Public sector dispute – ICTU strategy a recipe for defeat

The Finance Minister, Brian Lenihan, has spelt out plans to make a further €3 billion in cuts at the next Budget. €500 million of these cuts are to come from public sector “reform” and if the unions don’t agree, he will impose further pay cuts.

The response of the ICTU leaders was a threat to escalate the public sector industrial action. Move things up a notch or two from the ineffectual work-to-rule to the possibility of selective strike action to “entice” the government back to the table for talks.
Union general secretaries have been lining up in the media to present themselves as reasonable and completely open to assisting the government in making the necessary cuts in public spending for the “greater good” of the economy.
At a rally of 700 public sector workers in Galway, Jack O’Connor, SIPTU President, did little to increase the pressure on the government. He spoke of the need for a programme of industrial action “carefully and incrementally escalating and ramping it up in such a way as to minimise the implications for ordinary citizens of the country – to the degree that we can – and maximising the prospect of a negotiated outcome”. Not exactly a call to arms!
And the other union leaders who spoke that night were no better. Shay Cody, IMPACT’s General Secretary in waiting told the meeting that he thought the public service transformation deal (sell-out) put forward by the unions last November “could be back on the table” and be the basis for a new agreement.
This is the bottom line for the ICTU leaders. They are not out to defeat the government, to force a reversal of the Budget pay cuts and the pension levy – they are trying to get back in to favour with the government to work as “partners” in implementing so-called public sector reform.
Rather than going after the wealth of the rich and the profits of big business, the union leaders are prepared to accept the government’s strategy of making workers pay. ICTU believes that by agreeing to major “reform” in the public sector the government will “reward” them by doing a deal on pensions and re-establishing previous pay levels over a number of years – dependant on renewed growth and agreed savings (cuts) in public spending.
This is pie in the sky. The government will never willingly reverse the pay cuts or the pension levy, because they view them as the first step in a process of driving down pay and pensions in the public sector – they want to totally re-define the public sector.
Pensions will be based on average pay over a working life and instead of a defined benefit pension, workers will be thrown to the mercy of the casino stock exchange and risk the same fate as the Waterford Crystal workers, left with nothing after decades of service. The government will outsource work to the private sector and implement a programme of privatisation by stealth that will cost thousands of public sector jobs. The government’s strategy to force down wages, in order to improve competitiveness, as a way to lower the costs of exports is based precisely on lowering the wages of public sector workers and the cost of the provision of public services by sacrificing tens of thousands of jobs.
CPSU members voted 83% in favour of strike action and the prospect of rolling strike action in different regions and areas of the public sector is being considered by ICTU. When this will happen is unclear as both David Begg, ICTU General Secretary and Jack O’Connor, have spoken of delaying escalating the industrial action for up to six weeks to allow the government time to begin talks on a deal.
This is a crucial period for public sector workers and the working class in general. The future of our public services such as health and education are under threat and the union leaders are offering themselves up as willing accomplices in the potential destruction of these services. The government can be stopped. Public sector workers in Greece have been joined by private sector workers in a battle to stop the Greek government and the EU implementing similar attacks to the Irish government.
Public sector workers here should demand that the campaign of industrial action be escalated immediately. As a first step, the date should be named for a 24 hour public sector strike to be quickly followed by a 48-hour strike as part of a concerted and determined campaign to reverse the pay cuts and defeat the government’s assault on the public sector. Victory is possible but only if militant action is taken – the union leaders’ strategy is a recipe for defeat.