union movement; without them, there would be no trade union movement. Without them, the working class would never have achieved any decency at work or in life. Without them, it will not be possible to stop the accelerating assault on our class. Nor will it be possible to revive our trade unions. These are basic political facts that our movement must reflect upon in the aftermath of another public sector deal that, yet again, sets workers back.