PPF vote could split the ICTU
BY ROBBIE MacGABHANN
Trade union members across the 26 Counties are being balloted this week on acceptance or rejection of the fifth partnership agreement between employers, unions, the farming organisations, voluntary and community groups and the Dublin government.
The Programme for Prosperity and Fairness (PPF) runs to 132 pages, but for the majority of union leaderships the core issue has been the few pages dealing with wage increases. The other 100 plus pages of well meaning but mostly unfunded government goals have been glossed over.
Tax on company profits has dropped from 50% to 12.5%, and no one was asked to show restraint. So why should workers?
On offer are wage increases of 15%, spread over 33 months, and a package of tax cuts that would increase net take home pay by a further 10%. However, even this offer has wilted under close scrutiny. Of the total 15% wage increase the final 4% rise is dependent on workers in the public service delivering on ``specific performance indicators''.
In essence, what public service workers thought was a cost of living wage increase is in fact a productivity agreement.
The PPF has also highlighted yet more differences between Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern and the Department of Finance. It took an executive intervention from Ahern to force the Finance Department to backtrack on their claim that the first leg of the 10% rise in take home pay through tax cuts would be delivered in April as part of the budget proposals announced by Charlie McCreevy last December.
All through the talks, the trade union movement had been negotiating on the basis that any new tax package was independent of McCreevy's Budget 2000. Now, government sources have leaked stories to the media claiming that if the unions reject the PPF, the promised tax package will never be delivered.
The fact that any government that promised tax cuts and then didn't deliver on them would be committing a slow form of suicide seems not to have occurred to the Fianna Fáil team in Finance. They have also forgotten that the 1997 election campaign was a procession of competing tax packages with the PDs, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil all offering ever larger tax give-aways over the lifetime of the government. The next election will be no different.
Those opposing the agreement have highlighted its deficiencies on a range of issues. The Campaign Against a New Partnership Deal argues that the wage increases will ``not even cover the real rate of inflation''. They say that ``interest rates are set to rise and before the year is out it is highly likely that anyone with a mortgage of £80,000 will be paying an extra £50 a month in repayments''.
The campaign believes that the tax concessions in the PPF are bogus and have ``already been announced in the programme for government''. Still on tax, one of the sticking points for those opposed to the deal is that union members are being asked to trade off their wage increases to gain income tax cuts. They point out that ``tax on company profits has dropped from 50% to 12.5%, and no one was asked to show restraint, so why should workers''?
Other deficiencies in the PPF highlighted by the No campaign are that the low paid will not get the £5 an hour minimum wage until October 2000. Trade union activity is being restricted. Unions in certain essential services such as nurses, fire fighters and bus workers will have to restrict industrial action. The PPF does not include proposals to guarantee ``workers the right to join a union''.
With MANDATE and the ATGWU opposed to the PPF , IMPACT and MSF supportingit and high profile members of SIPTU advocating a yes vote, the trade union movement is more divided than ever before on a wage agreement. Whether there is a yes or no vote, the ramifications for the future of the ICTU are much less clear. Social partnership is dividing and weakening the trade union movement.
A public service view on the PPF
Phoblacht spoke to Cathal Ó Tórna, a national executive member of the Civil and Public and Service Union (CPSU). The CPSU is balloting its 13,000 members on the PPF without a recommendation for or against.
Ó Tórna said that the many of his union's members feel ``the PPF doesn't do anything to address the concerns of the low paid.
Some unions have forgotten the need for the basic trade union values of protecting the lowest paid and weakest groups in society
``The wage increases in the PPF will be pretty much wiped out by inflation over the next three years.''
The failure of the agreement to deal with a real minimum wage was an indictment of the partnership process, according to Ó Tórna. He said that the proposed £4.40 rate was set nearly three years ago and has been eroded by inflation. He added that the wage increases proposed under the PPF would bring the minimum wage to £5.09 an hour by the end of the agreement. Most CPSU members are clerical officers whose basic starting salary is £180 a week or £4.39 an hour for a 41 hour working week.
There was a need, according to Ó Tórna, for a flat rate increase for the low paid rather than the meagre percentage increase proposed under the PPF. ``The cost of living increases should be cast in stone'' he said, rather than the proposed scenario where the final 4% was dependent on implementation of the public service Strategic Management Initiative.
Ó Tórna also believes that some unions have forgotten the need for basic trade union values of protecting the lowest paid and the weakest groups in society. ``Other unions' agendas are not ours,'' he said.
So what are the alternatives to acceptance of the PPF? What happens if the agreement is rejected. O Tórna believes that the unions who reject the deal could form an alliance with other unions opposed to the PPF and begin new negotiations on more realistic wage increases.
He said that many media commentators predicted a 15% wage increase for unions before the partnership talks even began. ``So what was actually achieved in the partnership talks?'' asks Ó Tórna.