Left DebateOpinion

Betrayal of Trade Union Members

Teachers Union of Ireland and Dublin Council of Trade Unions member Finbar Geaney gives his response to the proposals for a public service agreement 2010-2014 published following the recent Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) and government talks.

Tuesday March 30th will be remembered as the bleakest day in the history of the Irish trade union movement. In the early hours of the morning of that day the paid officials of the Public Services Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions emerged from talks with the Government to declare that they had sacrificed the jobs, wages and working conditions of workers throughout the public service. In return for their total capitulation they won nothing. They agreed to savings of €1.5 billion at an immense cost to their members. On that same day the Government announced that they would provide the moribund Anglo Irish Bank with €18 billion (bringing their total to €22 billion).Other banks such as Allied Irish Bank, Irish Nationwide and Bank of Ireland would between them receive a further €13 billion.

Finbar Geaney on Vincent Brown show this week

Last December the leaders of ICTU were told by the Government to come up with a plan for cutting €1.5 billion from the budget deficit through a combination of reduction in jobs, service provision and wage cuts in the public service. Without any mandate from their members the union negotiators duly obliged, on both fronts. There had already been a massive reduction in the number of people employed by public bodies. According to the Central Statistics Office between December 2008 and September 2009 public sector numbers fell by 12,400. But the Fianna Fáil/Green Party Government wanted more. They cast aside the initial surrender by the union leaders and introduced a savage Budget that amongst other things reduced wages for public servants by between 5 and 8 percent, cut social welfare payments in half for the under 20s and removed mortgage interest relief for a large number of working people. After the Budget measures had been implemented in full the union negotiators returned to talks, presented the Government with the same suggestions for cuts throughout the public services. This time the Government duly accepted, and in return the union leaders got nothing whatsoever. All the pay cuts were to remain in place. The general secretaries claimed as their crowning achievement a statement by the Government that, should there be no further deterioration in the public finances, there would not be any other wage cuts before 2014. Has there ever in the history of the Irish trade union movement been a more craven and abject surrender! It is no wonder that Tuesday March 30th has already been dubbed as Yellow Tuesday!

In order to gain a fuller picture of the scale of the betrayal it is necessary to look at the history of these recent events. This most recent Government onslaught began in September 2008 with the Government’s decision to save their friends who had been gambling in banking, property speculation and financial products; they introduced a ‘bank guarantee’ drawn from public funds. Then came an emergency Budget with a levy of one to two percent was on all incomes, Child Allowance was abolished for many and was reduced for all, the Pupil/Teacher ratio in schools was raised and employment of Special Needs and Special Language teachers was cut (thus losing up to two thousand jobs). A mass demonstration of opposition was held in Dublin. A one-day general strike was called in March but this was cancelled when the Government invited the leaders of ICTU to enter talks. Then without any concern for the union negotiators the Government introduced in April of last year further swinging cuts in pubic service pay of between five and eight percent; they dressed-up this cut as a ‘pension levy’. A mass demonstration was called to give vent to the anger of ordinary trade union members. Up to one hundred thousand turned out across the country. The response of the union leaders was to seek further talks. A one-day general strike to express total opposition to the pay cuts was called on December 1st 2009. The response was massive; firemen, nurses, local authority workers, teachers, civil servants and others came out in a huge show of strength and solidarity. But before the day was out the leader of the Public Services Committee of the ICTU Peter McLoone declared on the national media that pay cuts were inevitable.

In effect these union negotiators have become agents of Government policy. The cosy arrangement that union officials have had with the Government over the past two decades has removed them from any understanding of the real needs of the rank and file union members. Fianna Fáil and the Green Party have been trying to transform the trade union movement into an arm of government, and the coterie of general secretaries has succumbed.

But the fight to transform the trade unions has already begun. Under pressure from the rank and file the Executive Committees of the Teachers Union of Ireland and the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland have come out against the deal that their officers agreed to. The Civil and Public Services Union has also expressed its opposition, as has the Psychiatric Nurses Association. Further opposition will emerge in the coming weeks.

The conflict that is opening up does not center on a labour relations issue. Union leaders held their talks within the confines of the Labour Relations Commission. This was a cover for them not even raising the issues of a wealth tax or of the profligate waste of public money that is happening in the bank bail-out. Saving one bank alone, Anglo Irish, will cost us all €40 billion if the Government has its way. The total cost to the tax-payer of saving the banks and the property speculators could amount to €70 billion.

The alternative to the Government’s policy of cutting public expenditure is a political programme based on making the super rich minority pay for the crisis that they brought about. The 300 richest people in Ireland have a combined personal wealth of 50 billion (Sunday Independent 28/3/10). A wealth tax of 10% would bring in €5 billion. Irish property speculators own expensive property and portfolios of investment abroad. Speculators in financial products possess enormous personal wealth, even after the losses of the past year are factored in. In addition there is a number of Irish billionaires who in order to avoid paying tax say that they live abroad.

The crisis was caused by private companies. All the Irish banks, all the property development companies, all the purveyors of financial products at the Dublin Financial Services Centre were privately-owned. Those industrial companies that closed down leaving thousands unemployed were private companies. The Government should not be allowed to get away with the lie that the country’s problems are caused by the pay bill for public servants.

Look Left is seeking an article of similar length, for publication, from a trade union activist in support of accepting the public service 2010-2014 proposals – lookleftonline@gmail.com

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