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Pay talks: Where do the two sides stand and what will the Government offer?

Agreement on several issues is generally regarded as being within striking distance but ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’

Public sector trade union officials considered Wednesday’s meeting with Government at the Workplace Relations Commission as a key point in the pay talks. The officials attended anticipating senior representatives from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform would finally set out their offer on pay.

That was still the expectation as the side broke for food at 7pm last night but the issue of pay had still not been touched upon and the sense was that the two sides were preparing for a late night.

Significant progress is said to have been made on a wide range of issues but pay remains absolutely key. A meeting of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions’ (Ictu) Public Services Committee (PSC) is scheduled for Thursday. The union side negotiators went into Wednesday’s session unsure of what they would be telling the wider group of 19 affiliates when they gather for a briefing to discuss potential industrial action, they said.

“What we have been talking about have been elements of what was intended to be a multiannual deal, but all of that, obviously, would be for nought if we can’t close out an agreement in relation to pay, which is the top priority and has been right from the start,” said Fórsa general secretary and PSC chairman Kevin Callinan on Wednesday morning.


So what have the two sides been talking about since late November?

To date the talks have centred on issues one side or other wanted addressed, including reform or modernisation of the public sector and how services are delivered, local bargaining, dispute resolution and the use of direct labour versus outsourcing or use of contract/agency workers.

Good progress is said to have been made in most areas but, according to John Boyle of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), while agreement on these issues is generally regarded as being within striking distance “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.

So it’s all about pay?

It certainly remains the key element of it all. The union side’s position is that the last public sector agreement, Building Momentum, which covered the period 2021-2023 after having been extended, provided the bulk of the 385,000 workers impacted by these deals with pay increases of 9.5 per cent. Inflation over the three-year period ran at roughly twice that.

They want, they say, to see that recognised, while also providing for future increases in the cost of living. Inflation in 2024 is anticipated to run at about 3 per cent.

The Government, on the other hand, points to other moves during the period, most significantly the scrapping of increases to working weeks imposed on civil and public servants after the Haddington Road agreement in 2013.

There were also a number of measures to help with the wider population with cost-of-living challenges, most obviously the energy credits. This is acknowledged by the union side, although they point to their temporary nature.

What will the Government offer, then?

That has yet to become clear although the unions say that noises from Ministers have tended to suggest they realise something significant is required. What that actually translates into, however, remained to be seen through most of Wednesday’s discussions.

“What we do know is that the Minister [Paschal Donohoe] and his officials have indicated that they do have something to say on pay and that it will see pay increases for public servants,” says John King, deputy general secretary of Siptu who, along with the Irish Nurses & Midwives Organisation’s (INMO) Phil Ní Sheaghdha, is another of the four-person negotiating team.

“They obviously cautioned that they will be moderate and have to be sustainable and all that kind of stuff but we have to wait to see what that is before we can make any kind of judgment call.”

How big an issue is all of this for the Government?

The expenditure element is very significant. Paschal Donohoe pointed to the fact before Christmas that the public sector wage bill represents about a third of all Government spending.

Each increase of 1 per cent involves an additional outlay of almost €250 million and it was, he said, important to take whatever time was required to get any deal right.

The Government, however, sees changes to working practices in areas like the health service as critical to delivering on commitments to improve services and with an election on the horizon and a desire for some certainty at least into the medium term, would like to get a deal, ideally a multiyear one, in place.

And what happens now if it doesn’t get over the line?

The Public Services Committee of Ictu will meet on Thursday. Mr Callinan said on Wednesday the question remained whether preparations made for the coming weeks would be for a ballot on a deal or on industrial action due to the failure to reach one.

The committee’s 19 unions would have to address what industrial action might look like in the event that things come to that. After the progress made this week, the union side is more circumspect about the prospect than before Christmas when there was clear frustration over the pace at which the talks seemed to be progressing.

Nevertheless, Mr King said the intention would be to achieve “a speedy resolution” to a process they believe has gone on too long.

So the sense is that it would involve action that causes disruption across a range of public services that would have a tangible impact on them and the public that use them.

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Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is Work Correspondent at The Irish Times