Ahern Attacks Irish Unions

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Gate Gourmet locked-out workers on the picket line at Heathrow yesterday – other pickets were out campaining at local workplaces for their conference
Gate Gourmet locked-out workers on the picket line at Heathrow yesterday – other pickets were out campaining at local workplaces for their conference

IRISH Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern has told the trade unions it would be ‘reckless’ of them to seek a 10 per cent pay increase for Irish workers.

However, Irish workers are in no mood to accept any more cuts in their standard of living, having staged a one-day strike at the end of last year against attempts to introduce non-union, slave labour conditions on Irish ferries.

Ahern met with union leaders last week, in a bid to finalise the structure for talks on a new ‘national partnership’ agreement – including a new deal on pay.

In an interview on RTÉ Radio, Ahern suggested that the unions should keep their wage expectations in check.

Similar statements had already been made by the finance minister, Brian Cowen.

‘Nobody will be going around looking for 10 per cent wage increases. That would be a reckless thing to do,’ Ahern said.

‘We have to work out what we can afford and what is the right thing to do.’

This is despite Ahern’s claims that the public finances were 2.5 billion euros better than a year ago, because of booming tax revenues, and reports that government departments in the Irish Republic have collectively under-spent by 705 million euros.

‘It’s very hard to estimate what you will actually spend in a year when you’re now talking about sums of almost 50 billion euros,’ said Ahern.

Ahern insisted there would not be a general election before the summer of 2007.

He said that he would keep all coalition options open – other than going into government with Sinn Féin.

Ahern said that Irish Labour Party leader Pat Rabbitte was the only man blocking a coalition between Labour and Fianna Fáil.

‘We are the party of trade unionists, we are the party of the left in this country . . . The Labour Party in any other country would be looking to us,’ Ahern even claimed.

But after the budget under-spend, the Irish Ferries struggle and the Christmas break, the leadership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) was very cautiously describing the opening round of talks with Ahern’s government as ‘positive’.

Six corporatist ‘partnership agreements’ between the government, the employers and union leaders have been negotiated since 1987.

But finding agreement on a seventh ‘partnership’ deal is expected to be much more difficult.

The Irish Ferries dispute has demonstrated that the trade unions can bring the country to a standstill.

But the employers are nevertheless demanding a tightening of workers’ belts to make Irish firms ‘more competitive’ and are saying that they will not agree to any substantial pay increases.

The employers are demanding the government takes the unions on by clamping down on the highly-unionised public sector workforce, and Ahern’s remarks warning against ‘reckless’ pay rises indicate he is right behind them.

But the Ahern government remains fearful of another general strike.

And since the massive stoppage and demonstrations over Irish Ferries, union leaders have been warning the government that the ‘social partnership’ cannot continue unless action is taken to stop employers ‘displacing’ workers by hiring cheap labour.

Leaders of SIPTU have demanded government action to tackle ‘job displacement’, as well as a much stronger workplace inspection regime, and protection for migrant workers to stop the workforce in Ireland being divided.

Meanwhile, unions such as Mandate and the Irish Bank Officials Association are preparing pay claims of 10 per cent, whilst other workers are demanding an end to the corporatist ‘social partnership’ set-up and a return to collective bargaining.

As a result, the biggest wave of strikes for almost 20 years is being predicted.

The Irish government is relying on the leadership of the trade unions to get it out of trouble by signing a new ‘partnership’ deal that is amenable to the employers.

‘As a small society, we have an innate capacity to move quickly and to anticipate change,’ Ahern said.

‘We also have the capacity to engage in dialogue with one another and to work together for the benefit of a real, national common interest.

‘The social partnership framework which we have operated since 1987 provides a tried and tested mechanism to realise that potential.’

But Irish Congress of Trade Unions General Secretary David Begg said the priority issues of exploitation and ‘displacement’ of jobs had to be addressed separately, aside from any new ‘partnership’ agreement.

He also said the ICTU had outlined five key topics at a meeting with Ahern: health, child and elderly care, pensions, training workers in new skills and the role of the state in the economy.

Begg declined to speculate on the size of the pay increase likely to be sought by unions in the new ‘partnership’ talks.

He said it would be premature to do so given that a formal decision to enter negotiations had not yet been taken.

The failure of the ‘partnership’ process to bridge the gap between those on high and low pay is becoming an increasingly sore point for workers.

The Mandate trade union has said it will not participate in talks on a new ‘partnership’ because of the failure of previous deals to address the low-pay issue.

It plans to return to direct negotiations with the employers on pay levels for its 40,000 members, many of them low-paid shop workers.

ICTU leader Begg said the unions would be seeking to build on the special 0.5 per cent increase for those on low pay secured in the last round of negotiations in June 2004.

It is understood the government was hoping that Begg’s remarks on low pay – and his call for separate talks on ending the ‘displacement’ of unionised workers – would pave the way for SIPTU to reconvene a special delegate conference to decide its stance on entering ‘partnership’ negotiations.

l The Irish Nurses Organisation (INO) has launched a national postcard campaign in Accident and Emergency departments around the country.

The organisation says the campaign will enable patients to express their dissatisfaction to the government at the level of overcrowding in A&E departments across Ireland.

The postcards will be circulated by A&E nursing staff and the cost of postage will be covered by the INO, which will then forward them to Minister for Health, Mary Harney.

INO General Secretary Liam Doran said the claim by the Health Service Executive that the situation in A&E departments had improved was nonsense, in light of the problems experienced by hospitals recently in Letterkenny, Cavan and at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda.

Doran said that a new survey by the INO showed that 292 beds remained closed or out of use around the country, with 178 of these in the Dublin region.

The problem of overcrowding could only be solved with sustained capital investment in extra beds, he said.

The INO’s campaign will continue until there is an end to ‘the human misery being endured by the old, the acutely ill and vulnerable members of this wealthy society’, the INO leader insisted.

The INO attacked the government for a 159 million euros underspend by the Department of Health and Children last year.

• Civil servants have staged a lunchtime protest outside Belfast City Hall to highlight the scandal of ‘shamefully low pay’ in the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

Government employees earning the statutory minimum wage demonstrated as their union, NIPSA, began to ballot 20,000 civil servants for all-out indefinite strike action.

British minister Peter Hain imposed a pay award before Christmas which had already been rejected by the union’s members.

Hain said the deal, backdated to August, was worth 3.49 per cent, but NIPSA insists it amounts to only 0.2 per cent for the majority of civil servants – a big pay cut in real terms.

The ballot is due to close on January 30.