While we await the publication of the final agreement – which will no doubt contain a number of details that will further chip away at people’s wages – it is worth reflecting on potential alternative outcomes of the vote. The Tanaiste, for instance, stated:
“I think all of us should now respect the fact that trade unions have to consider the outcome of these negotiations and the members of trade unions will have to reflect and make their decisions in the course of ballots . . . it is best if political parties stand back from that process and give to the people who work in our public services the respect and space in order to make a decision.”
This seems reasonable. However, there is a problem. For the Government has also made it clear that it doesn’t matter what the public sector workers do in the ballot – the Government will legislate the changes anyway. So this is the real message:
‘Reflect on the proposals if you will, it doesn’t matter what your decision is. This deal will be imposed on you whether you agree or not.’
In one sense, this reflects the larger debate in the economy: it doesn’t matter what you want or who you vote for, it doesn’t matter how many times you change government, you will get austerity. It’s called a one-policy state.
Over the next few weeks there will be considerable pressure on public sector workers to vote for the deal. And behind all this pressure there is the stick: it doesn’t matter anyway, the deal will be imposed.
So is the vote on the deal a meaningless exercise? UNITE doesn’t believe so, whatever the Government may say. There are options. Let’s go through the sequence of potential events.
1) If the deal is voted down, the worst that would happen is that the Government would legislate for the changes anyway: the cuts in Sunday premium, freezing of the increments, cuts in pensions, cuts in high pay packages, etc. Some might argue that the Government would go further and cut even more. However, the Government would be extremely reluctant to go down this road – to victimise workers on the basis of a democratic vote. There would be no political support for this and it is doubtful Labour would allow Fine Gael to victimise workers who happen to disagree with them.
2) However, if the deal is voted down, the issue becomes political and here is where public sector workers can exercise more power – more than in negotiations where they were put at a disadvantage by the Government’s pre-condition. Once the issue becomes political, the Government can be put on the defensive:
- Why is the Government missing its targets (which Is their reason why they had to make these cuts)? We have put forward one explanation here, but in the Dail the Government can’t hide behind a blizzard of numbers and tables. They will have to come clean – and that means admitting their policies have failed.
- Why did they refuse to even listen to, never mind negotiate, alternative proposals to make savings? This confounded all the unions in the process because it is almost unheard of in management-employee negotiations.
- What are the real savings in the proposals? Not the gross or headline savings but the actual, after-tax savings – the real benefit to the Exchequer.
- What is the damage to the economy arising from these proposals? Again, the Government would have to bring forward their own estimates as to how much consumer spending would be lost, how many private sector jobs would be lost.
By voting down the agreement, public sector workers can start to turn the tables and put pressure on the Government. In such circumstances, it is not even clear that the Government could carry their own backbenchers. For instance, why would Labour TDs vote to cut public sector wages for policy mistakes that Fine Gael Ministers made (after all, it’s Fine Gael Ministers who drive policy in the Departments of Finance and Jobs, Employment and Innovation)?
3) Public sector workers would have the opportunity to go outside the Dail to put their case directly to people – those working in the private sector, the unemployed, community and voluntary groups. For the equation is simple: your spending is my income, my spending is your income. Public sector workers could start to do what we should have been doing all along – linking the fortunes of all workers together, building a broader, popular coalition. This could be the start of a new alliance – one that could put even more pressure on the Government to break from austerity policies throughout the economy.
And behind all this, the public sector workers have a stick, too – namely, industrial action. That combined with political alliance building could make for a powerful combination.
In short, rejecting the deal means the potential of bringing the issue of wages and living standards out of the negotiating room and into the political sphere where the outcome is less certain and public sector workers are more powerful. And the worst that would happen is that the same deal would be imposed.
In other words, public sector workers have nothing to lose but much to gain.
This, too, should form part of the reflection of workers as we prepare to debate the details of the deal.