24 June 2004 Edition
Unions get the dregs
BY ROBBIE SMYTH
A record sixth partnership agreement and an unprecedented final 29-hour negotiating session yielded a new wage agreement between 26-County employers and workers last weekend, in what was probably the most subdued union-employer engagement of the last 20 years.
The resulting agreement, made possible through a fudge by the coalition government on the how and when of Aer Rianta's break up, has little actual detail. Aer Rianta privatisation was at the top of the union agenda, yet the situation at An Post and CIE was inexplicably not.
Employees get a 5.5% wage increase over the next 18 months, rising to 6% for workers earning less than €9 an hour. Maternity pay will increase from 70% to 80% of a recipient's normal wage. There will also be a 20% increase in the ceiling on redundancy payments.
And that seems to be it. The whole agreement seems to be in place without any government commitments on tax cuts, including taking the low paid out of the tax net or more workers off the top rate of tax. There were, it seems, no proposals on tax reform, such as dealing with tax exiles or the complex series of reliefs or allowances currently in place. The issue of increasing the minimum wage was kicked into further discussion.
There was also nothing on childcare, stealth taxes, house prices, healthcare or pensions.
Also lost out on were union demands for a 7% wage increase over the 18 months, and a €20 flat rate weekly wage increase for low paid workers. Employers had originally offered a 3% wage increase spread over 18 months.
Other than Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) general secretary David Begg describing the agreement as a "breakthrough for the lower paid", and IBEC's director general Turlough O'Sullivan's declaration that the deal was "a reasonable compromise", there has been little comment on the agreement, which now must go through a ratification process with unions and employers.
Yesterday, the ICTU executive met to set the date for a delegate conference on the package.
The agreement covers the 543,000 ICTU workers, approximately 300,000 of whom are public sector workers. This is the vital element of the agreement reached. It is essentially one that represents the public sector workers, many of whom are in line for delayed and much deserved benchmarking payments and private sector unions such as MANDATE and the ATGWU whose members are found predominantly in larger businesses. Then there are large unions like the Communications Workers Union (CWU) the core of whose membership is spread across the public and private sectors at An Post and Eircom.
It is hard to see the effects of this agreement on the wages of your local Spar or Londis workers, or on the wages of the tens of thousands of other service workers who live in the low wage economy.
There are over 1.7 million workers in the 26 Counties, so last weekend's partnership agreement covers less than one third of them. The agreement highlights serious weaknesses in the trade union partnership approach. Some workers in the 'new' economy growth sectors often receive wage increases substantially above the partnership rates, so the process is in fact meaningless in these non-unionised sectors.
Can there be real partnership when the agreements made apply only to what is perhaps an elite minority of workers. No doubt the partnership arguments will run back and forth in the coming weeks but for now it seems that, with a growing profitable economy and substantial tax surpluses, the unions have only been offered the dregs of economic growth and prosperity.