On Tuesday 30 August, the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) in Ireland announced that an agreement had been struck between the public sector unions and the government on a pay deal.
The terms of the deal will come as a shock to the over 320,000 public sector workers. That shock will turn to anger and determination in the weeks ahead as workers reflect more on the details and try to figure out how they are meant to get by.
Inflation was 9.1% in July, the present proposal is for a pay increase of 6.5% between now and October of next year: 3% would be backdated to February of this year; 2% paid in March next year; and, the final 1.5% paid in October 2023. Adding in the 2% already due under the 2020 ‘Building Momentum’ deal this comes in at 8.5% which is still a pay cut. Davy Stockbrokers, a pillar of the Irish capitalist establishment, have said, for instance, that inflation could reach 13% over the winter due to the energy crisis.
So, by the time the deal concludes, it will have delivered a substantial pay cut. After two and half years of extreme effort – particularly in the health and education sectors – to ensure that society was not overwhelmed by COVID the Irish state thinks that a pay cut, not a pay rise, is all the public sector deserves. It is an act of supreme political contempt from this government; and it is a contempt that must be returned, with interest, by workers.
Another Attack on Public Sector Workers
The Irish state’s relationship with the public sector illustrates some of the most brutal and destructive characteristics of capitalism’s impact on vital public service provision. The public sector was used as a scapegoat and whipping boy for a degenerate political establishment whose incompetence and misrule led to the financial crash of 2008 and the subsequent IMF-led bailout in 2010. One of the first acts of the Irish government in response to the financial collapse of 2008 was to stop the agreed public sector pay rises due at the end of that year. What followed then was an unrelenting campaign of cuts to pay, the decimation of terms and conditions of employment, attacks on new entrants, cuts to staff levels, and massive increases in workloads.
This campaign only really ended in 2019, when pay for this group of workers returned to the levels in 2008. Crucially, however, very few of the cuts to terms and conditions were reversed. As a result, and taking into account the cumulative inflation between 2008 and 2022, public sector pay today is still 5% lower than it was in 2008.
Regardless of these attacks, public sector workers continued to do their duty and provide the best service possible. The deep capacity, expertise, and flexibility of this group of workers were demonstrated vividly by their response to the rapid onset of COVID and the massive efforts they made to keep public services running effectively, and people safe and well through lockdowns.
The building of a Left inside the trade union movement is an essential and urgent task, one that Militant Left is totally committed to assisting. Too many in national leadership positions in the unions are committed above all else to the idea of ‘industrial peace’ and ‘partnership’ with the employers and government and have up to now been determined to prevent industrial action. At a time when wages in many sectors are stagnating or declining, rents are increasing by 16% annually, house prices by 9%, and inflation is at historically high levels, this is a deeply irresponsible position.
The public sector is an area of the Irish economy where unions still possess the levels of membership and density to take decisive action. A new layer of young workers, the future of the trade union movement, and who have known nothing in their lives but economic hardship and precariousness, will not take kindly to lectures about ‘the national interest’ from senior trade unionists with their mortgages paid and pensions secured.
Vote No and Organise for Strike Action
Public sector workers have no choice now. Accepting this deal will see our living standards continue to deteriorate; we must organise to reject it and struggle for a better deal. Militant Left’s position on the deal is that trade unionists in the public sector must, as a first step, campaign for its rejection on the forthcoming ballots. Secondly, if further negotiations do not deliver an improved offer, the unions and workers must have already prepared for industrial action, including organising nationally coordinated strike action to secure a better deal. This means organising now to win that outcome at the ballot box.
A better deal means a rise that covers inflation plus a real pay rise. As well as that, the unions must demand that all future pay offers be inflation proofed. The Irish state has the money to pay for a better deal. The government’s initial offer was 5% in June but the threat of a public sector strike forced another 1.5% out of them. This shows that determined action by unions can win above inflation increases.
Workers must treat with absolute contempt the insulting arguments that if public sector workers get a decent pay rise, then funds for other areas will not be available. If this government can afford a 1 billion euro tax break for landlords it can afford a 10% pay rise for public sector workers.