Public service unions divided ahead of crucial pay talks

Concerns that process – due to start today – could be delayed by FG leadership situation


So it begins.  The crucial Pay negotiations for all Public Service employees begins today, or will it.  Government or at least Fine Gael are focussed on the election of the new leader of Fine Gael rather than the all important work of the restoration of Pay and pensions to all serving and retired Public Servants.  members of the Oireachtas don’t depend on National Pay talks to increase their pay, they have already granted themselves sizeable increases. So the focus for them in on Leo and Simon, and to hell with the rest of us. The staff Associations within An Garda Siochana have been put on “Stand By” for parallel talks, to day.  So we await with interest what unfolds.  Meanwhile for us, the forgotten pensioners, the Alliance of Retired Public Servants will be going to talks with officials from Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in the next 10 days, that’s if Government can get their act together. Below is extract from todays newspaper, with focus again on the Gardaí.

Nurses were outraged last week at reports that cited a senior public service union figure forecasting the outcome of the talks. Photograph: Frank Miller

Talks on a new pay deal for about 300,000 State employees get under way today with the main Government party, Fine Gael, in the midst of electing a new leader and public-service unions divided on their strategic objectives.

It had been envisaged that talks could run for about a fortnight. However, there are concerns among some participants that the process could be delayed by the election of a successor to Enda Kenny, which is also scheduled to conclude by the June bank holiday weekend.

All unions want pay cuts to be rolled back and the financial emergency legislation that underpinned them to be rescinded. They also want the elimination of the public-service pension levy, the abolition of the two-tier pay system and the ending of the requirement on staff to work additional unpaid hours.

The public pay bill currently stands at about €16 billion annually, so even the most modest of raises would have significant implications for the exchequer; a deal would be likely to cost several hundred million over next three years .

Unions representing about 50,000 health staff are seeking special financial incentives to tackle problems in recruiting and retaining highly trained doctors and nurses.

Nurses want pay parity with other degree-entry professions such as physiotherapy, which would involve rises of 10-12 per cent, but other unions favour the one-size-fits -all approach and are totally opposed to special deals.

Impact, the country’s largest public-service union, has been particularly critical of any agreement that would involve members of some unions receiving larger increases than the rest. It warned last week it would be unlikely to put any such a deal to a ballot.

Nurses and some other unions were outraged last week at media reports that cited a senior public service union figure forecasting the outcome of the talks. The senior figure maintained nurses were unlikely to secure a special deal.

That person said the only likely outcome was that unions would seek to get the other side to agree to a process where claims of retention problems “can be examined and tested as opposed to an X plus Y” – where one group would receive additional money on top of the amount awarded to others.

The remarks are understood to have led to serious discussions among union leaders, including about the identity of the person who made them, at a meeting of the executive of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions last week.

Collective agreement

The Government has insisted it wants a collective agreement with the unions. However, it is also expected to press for major reforms to pension arrangements. It is likely to agree to rolling back the pension levy, which was introduced in 2009 and currently averages about 5 per cent.

The pension levy generates about €600 million annually and the Government will want to retain some of this. To achieve this it is likely to seek greater contributions from those considered to have more valuable or faster-accruing pensions, such as Gardaí.

Such a move would go some way towards closing the relative pay gap that unions contend has emerged between most public service personnel and Gardaí on foot of the €50 million deal agreed last November to head off a threatened strike.

Public-service unions believe that Gardaí are about €1,000 “ahead” of other State employees. Making Gardaí and other groups such as judges make larger contributions would close any such pay gap. However, the reaction of Garda bodies to any such move remains to be seen.

Staff currently earning less than €28,000 are exempt from the pension levy, and unions will press for pay rises for this group.

Another potential flashpoint will be the additional-hours requirement. Under existing arrangements staff provide about 15 million “free “ hours annually and unions are coming under great pressure from members to have this requirement abolished.

The Department of Public Expenditure is expected to argue that the value of the additional working hours is about €600 million per year and that in their absence an additional 12,000 staff would have to be taken on to maintain frontline services.

Who will be at the table for the pay talks?

The forthcoming public-service pay talks will not only involve resolving complex industrial relations issues but will also present a significant logistical challenge.

Overseen by the new director general of the Workplace Relations Commission, Oonagh Buckley, the process will involve representatives of about 25 different groups of workers in the public service, as well as those – such as Gardaí, the Defence Forces and psychiatric nurses – that are not affiliated with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

The management team will be headed by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform along with representatives of other Government departments and agencies such as the HSE.

The union delegation will be led by Shay Cody, the general secretary of Impact, who is also chairman of the public-service committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

Other key union negotiators will be Tom Geraghty of the Public Service Executive Union, Gene Mealy of Siptu and Sheila Nunan of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation.

The chief negotiator on the Government side will be assistant secretary in charge of pay in the Department of Public Expenditure Colin Menton.

Ms. Buckley, who will be involved in chairing the new process, was the chief Government negotiator in the previous talks that led to the Lansdowne Road agreement in 2015 while she was a senior official in the Department of Public Expenditure.