By John Dolan
THERE we were, thinking the threats to our fragile economic recovery were all external.
The uncertainty over Brexit; the idea of a man in the White House who was just too orange to do the job properly; the continued pressure on the one-size-fits-all euro currency; the global dependency on debt from individuals all the way up to countries…
And all the while we forgot to point out the elephants in our own room. We were too blind and complacent not to notice the twin threats to our recovery from within.
On the one hand, we have a weak, cobbled-together government that teeters just a tantrum away from collapsing.
On the other, we have a public sector nursing a misguided sense of grievance which only has to ask for more to receive it, and which never, ever tires of asking.
Even when an Irish government has a strong mandate and a sound majority, it kowtows to its unions’ demands. More pay, less work, bigger pensions, less responsibility… and did we ask for more pay?
So, given the make-up of this government, the thought of it taking on the unions and doing anything but caving in abjectly was always a no-brainer.
It was a one-sided battle from the start, and so it is proving.
When the gardaí extracted more from the Labour Court last week, you could already envisage the domino effect as the unions lined up in a disorderly queue and shouted loudly for more.
The depressing fact is, you know they will get just about everything they want.
Let’s leave aside the fact many of our public sector workers are among the highest paid in Europe, with working conditions to match.
Let’s leave aside the fact the gap between average pay in the private sector and public sector is a massive 40% — and widening to a chasm.
Let’s simply look at democracy in action here.
In the last election, the people voted unanimously to reject offers of tax cuts in exchange for investment in our beleaguered public services. Note I say ‘services’, not ‘servants’.
Outside Fine Gael, every politician agreed with this assessment. In the budget a few weeks ago, despite being the largest party — just — Fine Gael recognised this and diverted the largest portion of its precious spare cash into the State’s bodies.
Tax cuts were set aside for the greater good. But here’s the rub.
The greater good was meant to mean fewer people on hospital trolleys and on waiting lists for surgeries, and smaller classroom sizes.
I don’t think many outside the cosseted public sector would have included their pay ‘restoration’ as part of the ‘greater good’. But that is what is going to happen.
Our votes for better public services have been wasted, as the State’s hard-earned — or should that be hard-extracted? — extra cash is set to be siphoned off into the pockets of public sector staff.
What annoys me is the silence of so many politicians. Few will take a stand against the demands of public sector unions and employees, which form such a large part of the electorate — even when their actions are affecting their very passionate pledges to invest more in the public sector.
Fine Gael Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar called it right this week when he stated after the garda offer: “If you’re going to spend more on public service pay, there is less money for public services.”
He broke this down even more simply for voters. “Extra pay for gardaí means less scope for more gardaí, less scope for new garda cars, less scope for investment IT, and the same thing applies in education. If more money goes to the salary of teachers, that means it’s harder to reduce class sizes, it’s harder to increase funding for schools.”
Why aren’t the politicians of the protest partiers saying this, as they watch their calls for better public services go up in smoke? Why aren’t the parties of the left pointing out that already very well-paid workers are getting more money while services for all suffer? Instead, we have Cork AAA TD Mick Barry arguing the case for the “justified pay claims of public sector workers” and that this would have “a knock-on effect in the private sector”.
How so, Deputy? Will private sector CEOs award lavish pay rises all round because the public sector are getting them? Or is he talking about the trickle-down effect of the extra buying power among public sector workers?
I wouldn’t hold my breath on either count as I’d soon be blue in the face.
As Minister Varadkar pointed out: “We’re heading into a situation where those who shout the loudest and are able to go on strike and impose hardship on other people are going to be first in the queue and I don’t think that’s good for our society.”
Nor do I. But maybe it’s just Leo and me.
Look, I accept the average wage for public sector workers should be higher than the private sector wage, given the educational qualifications that are usually required. And if the State can’t be an exemplary employer, who can?
Perhaps the solution is to fix the public sector rate of pay by law to within, say, 15%, of the average private sector wage, to ensure fairness across society and put a lid on these constant calls for pay rises.
This is still a very generous and rewarding ratio, when you factor in that public sector jobs come with a virtual guarantee of work for life, few assessments of the capability of staff, and often early retirement and a very generous pension.