Coy parties leave public service pay in play
by Bernard Harbor

A spat over public service pay broke out between the two main parties in the middle of the election campaign when Fine Gael pledged average annual pay increases of 2.5% in the four years following 2020, while accusing Fianna Fáil of planning a pay freeze.


Later the same day, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar took the highly unusual step of writing to Fórsa general secretary Kevin Callinan to ask him to spread the word among our members.


The union, which expects to negotiate a successor to the Public Service Stability Agreement (PSSA) once a new government is formed after the election, had earlier issued its own assessment of where the two largest parties stood.


On the basis of manifesto statements and media comments, the union judged that the two big beasts were effectively budgeting for continued real wage stagnation in the public service and non-commercial semi-state sector.


It said their figures suggested annual increases of between 1.3% and 2.1% at most, at a time when the central statistics office (CSO) says average private sector earnings are rising by nearly 4% a year.


Experts, including the union-backed Nevin Economic Research Institute, are predicting minimum average annual wage growth of 3.5% in the coming years.


In truth, no party is going to set out a detailed position in advance of negotiations. We wouldn’t either. But, in an effort to inform members, Fórsa put pay and working time at the top of the list of questions it put to all the political parties in the first full week of the election campaign.


Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, Labour and the Social Democrats commit to negotiate a new pay deal in their manifestos and, when prompted by Fórsa, the others said they would too. All were fairly short on details.


Fianna Fáil said it would establish a new Public Service Pay Commission, which would “prepare the basis for” a new agreement that would also incorporate new entrants’ pay. Fine Gael stressed its preference for a “sustainable deal,” which would “introduce a bargaining clause…to make progress on sectoral issues.”


Sinn Féin placed great emphasis on “frontline staff,” saying it would ensure that “funding goes where it is needed to recruit and retain the people who deliver on the frontline.” It also said it would “deliver for low and middle-income workers.”


Meanwhile, Labour said it would engage, and would include the establishment of “a structured, fair and sustainable funding model for Section 39 agencies to underpin services and ensure fair pay” in the talks agenda.


None of the parties except PBP/Solidarity specifically committed to inflation-plus increases – which the union asked them to do. Fine Gael values its offer at 2.5% a year, which is above the current inflation rate. But it also singles out nurses for specific additional increases, which would presumably bring the average down for everyone else.


In fairness, ours was a hard question as the answer depends on future inflation rates and the length of any post-PSSA agreement. The two parties (FF and FG) that put figures on their offers did so in the context of a five-year government programme, though it’s rare for public service deals to exceed three years’ duration.


Despite being specifically asked, most of the parties said even less – nothing in fact – on their attitudes to additional working time introduced for many public servants during the recession.


They might regret this, seeing that Fórsa’s pre-election opinion survey found that over two-thirds of respondents’ votes could be swayed by this and other ‘two-tier’ hangovers from the crisis years.


Indeed, a whopping 94% of our respondents said it was unacceptable that higher-paid public servants were having their pay fully restored to pre-crisis levels, while those on lower incomes are still working extra unpaid hours introduced during the recession.


On the broader issue of working time, the Labour manifesto pledges to “review the evidence” for a shorter working week, including a four-day week, without loss of pay.”


The Soc Dems say they’ll establish a commission to research and trial “the introduction of a right to flexible work,” including a four-day week, so long as it works “for large and small employers.” The Greens don’t have the four-day week in their manifesto but, when prompted, they told us they’d explore it.


Meanwhile Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael both talk about exploring more flexible working time arrangements. Again PBP are silent on the matter.


So where does it all leave us?


The three biggest parties plus Labour and the Social Democrats are explicitly in favour of doing a new public service pay deal. When prompted, the others told us they will do a deal, though the absence of any reference in their manifestos suggests it’s hardly top-of-mind for the Greens and PBP.


Fine Gael and, to a lesser extent, Fianna Fáil, have done some thinking on what they plan to spend. But it’s not encouraging in light of Fórsa general secretary Kevin Callinan’s repeated calls for movement on working time and significant pay increases in light of economic and exchequer improvements that have outstripped everyone’s expectations when the PSSA was signed in 2017.


Only Fine Gael explicitly mentions a sectoral dimension to future talks, which is something Fórsa has pressed for. But, by singling out one group for specific treatment (see above) they may have complicated the task of reaching a deal.


Overall, the main players left me with the impression that we’re facing a tough negotiation regardless of who ends up in government. On the other hand, the details of any possible outcome remain very much in play.


Bernard Harbor is Fórsa’s head of communications.

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