Was Croke Park “the best deal available?” And more importantly why?

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INTO (Irish National Teachers Organisation) general secretary Sheila Nunan and other union leaders have said that the Croke Park extension deal is “the best deal available through negotiation” and that the negotiators “left nothing at the table”.  And they are probably right.  But saying that this is the best deal available through negotiation is not quite the same as saying that it is the best deal achievable.

There is very little doubt that no matter how brilliant the negotiators were, the final shape of the current ‘deal’ could not have been very different from how the current one looks.  There is a very simple reason for that, however.  And it’s got nothing to do with the brilliance or otherwise of the negotiating team – or the closeness of many of them to the Labour party (although that is something that inevitably raises conflict of interest questions).  The reason simply is the basis on which talks took place.

Any trade union negotiator is only as strong as the troops s/he can threaten to put on the streets and/or the disruption s/he can threaten will happen if the employer (in this case the government) proceeds in a certain direction.

Pre-determined

But consider what happened in relation to the Croke Park ‘extension deal’.  Government contacted the unions and told them that it wanted to cut €1billion from the public pay bill, the unions agreed to enter talks on that basis.  So before the ‘talks’ even began there was a pre-determined outcome – public sector workers would be €1 billion worse off over the course of the next three years.

All that was up for negotiation was where the cuts would fall, whether they would hit younger workers or more established workers, whether more would be taken from nurses or teachers etc… The concept that the threatened cuts were wrong and should not even been countenanced was not on the agenda. 

Effectively the union side went into the talks with no weapons its arsenal and was then presented with as the general secretary of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors famously put it “...a choice of whether we wanted to be shot with a handgun or a shotgun”.  INTO’s general secretary Sheila Nunan made the lack of ambition on the union side perfectly clear when she wrote in the January edition of the union’s magazine ‘In Touch’ – “The union side has made it very clear that any proposal that may emerge must be capable of achieving savings, be fair to all workers while protecting to the greatest extent possible those on low and middle incomes and be capable of being put to members in a ballot.” (my emphasis)

A different way

But it needn’t have been like this.   Imagine how different the talks could have been if when the invitation to talks was issued the unions had responded by calling meetings of members.  And if at those meetings the members had agreed a plan of campaign as to how we would respond if the government proceeded with their threat to cut our pay.  The ‘negotiations’ that then took place would have consisted of the government side threatening paycuts and the unions responding with “if you cut X, we will do Y” or “if you cut Z, we will respond by A”.

Meetings of members at which a plan of action – work-to-rule, refusal to co-oerate with mangement’s agenda, and various options up to and including strike action – was worked out would have had two principal effects.  Firstly, the members would have been energised and would have seen that we do not have to accept further cuts as inevitable.  Secondly the negotiators, rather than going into talks with an empty arsenal, would have sat down opposite the government representatives with a clear message that the members of the union were not going to meekly roll over and have our bellies tickled while our pockets were being dipped.

Government would have learned that if they wanted to impose cuts they would have to do so through legislation and they would have been clever enough to know that that legislation was not going to be very effective if union members were to stand up the bullying and resist attempts to impose pay cuts.  There is no way that government could countenance a public sector wide strike that would last for more than a few days, bringing everything in the country to a halt. 

But they were not threatened with such a strike, they weren’t even threatened with a stern rebuke if they attempted to impose cuts.  Instead the matra from the union leadership was ‘the government wants cuts, if we don’t agree them, they’ll impose them.’

Not too late

It’s not too late though.  Union members are now presented with ‘the best deal available through negotiations’.  Let’s reject it.  Let’s say NO we are not accepting that agenda.  And then let’s call meetings of all union members and discuss how we are going to resist threatened pay cuts if the government presses ahead with an attempt to impose them.

It’s not rocket science – it’s basic trade unionism.  Just because they say they’re going to cut our wages doesn’t mean we have to let them – we have the ability to collectively withdraw co-operation, disrupt the system and ultimately withdraw our labour in order to prevent us being bullied and pushed around. 

Words: Gregor Kerr (Chair District 14 INTO, personal capacity)

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