Public sector pay talks to intensify in next 48 hours

After two weeks of negotiation with little progress, talks between the Government and trade unions on a new public sector pay deal will intensify hugely over the next 48 hours, writes Stephen Rogers.

Unusually for pay talks, the Workplace Relations Commission gave the sides the bank holiday weekend off, perhaps to allow participants to process the position of the other side, to be clear on what they want, and to ensure they come back this morning ready to get down to renewed efforts.

The process has to speed up now — it should have been completed last Friday and the clock is ticking. A deal that includes pay adjustments in 2018 has to be factored into the October 2017 budget announcement.

Unions would have to complete ballots before that and teachers are about to break up for the summer.

While unions say a “small bit” of progress was made on a text covering a number of non-pay issues last Friday, the crunch issue, outsourcing, remains a potentially massive stumbling block. It will have to be addressed before any new deal can be put to a ballot.

The Lansdowne Road Agreement, in 2015, introduced a restriction preventing labour costs from being included in a business case for a service to be outsourced. However, the Government want to lift that restriction.

Unions have insisted that would mean every proposal from the private sector, for a public service, would succeed on the basis of “minimum wage, rock-bottom conditions, and zero job security”.

Actual figures for how much pay the Government is willing to restore to public servants, as well as for how much it wants those workers to contribute to their pensions, will have to emerge within a matter of hours.

PSEU general secretary Tom Geraghty said to his members: “A large problem, to start with, is that Government comes into the talks with a total of €200m fiscal space in 2018 to cover all additional expenditure, not just the pay restoration of its employees.

“Even if union negotiators secured €150m of that money, (which would, in other circumstances, be seen as no mean achievement), spread over more than 300,000 people, the effect would be less than €500 or so per person, or, roughly, a 1% increase on average.”

To accompany such a low amount with an increased contribution to pensions, when the pension levy is done away with, and productivity expectations increased, will make many feel that what should have been talks about pay restoration are actually turning into further reductions in their entitlements.

Mr Geraghty said: “All industrial relations agreements hinge on the ‘how much?’ and ‘how soon?’ questions. At the moment, there are no answers, but the sort of money available suggests that those answers have the potential to lengthen the odds on the success of this process.”

Meanwhile, health unions still have their own list of requirements, which, if they were to be satisfied, would require a “special deal”.

The Irish Nurses’ and Midwives’ Organisation, for example, still wants retention and recruitment issues to be addressed and it wants pay parity with other health professionals. That would require extra monies to be put into those areas, which would lead other unions to cry foul.

Pay and pensions on table as pay talks intensify today

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Talks on a new public-service agreement are expected to intensify on Tuesday, with the Government likely to table detailed proposals on pay and pensions for the first time.

Key issues will include the scale of pay improvements offered by the Government over the terms of any new deal and which categories of staff will be required to contribute more towards their pensions in the future.

The Government has indicated that it wants to see some public-service personnel make a greater pension contribution in return for a rolling-back of the existing public service pension levy. However, it has so far put forward no details as to how this would work, particularly in relation to the income threshold above which the requirement to make increased pension contributions would come into effect.

There has been some speculation that unions will press for staff earning less than €65,000 to be exempt from any higher contribution. But if the Government wanted to maximise its take, it would have to apply to lower incomes.

It is understood that groups such as Gardaí, prison officers and fire fighters – who have faster pension accrual rates than others – are opposing any suggestion they should have to pay more.

The outsourcing red line

Proposals tabled by the Government over the past fortnight to relax existing restrictions on the outsourcing of public services have been flagged by trade unions as “red line” issues that would undermine a potential new accord.

Unions will be watching carefully to try to work out whether the Government is determined to secure greater flexibility on outsourcing or whether it is prepared to “trade” this issue for a deal when the negotiations reach their end game.

Nurses and doctors are also still seeking special financial incentives aimed at tackling recruitment and retention issues. However, this is being opposed by other unions.

Informed sources said it was likely to become clear over Tuesday and Wednesday whether a new public-service deal could be agreed.

Improvements in pay are likely to be “back loaded” towards the end of any new accord as the Government has insisted that its “fiscal space” for 2018 is very limited – at about €200 million – although more resources would be available in subsequent years.

In a bulletin to members on Tuesday, Impact, the country’s largest public-service union, says unions would work in the talks to increase the thresholds for paying any higher pension contribution by as much as possible.

However, it warned that the Government will want to maximise the amount of money the measure will realise. “The navigation between this rock and that hard place may determine success or failure.”