That good old public sector succubus

Among the many myths of the crisis is the one that depicts the public sector as bloated and wasteful. These claims have little basis in fact. But, as Alison Spillane explains, the advocates of austerity have their tails up and are in no mood to allow mere facts to get in the way of a convenient argument.

At a recent debate in the Button Factory I was unfortunate enough to witness one of the most pervasive myths about Irish society rear its ugly head. A member of the audience questioned Labour’s Ivana Bacik about her party’s relationship with the unions. The connections between the Labour leadership and the upper ranks of SIPTU is a discussion for another day, but the really unfortunate thing was that the commenter went on to claim that the public sector was largely to blame for “the mess we’re in”.

Yes, you read that correctly. The good old public sector succubus. Not the speculators, developers, and financial institutions who pumped money into an artifical housing bubble. No. It was actually those awful teachers and nurses (and don’t even get me started on the pen pushers) who are so astronomically overpaid the insides of their houses are probably lined with gold.

The problem, of course, is that none of this is true. Economists such as Michael Taft have written excellent articles illustrating that we do not, in fact, have the “highest paid public servants in the world”. Far from it. Regrettably though, sensationalism is often more attractive than facts and the image of public sector workers cracking open bottles of Moët of a Friday and burning wads of fifties is much more of a headline-grabber than the rather banal reality that Irish public sector labour costs are actually below the EU average.

The purpose of this piece, however, is not to challenge this myth but rather to address the potential damage its pervasiveness could cause.

At present, we are seeing determined moves to drive down wage costs across the board. The reduction in the national minimum wage introduced on 1 February was a key moment in the development of this project. And today marks not only polling day but also the submission deadline for applications to the review of Employment Regulation Orders (EROs) and Registered Employment Agreements (REAs). EROs and REAs stipulate fixed rates of pay (as well as other working conditions) in sectors such as catering, construction and agriculture. Employers’ group IBEC has intensively lobbied for their abolition.

Fortunately, the Coalition to Protect the Lowest Paid (made up of trade unions and community sector organisations) is campaigning extensively to force the next government to both reverse the cut in the minimum wage and ensure that any review of EROs is fair, transparent and inclusive. On Wednesday, the coalition published its “Roll of Honour” listing the names of general election candidates who have pledged to protect the lowest paid if elected.

We have also seen moves to cut the pay of new members of the public service. The move to reduce the pay of all new entrants to the public service by 10 per cent was introduced as part of Brian Lenihan’s budget on 7 December 2010. More surreptitiously, we are seeing concerted attempts to force down wages by effectively eliminating them for those on the lowest rungs. This is evident in both the government’s proposed work placement scheme for unemployed teachers and the phasing out of pay for final year students of Nursing and Midwifery.

At the end of November, Minister for Education Mary Coughlan gave her approval to a FÁS work placement scheme which would see unemployed graduates work for free in schools whilst retaining their social welfare payments. So a highly-qualified teaching graduate who paid €6-7,000 to do an HDip in Education will provide their skills free of charge. The scheme would also be open to non-teaching graduates, offering them caretaker or secretarial positions. Also working for free. How thoughtful.

Last week, 4,000 student nurses and midwives took to the streets of Dublin to protest against the government move to gradually reduce and eventually eliminate their pay. In their final year, students undertake mandatory nine-month work placements where they are paid 80 per cent of minimum point on the pay scale for staff nurses, making them the lowest paid grade in the health service. The government plans to phase out their pay as follows:

  • 2011 – 76% of the new lower scale
  • 2012 – 60% of the new lower scale
  • 2013 – 50% of the new lower scale
  • 2014 – 40% of the new lower scale

From 2015 onwards, they will be expected to work for free.

The first wave of protests was staged on 9 February with demonstrations taking place at 13 hospitals around the country. At a protest outside St James’s hospital, students voiced their concerns about a lack of public support for the demonstrations.

The positives in all of this are that workers are both resisting these attempts to force down wages across the board and standing in solidarity with each other. One of the most heartening examples of this is a recent INTO conference where the union’s members went against the executive and voted overwhelmingly to oppose the government’s work placement scheme.

Similarly, student nurses and midwives have been joined on protests by their fully qualified colleagues. According to Des Kavanagh of the Psychiatric Nurses Association (PNA), the demonstration on 16 February was the largest march by student nurses in the history of the State.

Attending the protest, I was pleased to see many members of the public cheering the nurses on as they marched. Not all were encouraging, however, with some passers-by remarking, “The government’s right on this one” and – a personal favourite this – “more public sector entitlement”.

There is a real danger of both scapegoating the public sector and pitting public and private sector workers against each other at a time when unity amongst workers across the board is more necessary than ever. Such a rift is of benefit only to those at the top as it inhibits the possibility of a general strike and paralyses the protest movement.

The campaign against public servants in public discourse (stoked in no small part by much of the mainstream media) gives a legitimacy to moves such as those outlined above which are tantamount to, as INMO General Secretary Liam Doran puts it, “slave labour”.

Language is crucial here; it is of no small significance that ‘bloated’ is one of the most commonly used adjectives in the discourse surrounding the public sector. The perception it creates is reminiscent of No-Face in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away where the creature gorges on everything it can get its hands on and hurtles along barely able to support its own weight. Such language not only lends credence to opportunistic moves such as those aimed at student nurses and newly graduated teachers but also reinforces the notion that public sector workers have had it too good whilst their private sector counterparts are alone in bearing the brunt of the cuts.

The reality is that workers across the board are being hit hard and, as Harry Browne has observed, there is the potential for opportunists to use the crisis to enact their own shock doctrine of disaster capitalism, rolling back hard fought for gains made by workers over decades. We are seeing the initial stages of this now and workers – public and private – need to be united in their resistance of it.