Taiseach Brian Cowen has urged workers to embrace reform of the public service rather than viewing it as a threat. He made it clear that a shake-up of the system has to happen in order to make dramatic savings to reduce the country's debt.
Cowen’s message followed a day of demonstrations when 75,000 took to the streets in eight centers to voice their opposition to €4 ($5.99) billion planned cutbacks in December’s budget, including savings of €1.3 ($1.94) billion in public spending.
Cowen and the rest of his ministers were adamant that the government had no choice but to press forward with the cuts.
Defense Minister Willie O’Dea maintained that the only thing that had changed at the end of the day of protests last Friday was that by evening time Ireland was €1.3 ($1.94)billion, 70 million more in debt.
A spokesman for Cowen said, “While we absolutely respect the unions’ right to march, the government has outlined its position to the unions. The government remains determined to address that shortfall and is willing to work with the unions to find a way of addressing the €1.3 ($1.94) billion adjustment to public spending.”
But union leaders warned that pushing through substantial pay cuts in the budget could bring an end to the 22-year-old social partnership process.
However, Irish Congress of Trade Unions’ general secretary David Begg left the door open for a return to formal negotiations with the government but warned that it had to have good chances of success.
Last Friday’s three-hour demonstrations -- the biggest was in Dublin and independent estimates put it at 30,000 marchers -- didn’t involve work stoppages. Most participants joined their local protests during their free time or by arrangement with some employers.
But the unions are still planning to go ahead with a full one-day public sector work stoppage on November 24.
There were streams of angry outbursts at Friday’s demos from speaker after speaker directed towards politicians, bankers and developers.
In Sligo, the regional organizer for the largest union, SIPTU, John McCarrick, was loudly cheered when he compared what he said was the vast money the government was spending on the National Asset Management Agency(NAMA) and what it was putting into saving jobs.
NAMA is being set up by the government to take over risky loans from the commercial banks.
McCarrick said, “Everybody sees that the government is putting €54 ($80.82) billion into NAMA, and there is no money for job creation. The Congress of Trade Unions looked for €1 ($1.49) billion to protect jobs and create jobs and what did we get? We got €250 ($375) million offered.”
He claimed the demos around Ireland were the start of the road towards forcing the government to change its policies to squeeze workers.
There were more cheers when he said, “Tax the rich. So what if they leave Ireland? It will surely be a better place without them. We did not create the mess that we’re in today. The bankers did that.”
Across the nation, public and private sector workers walked side-by-side. Teachers, plasterers, firemen and students were adamant that employers and the government would not succeed in creating a divide between those paid by the taxpayer and those who are not. The real fight, they said, was between the rich and the poor.
One private-sector worker, Declan Ryan from Malahide, Co. Dublin, said that most days he walks the streets of Dublin city center, coaxing tourists to make their way to the wax museum.
The 22-year-old graduated from college having studied film and literature. But little work in the film industry meant that he was glad to take the job as the town crier for the wax museum.
He told the Irish Independent, “I am paying enough tax already, so why should we have to pay more when politicians and the wealthy pay very little?
“We seem to be voting in the same people again and again and nothing is changing. The problems we are facing now are the same problems as we have had before. For me, the film industry is always the first to get the chop. I’m just glad to be where I am.”
He said the real divide was not between public and private sector workers but between the wealthy and the working class.