Strikes by public and civil servants to improve their pay and conditions are hardly ever popular, even in the best of times. After social partnership was ended and the economic downturn tightened its grip on the economy, deals were negotiated with unions to reduce pay and improve productivity; in turn the Government would review the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (FEMPI) on an annual basis.
The first deal to be struck was the Croke Park agreement 2010-2014, later superseded by the Haddington Road Agreement 2013-2016. In the end, both agreements had full buy-in from all of the unions, despite certain measures that civil and public servants found difficult to accept.
The latest incarnation of these negotiated deals is the Lansdowne Road Agreement, due to run until 2018. This deal was rejected by ASTI members, leaving them outside any potential pay restoration by way of Government review of FEMPI.
The AGSI is in a slightly different space given their role in society as ‘protectors of the peace’. They are not allowed to negotiate directly with Government. In the past, agreements have been put in place with the Gardai as annexes to the larger public sector agreements -- in effect, ‘side room deals’.
Now that our economy has turned a corner to long-term recovery, even prosperity, unions are eager for public pay to be restored. This puts the Government in a difficult position and now they are attempting to use the mechanisms of the state to address the unions' demands while adhering to previously agreed pay deals.
It's no secret that unions want to get back to the point where we as a society return to social partnership. This would be welcomed in some political quarters but not entertained in others. Given how unstable the political climate is, unions are trying to capitalise for their members as much as possible, and the more prolonged this issue becomes, the more likely it will become an unavoidable issue at the next election.
The Taoiseach has indicated that the Government wants to get to next summer when the public pay commission is due to report, providing the basis for further pay talks. Will this centrist position hold during a winter of discontent?
In the current dispute, the court of public opinion will surely side with the AGSI rather than the ASTI, given their standing in society. ASTI have sat at the negotiating table for the last number of years. By rejecting Lansdowne, they have effectively isolated themselves from the rest of the public service.
The Government is aware of this. The Tanaiste and Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald TD, and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Paschal Donohoe TD, held a joint press conference at Government Buildings to address the severity of the AGSI situation; in contrast, the Government is looking to pay parents to supervise students during the teachers' strikes so that schools can remain open.
With the Lansdowne Road Agreement due to end in 2018, a few pressing questions must be answered lest the issue of public sector pay dictates the pre-election political agenda:
- Will the Government manage to hold its position until summer 2017 and use the public pay commission's report as a basis for new talks?
- Will it cave into the once more influential unions who are taking their members out on strike
- Or, will it take on board the suggestion from the Labour leader and former Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin TD, and use the carrot of a new deal to calm the growing unrest?
Time will tell.