From Socialist Voice, November 2006

Battle lines drawn in the struggle to defend pensions

The question of pensions is now looming large on the political horizon for the trade union movement. The monitoring arm of the national partnership agreements, the National Implementation Body, is facing its second serious test in less than a month after the ratification of the “Towards 2016” agreement.
    This agreement was sold by the Government, the employers and some leading elements in the trade union movement as the vehicle for dealing with what is called the “looming pensions problem.”
    The NIB will have to deal with a growing dispute between Bank of Ireland and its trade unions—the Irish Bank Officials’ Association and Amicus—over the bank’s determination to introduce a new hybrid pension scheme for new entrants from October. Both unions have referred the dispute in relation to the change in pension conditions to the NIB, while also waiting for a date for a formal Labour Court hearing.
    The normal procedure in the case of referrals of any dispute has been to pass them on to the Labour Relations Commission or to the Labour Court. Both parties would be expected not to take any action that would worsen the situation.
    The NIB has still not said anything about the dispute, which reflects one of the central weaknesses of this body, made up of representatives of IBEC, the ICTU, and the Department of the Taoiseach. This body’s employer and union sections are required to reflect the interests of their members, which implies that the state is neutral in industrial relations, while in reality it is an active participant on the side of the employers.
    In this case the Bank of Ireland is an important member of IBEC, and if it decides to move ahead with its plans there is little that IBEC can do.
    Independent Newspapers led the charge in relation to changes in pension arrangements for its workers, despite hostility by the unions, followed by Bank of Ireland. With Tony O’Reilly’s media empire leading the charge, the defence of workers’ pension rights will find little support but rather outright hostility within the mass media.
    The differences between the two cases are important. In Independent Newspapers there is little the unions could do to prevent the change, as existing employees acted to accept individually the changes imposed by the management. In the Bank of Ireland case the issue concerns new entrants only. Existing employees are not affected, but they are threatening action should the plan be pushed and are demanding that the bank await the involvement of the NIB and the Labour Court.
    The trouble for the “social partners,” however, is that the new provisions for handling pension disputes was one of the main selling points of the new agreement by leading elements within Congress.
    Following an emergency meeting of the IBOA’s Bank of Ireland Committee, the union decided to ballot its members for industrial action. The general secretary of the IBOA, Larry Broderick, accused the Bank of Ireland of “breathtaking arrogance . . . in contemptuously proceeding with their plans without allowing the industrial relations institutions of the state to complete their deliberations . . . and illustrates the contempt the Bank has for its staff, current agreements and the very institutions established by [the] Government to promote industrial peace.”
    He added that the IBOA would also be lodging a claim for a substantial pay increase to bring Bank of Ireland salaries “up to that of their main competitor, AIB, and to compensate staff for the reduced pensions that will be available as a result of the Bank’s short-sightedness.” This is a claim that the bank is likely to reject.
    Amicus, which has five hundred members in the Bank of Ireland Group, has said that it has a mandate to serve notice of industrial action and has organised meetings to ballot members regarding the specific action to be adopted.
    The outcome of the Bank of Ireland dispute will establish precedents for the future of employee pensions, both for existing and future entrants in many company pension schemes.

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