The argument offered by the leadership of the the public service unions advocating a yes vote – IMPACT, PSEU and SIPTU (the union the leadership of which is campaigning for a Yes vote without making a recommendation to its members – square that circle, I dare you) is a truly remarkable piece of sophistry. In other words, it is a half concealed piece of fiction.
The argument is that union members should vote ‘yes’ to have their already severely depleted pay and conditions further rifled because this is the best deal that could be won by negotiation. Leave aside for a moment whether or not this is a logical statement, whether the effect follows from the putative cause and let’s see if the argument holds water even within its own limited terms. For it to be true, one simple requirement is that the unions must have actually tried negotiation to see what deal could they achieve. Has there actually been any negotiating?
The word ‘negotiation’ is not a synonym for ‘talk’ or ‘listen’ or ‘beg’ or ‘plead.’ It has nothing at all to do with the latter two words and, while the first two are necessary for the process, they are in no sense at all sufficient to amount to negotiation. Negotiation does indeed involve communication but a very particular kind of communication, one which can only occur between two parties who view each other as possessing roughly similar power. Power means the capacity to employ or withdraw resources to the benefit or detriment of the other side. In such circumstances of relative equality, negotiation involves a process of communication where each side endeavours to assess the power of the other side and, more importantly, the extent to which it is willing to employ its power or resources to get its way.
Negotiation only exists when there is a threat of force available to each side. The objective of the communication system is to estimate how far each side can be pushed before it will resort to force. Obviously, if one side knows that the other does not have the power to back up its demands, while at the same time knowing that the greater power is on its side, then in logic it should not yield in negotiation because it stands to get its way by force. If however, it possesses power but lacks the will to use it and, if the other side should sense that this is the case, then the shoe is on the other foot. Power, which can be relied on not to be used, is the same as no power at all.
Where do the unions and the government fit into this negotiation reality? The government made no bones about the use of power. It stated publicly in advance that if the unions did not hand over a further €1,000,000,000 extra of its members cash (its opening demand) it would use its power to take the €1,000,000,000 by force. In the context of negotiating, this is not an unexpected opening position. Big demands and bellicose power assertions have inherent risks but are not an irrational basis from which to negotiate. The hope is that fear will break the will of the other side to resist.
What then of the unions’ opening gambit? Unions have one, and only one, source of power. It is the sole reason for which they came into being. That is the power to organise a disciplined withholding of labour by their members. In practice, this can be partial or total – ranging from some form of work to rule up to all-out indefinite strike – but it is important to appreciate that the capacity to partially withhold labour depends on the capacity to totally withhold labour. Employers may always be inclined to fire or lock out partial withholders unless they fear the threat of all out strike.
Did the union side assert its one source of power in response to the naked power politics of the government? No, it most assuredly did not. In fact, as everyone must now know, it did the very opposite. In every statement and in every communication, the union leadership spoke as if the power to withhold labour did not exist. O’Connor, Coady, Geraghty, Noonan and all members of the club of ICTU General Secretaries spoke and continue to speak as if ‘negotiation’ has nothing at all to do with power, as if negotiation is a word that is interchangeable with ‘talk.’ Indeed the feedback from within the ‘talks’ is that the union leaders did precious little talking. Largely, they listened to demands and that was that. In reality, there was no negotiation at all. There has been no negotiation since this whole process of victimising public servants began with the government welshing on its pay commitments under the the national agreement and imposing the first pay cut euphemistically described as a pension levy. The union leadership has pretended to negotiate but what it is actually doing bears no relationship to negotiation.
If there ever were intended to be any negotiations, the unions would have used the industrial action mandate they received from their members back in 2009 to impress on the Government that pursuing its discriminatory agenda against public servants would result in all the union power being employed. Ireland would have been a country without administrators, teachers, nurses, doctors, water and sewage workers, prison officers and, very possibly, without Gardai or security forces. Under such circumstances no government could survive a week and would have no choice but to back down.
Of course the Government would never have attacked public servants in the first place but for knowing in advance that the union leaders intended to dismantle its members sole means of defence. From the moment the club of General Secretaries
withdrew public servants from the strike action planned for December 2009, when union power was becoming clear after the first strike on November 24, and instead entered into the Croke Park talks, it should have been obvious to all that negotiation was at an end. From that point on, the Government had proof that it was the only party with power at its disposal. The union leaders had put their members weapons beyond use. The unions had decommissioned and negotiation cannot occur in such a position of power imbalance.
Remember the big ICTU march in Dublin back in 2009. Why did all that stop? Because it would have been successful. It was becoming clear that public servants wielded great power and that was exactly what the club of General Secretaries did not want the members to realise. The more obvious it is that your strategy is successful, the harder it is to stop employing it.
The current proposal, which any sensible person knows perfectly well should never be up for voting, is not the best deal that could be got by negotiation. It is, of course, the precise deal – €1,000,000,000 – which the government sought at the outset. All the rest – who pays what and how – is just window dressing designed to confuse, distract and divide. That was the only contribution made by the union leaders in the talks – explaining to the government how best to divide public servants against each other. When one party gets exactly what it demanded at the outset, it is obvious that no negotiating took place. But we know that already because if one of the parties will not employ its power there can be no negotiations.
The power is still there. The challenge is to circumvent the General Secretaries and regain that power. The first step is to win an overwhelming NO vote. The next step will be for the union members to regain control of the unions they finance.