From Socialist Voice, April 2010

A very, very bad deal

The joint ICTU-Government proposals that emerged this month on the public sector represent a very bad deal for current and future public-sector workers. It is no surprise that IBEC and the chambers of commerce are now waxing lyrical about “agreed approaches being the best way forward.” They are quite happy to exist in partnership with the unions when they can so easily push through their agenda.
        Ultimately, union “negotiators” have acquiesced in the establishment’s continuing economic strategy and have effectually legitimised Government actions since the start of this economic crisis.
        The unions went into these talks advancing an agenda that was not just about securing but restoring pay levels. Yet in regard to protecting pay the agreement offers little. It might well say that there will be no further reductions in the pay rates of serving public-sector workers for the lifetime of this agreement (clause 15); but this is largely undermined by the spectre of clause 28, which states that “the implementation of this agreement is subject to no currently unforeseen budgetary deterioration.”
        Given how “unforeseen” financial problems have popped up over the past two years, this is a very nice get-out clause for the Government should it wish to pursue further cuts in pay in the near future.
        There will be annual pay review until April 2011, with any such review having to take account of “sustainable” cost savings generated from the implementation of various organisational restructuring. Yet how this review process will actually work is vague. The fact that clause 15 says that only serving public-sector workers are protected suggests that future grades will be subjected to downward pressure and further cuts.
        The proposed agreement also means that unions would effectually sign away their right to strike on pay issues, given that the proposed deal includes a “stability clause,” whereby no cost-increasing claims can be allowed (clause 27). Nothing has been achieved with regard to restoring pay cuts—perhaps one of the chief grievances of workers in the first instance. The proposed agreement essentially gives the Government free rein to pursue its programme of “flexible redeployment” (clauses 7–13). This is a mere euphemism for less job control and more work intensification.
        In sum, sections of the union movement have ideologically succumbed to the orthodoxy of fiscal contraction. Apart from occasional pussyfooting around “The Better, Fairer Way,” the ICTU Executive have for the most part been too slow or have failed to robustly defend an expansionary alternative. They have failed to do this because they have not really wanted to get locked in to an irrevocable conflict with the Government. They have largely trodden safe ground, tailoring their demands within the parameters of Government strategy, ultimately in a bid to keep their foot in the door at Government Buildings. A post-partnership world clearly frightens them.
        With the parameters of economic options being so narrowly defined, the debate was best captured by David Begg arguing over the best way to achieve cost-cutting, rather than questioning the wider establishment vision of fiscal rectitude. The logic of accepting such orthodoxy, and the wider negative consequences of economistic trade unionism, have come home to roost with this proposed agreement. Public-sector workers should reject it.

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