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No going back: Rebuilding better public and community services for all

The effect, impact and consequences of the global pandemic are profound, beyond description even, in terms of loss of human life, loss of human contact, the way we existed, lived and worked our daily lives.  

The effect on economic activity and employment will undoubtedly be very severe but we must manage our way through the course of the pandemic with the overriding objective of saving human life and doing so in a manner that protects fully the less well-off and most vulnerable in our society, and maintains social cohesiveness.

For our members in the Public Service at the front-line of delivering essential services in this most difficult time, you once again showed the true value of our public services and of public servants delivering essential services  at time of crisis, regardless of the risk, stress and fatigue you continue to be exposed to and you deserve to be recognised for that contribution by all in our society.

We are witness to some unprecedented measures taken by some governments across the world and in Ireland to help their citizens, their health and public service systems, their economy via employment, social protection schemes, supports to businesses and so on.

The Budget announced on Tuesday outlined some extraordinary measures deemed necessary as we chart this course, it is regarded as the largest package in the history of the state, in the region of €20 billion, with €14.5 billion directly to COVID-19 supports.

Truly staggering figures – the cost of funding which will be kicked down the road and spread over years of expected growth.

It may therefore appear to be difficult to over-criticise a Budget of such proportions, with so much going to deliver essential public services, protect jobs and give workers who lose jobs some income.  

However, let us not give the government parties a free pass nor allow them make a virtue out of necessity at this point. They must accept that many of the issues that led to such drastic measures being necessary is because they weren’t right in the first place. Chronic under-investment in public services, in social protection including statutory sick pay, are the significant contributors as to why such drastic measures became necessary.

They crystalised why austerity measures implemented in the financial crisis, failed us all, our society and our citizens and it is why, colleagues, we must ensure that we mobilise and get behind, and campaign on the “No Going Back Policy  Platform”. We must learn from the crisis of the importance of good well resourced public services.

Despite the staggering figures in the budget it is clear the Government has still not taken the opportunity to drive public investment in the years to come. The Fiscal Council – a very fiscally conservative body – called for a €10 billion stimulus over the next three years driven by public investment, the Government’s public investment budget for next year only increased by €600 million above what was planned pre-pandemic.

SIPTU, along with our colleagues in the ICTU, were very busy for the last 6/7 months, engaging with government and employer bodies in, a social dialogue  on these challenges and successfully ensured many of the measures referred to above were implemented.

Employers and government rightfully recognised the voice of working people as a social dialogue partner and we have work to do to push this agenda along, particularly in the area of the right to collectively bargain, and to sectoral social dialogue and the budget writers missed an opportunity here particularly given the levels of supports going to business and enterprises. 

SIPTU has launched its own fiscal policy strategy, which has anti-austerity and investment in public services as key principles to address looking forward the impact of the pandemic, Brexit, climate change and automation. 

Colleagues, I would like to talk a little bit about the impact that the challenge of COVID-19 has had on SIPTU, particularly with regard to how we went about doing our business on a daily basis.

Meeting members, individually and in small or large groups, has proved very challenging, depending on the restrictions imposed, maybe not allowed. Equally challenging has been the way, we engaged with employers and third-party mechanisms.  How the union organises workers and recruits workers is also challenging.

We will be doing some work to explore how best we are going to continue to meet these challenges over the next while, depending on the course of the Pandemic and the level of restrictions imposed by government.

Going forward, we need to look at how our committees are functioning, AGMs in 2021 and balloting procedures and so on, are just some of the issues that require reflection.

I do want to acknowledge the support, co-operation and understanding received from you all to date as we moved quite quickly into this new way of doing our business.

Maybe never before has the role of the shop steward been so important, as you in the workplace are the vital link for the Union to maintain contact with members and, importantly, in recruiting and organising new workers. 

On the private sector side of the union, it is very challenging for many of our members – loss of incomes, job losses, layoffs, short-time in certain sectors has been the order of the day – Construction, Aviation, Hospitality and Industrial Production.

The re-opening of the economy has helped to alleviate this but permanent job losses will become a feature of the next few months and there is a definite slow-down in advances in pay and conditions of employment.

On the Public Service Agreement side, as you are all aware, the current agreement expires on 31st December 2020.

The Public Services Committee did engage with the government side over the last few months in relation to stabilising the existing agreement and ensuring the final awards due were paid on the 1st October.

As I speak to you now, no formal talks process on a new agreement has begun and no invitation has been received by the Public Services Committee to any such talks.

The officers of the Public Services Committee met with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform with his officials and it is fair to say that both sides believe a new agreement is desirable.  

However, both sides have clearly stated, it won’t be an agreement at any price. What we have been doing is trying to scope out with the Government about what the principles of an agreement would look like.

At the moment, that is proving difficult and complex as there are significant differences and we are awaiting further interaction with them, post the budgetary processes this week.

For our union, we know the issues.  Our Biennial Conference in 2019 and the interrupted consultation process that we began early this year in advance of talks that would normally have taken place over May/June, gave us a very clear view.

COVID-19 and all of its implications, budgetary and so on, have clearly challenged the landscape but in this union’s view, that does not mean that we will accept an agreement that does not deliver for our members and the public service.

Any new agreement must rid itself of the vestiges of the past, it cannot be rooted in the language of continued austerity, it must offer hope and a vision of public service that is about investment, development, progression and fair reward for the contribution that is made by public servants.

A new agreement must rid itself of the regressive measures that reduced the earnings potential of public servants, and it must hold and advance the existing service delivery options to protect, grow and develop public service jobs and employment opportunities.

It must present opportunities for public service workers to explore the reform of the workplace that has happened since COVID-19, in a way that works for them, in a healthy, family friendly, ergonomic and productive manner.

We are trying to bring the Community Sector and Section 39 agencies into a better place during this time.  There is significant intransigent opposition to this on the government side.  We are supporting our members in an industrial and political campaign.  

There is a lot of work to do for these members who, as we know, provide essential care to the most vulnerable in our society.

We do know there is a good economic effect to pay increases, to the economy and to the sectors of the economy – Hospitality and so on, that will need spending to re-boot and generate employment.  

This is something that should not be lost on the government.

Speech by SIPTU Deputy General Secretary, John King 

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