Survival of the fattest


Low-paid workers are pawns in a game whose rules are being decided elsewhere


IT’S supposed to be the private sector that’s a dog-eat-dog world. In the public sector – union-defended and sheltered from market forces – the strong are supposed to shield the weak, because they can and because they should.

But now the Croke Park II deal, which protected low-paid public servants against pay cuts and safeguarded their jobs, has been rejected by the very unions that are meant to uphold fair play. In the public sector now, like everywhere else, it’s a case of survival of the fattest.

Public servants have to be paid for by the state one way or another (at least until the last public service is privatised). This means they’re not subject to the upsides or downsides of free enterprise. They can’t flit from job to job, demanding sweeteners wherever they go, as the rest of us were allegedly doing all through the boom. It also means most of them are guaranteed a job till retirement, recession or no, and a pension at the end of it.

To private sector workers, who know not the day nor the hour when their jobs might go, that seems more than reasonable compensation for not enjoying the perk of playing paintball with your 23-year-old boss in some bonkers corporate team-building exercise.

To those on zero-hours contracts, where you’re expected to be available for work whether there’s work or not, and be paid – or not – depending, a guaranteed 39-hour working week would be a godsend.

And to those who are flailing and sinking, jobless in a jobless job market, any position that pays looks like luxury, never mind a position you can’t be sacked from. Don’t like the thought of having your increments frozen? Tell that to a Job Bridge intern.

I worked for one private sector company for over 20 years. Unusually, I didn’t have to take a pay cut, but that was simply because I didn’t receive a pay rise at all between 2000 and 2011, despite a prolonged period of raging inflation. There were no “increments”, let alone increments completely unrelated to performance.

It wasn’t because of the recession, and I flatter myself it wasn’t because I was worthless. It was because I worked for a small, loss-making outfit to which I was unfashionably loyal. Then, in 2011, the company closed and its stranded workers were not entitled to a penny. That’s the system, out there.

Naturally the temptation is to tell public servants what most commentators have been telling them biliously in recent days: “You have a job. Now shut your trap.”

In reality, though, most public sector workers are not doing that well. Some 82% of them earn less than €60,000, and almost half of them, 45%, earn less than €40,000. The vast majority are comfortable, not rich, and Croke Park II acknowledged that. Now they can be thrown to the wolves.

Government is looking for €1bn in savings on public service pay by 2015, and €300 million this year, and it must get them, because those are the orders of our paymasters in the EU and IMF.

“Croke Park II is dead. That is democracy,” said Siptu president Jack O’Connor, suggesting that he has, well, let’s call it a quaint view of democracy.

Unions are now threatening industrial action, and some are pledging not even to talk about this again. So the union line is hardening. More significantly, and despite the illusion of unity in Wednesday’s result, the union line is splitting. An ideological fissure has been exposed.

Impact, which voted in favour, has said it “won’t accept a situation where Impact members face a worse package in order to appease members of other unions who have voted to reject”.

In a circular to members on Thursday, the union pointed out: “you can only make things more acceptable for one group by making it less acceptable for another.” There’s the rub.

Given that people earning under €65,000 were protected under this deal, we can conclude that those who thought it was a bad idea were those earning over €65,000. And the other union members who voted against it did so because that is the union way. You back up your co-workers. In other words, the low-paid have protected the high-paid.

Of course the vote also reflects an all-purpose anger about austerity and burden-sharing. Nobody is happy about having this whole business adjudicated by our overlords in the Troika. Nobody is happy that Ireland has paid 42% of the cost of the European banking crisis, or that the banks seem to be carrying on as if nothing happened, or that the accountancy firms that audited those banks are still advising Nama, or that property developers are still living large despite being supposedly in the red, or that overpaid politicians are still sitting in their warm ancestral seats, many of them claiming multiple pensions. Then there are the unsecured bondholders. And Seanie Fitzpatrick. And Bertie Ahern. If even half a dozen disreputable shysters had been cooling their heels in the slammer this week, Croke Park II might have passed.

Look what’s happened instead. Public sector workers now face a 7% pay cut across the board, together with other nasty measures such as compulsory redundancies, and the unions have ditched the protection that Croke Park II afforded to low-paid workers against this.

And where else is there to go? The unions want the money raised from a wealth tax, which might be all very well if the government had any influence over how to go about saving €1bn from the public purse. Clearly the unions think Enda Kenny is in charge; behold Jack O’Connor’s old-fashioned notion of democracy. But we’re all public servants now, in the service of propping up the euro.

Kenny told the Dáil this week that any move to tax high earners would fail, as Croke Park II failed for the very reason that it proposed to cut high earners’ pay. He neglected to mention, though, that outside of the public service, you don’t technically have to ask people first.

And if the unions do strike, how much sympathy do they anticipate? The public reaction to any action, especially by teachers, who would have some trouble scheduling a strike around their 18 weeks of annual holidays (there, I’ve said it) might shock them.

The unions are strutting like kings here, but they must know this game plan is being decided a long way away from Croke Park. The next move could checkmate them, and the pawns – the low-paid – will be hurt the most.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 21st April 2013

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