Solidarity, or the public sector unions vs the public?

RTE News reports that the public servants in the Passport Office who have been involved in the industrial action that has caused massive delays for those wanting to obtain or renew passports were given a standing ovation today at the conference of the Civil Public and Services Union conference in Galway. Clearly the trade unions, fearing that they have been unable to influence events over the past year and in particular to protect the pay and conditions of their public service members, are looking for ways to be more effective at this time. And it is hard to deny that the Passport Office action has been effective. What is less clear is what that effect will turn out to be. Walking past the queues at the office earlier this week I was able to hear some very colourful opinions by members of the public, and it has to be said that these were overwhelmingly negative, mostly unprintable, about the industrial action by the union. There is therefore a risk that the action will actually widen the gulf between the public service workers and other members of society, which is not good for anyone.

I am hoping that talks between the government and the unions will recommence. But I am very sceptical as to whether industrial action can advance the unions’ case right now. I fear that the opposite is happening, and that this may give further strength to the anti-public sector case, including that which has been so damaging to the universities.

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10 Comments on “Solidarity, or the public sector unions vs the public?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Well that has been my argument. They are forgetting that Permanent part of the permanent and pensionable has been left alone. And alone only because the Gov’ does not think it has the political capital to push it through without collapsing. But the more of this ignorant action that is carried out the less sympathy the CS for people understand strike but not this.

    • Vincent, I agree. People may agree or disagree with a cause, but on the whole they understand a strike. This action, which targets the public in a highly deliberate way, is having a major negative effect, not just on attitudes on these public servants, but on the wider trade union movement. It is amazingly and worryingly damaging. And even worse, the CPSU don’t see it.

      • Brendan Says:

        Yes, if these trade unionists could just stop representing their member’s interests and stop exercising their right to strike, then things would be OK.

        Employers (of course) are under no obligation to negotiate with employees and are fully entitled to alter terms and conditions of employment when and how they see fit.

        And if Greena Fail don’t ban chimneys we can go back to sending the nippers up to clean them.

  2. Brendan, that was probably a fun comment to write, but it’s not realistic. The whole point is that the unions *do* need to represent their members’ interests, but they need to do it intelligently. Making the public hostile to them is not the best idea.

  3. kevin denny Says:

    I think the unions are certainly damaging their own position by engaging in action that is widely seen as unreasonable – because it is. Its not unusual for organisations (& not just unions), when in a hole, to dig furiously.
    The economy is experiencing catastrophe and while, as a public sector worker, I don’t especially like the big cut in my net income, I’m grateful for what I have got. I’m mindful also that the deflation in the economy compensates for the fall in nominal income: stuff is cheaper.
    Given that pretty much everyone is suffering, this industrial action seems so ill-considered.

    • Jilly Says:

      I’m grateful for what I’ve got as well. But I can’t help but notice the unfair ways in which the current cuts have been made. Every study indicates that the majority of private sector workers have not had their salaries cut, and then there are small but telling incidents such as the Anglo-Irish pay rises.

      The fair option would have been to increase the higher rate of income tax. That would have a) protected the lower-paid and b) reduced all higher earners’ income (public and private) by the same proportion. I would probably have had my net income reduced by an identical amount, but I would have regarded the move as fair and not complained particularly.

      They could also have tightened up the regulations on non-PAYE tax-payers. I have self-employed acquaintances who earn more than twice what I do, and yet pay less income tax.

      I love my career in academia, and in many ways do regard it as a vocation. But in the end, I do work for money like most other people.

      • kevin denny Says:

        Remember Jilly the private sector aren’t paid by the tax-payer! So they are not the government’s problem. The government is desperately short of cash and it has to cut spending & hence our wages as a result. If private firms can manage to keep paying their workers the same then bully for them. Ultimately that’s their business. What benefit would there be in forcing them to cut wages if they don’t want to?
        Anomalies to do with the self-employed that you refer to certainly don’t help. Likewise the special exemption from cuts for senior civil servant.
        As an aside we generally have poor data on wages in Ireland – worse than many countries in the developed world I suspect – partly as the CSO are reluctant to ask about it. So I don’t think we have a great picture ‘though I think its getting better.

  4. Brendan Says:

    University Diary – unfortunately you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. By definition if you work in the public sector and take strike action you are going to affect the public. And the situation in the Molesworth St. office is being exacerbated by an unjustified (and unjustifiable) panic stoked by media outlets like NewsTalk.
    I’m not sure where in the public sector Kevin works but he must be a hospital consultant if the drop in his income is matched by deflation as he says. Average income drop in the public sector is about 15%, deflation is about 5%, including the drop in mortgage interest rates if you are fortunate enough to be able to take advantage of that.
    Jilly is spot on on the issue of fairness and on the issue of the tax evading self-employed. Illegal tax evasion is practiced by the majority of the self employed and this is why there is always a cash price for goods or services in addition to the ‘other’ price.
    It’s also why the building, construction and related trades refer to VAT as the ‘vodka and tonic’.

  5. kevin denny Says:

    Brendan.I work in UCD. I didn’t say deflation “matched”. I said it compensates. I didn’t say it *fully* compensates [nor was it implicit] for the reasons you give. Given the state of the economy now & the increases we enjoyed in the preceding years, a 10% fall in real income is manageable.
    I’m curious to know what omelette is going to emerge from all this: I don’t think its going to be very tasty.

    • Brendan Says:


      “I’m mindful also that the deflation in the economy compensates for the fall in nominal income:”

      Only an academic would point out that they hadn’t said “compensates fully”. I think most people would have the same understanding of what you said as I did.

      Are you by any chance one of the associate or full professorial grade that received the 8% pay rise in DEC 2008 (backdated to 2007) a few months before the imposition of the pension levy? People at this level have suffered around a net 8% drop in income over their 2008 pay which is very nearly compensated for by 5% deflation. The balance of a 3% drop can probably be managed quite easily by someone earning around €130,000.

      It’s quite a different story if you work in the passport office on Molesworth street earning 28K and have taken a 15% cut in earnings over your 2008 levels.

      Clearly there are different degrees of ‘suffering’ and some are more equal than others.

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