From Socialist Voice, February 2010

Contrasting fortunes for Mandate members

Trade union negotiators are experiencing trying and difficult times in their efforts to maintain some sort of job security and income protection for their members during this economic crash. As different employers experience varying degrees of hardship, workers’ representatives have had to cut their cloth to suit how best they can protect their members’ interests, and nowhere is this more evident than in the retail industry.
     Mandate has successfully negotiated a two-step implementation of the first phase of the “Towards 2016” transitional pay agreement with the leading retailer Penney’s, which employs approximately three thousand workers in 38 shops throughout the south of the country.
     Despite the employers’ group IBEC and others publicly declaring that the national wage agreement “Towards 2016” is dead and buried, Mandate’s representations with this particular employer—which is also a prominent member of IBEC—appears to suggest otherwise.
     A highly successful and well-supported ballot resulted in Mandate members voting in favour of a new set of proposals by 94 per cent to 6 per cent. These proposals, which were the fruit of representations at the Labour Relations Commission, will provide for a pay increase of 3½ per cent in 2010, paid in two separate instalments, with a 2 per cent increase applicable from the 1st of January 2010 and the remaining 1½ per cent to be paid from the 1st of June. Of further interest is the fact that it has also been agreed by both sides to visit phase 2 of the same wage agreement at a later date.
     Mandate has argued that where employers are remaining profitable during the economic downturn it follows that those same employers should honour the national wage agreement, “Towards 2016.” Likewise, where employers are clearly experiencing financial difficulties Mandate has—where appropriate—sought to maintain and sustain business viability while trying to provide the best possible protection of income and livelihoods.
     Contrast the foregoing wage increase proposal with the cost-saving measures that were negotiated at the Dublin Airport Authority. In the DAA, Mandate members have voted overwhelmingly in favour of a €40 million cost reduction programme. The workers voted by a majority of 92 per cent in favour. The agreement will unfortunately see 275 permanent and 100 temporary jobs go in the three airports run by the DAA. The severance package consists of 6¾ weeks’ pay per year of service.
     While part of the cost reduction plan contains some traditional methods of reducing expenditure, the group of unions in the DAA negotiated an Employee Recovery Investment Contribution Scheme as a means of addressing the cost reduction requirements. Under this scheme, money will be deducted from earnings according to the value of a DAA worker’s earnings, but when targets are met in the future employees will get a 50 per cent or 100 per cent payment to cover the money they contributed to the scheme. The deductions will also be restored after the company has returned to a reasonable period of sustained profitability, as agreed by the employer and the unions.
     Similarly, because of the lack of a traditional bumper retail period before and after Christmas, retailers are already queuing up to announce further cost reduction programmes, the most notable being that of Debenham’s. Mandate and the employer are at present in negotiations for dealing with the company’s announcement that it is to shed 250 Irish jobs, many of which predate the company’s entry into the Irish market.
     Irish workers feel terrorised by the very real and tangible threat to their livelihoods and thus are generally submissive to the opportunistic approaches of their employers, who put forward the argument that there is no alternative.
     While the media and others appear hell bent on blaming the trade unions for the country’s economic mess, it is evident that where employers are prepared to properly engage with the workers’ organisations, potential solutions and aspirations can be and are achieved.

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