On Thursday of last week teachers in secondary schools across Ireland went on strike, the first round in a pay battle that could involve many other state workers here and do huge damage to the country's fragile economic recovery. Last week's action was the first of seven planned strike days by secondary (high school) teachers spread over the coming weeks.
Also taking action are our police force, the gardai, who are set to strike on the first four Fridays of this month. That means that Ireland could be without a police force, apart from a few senior officers, on Friday of this week.
Only very limited emergency cover will be provided. All the ordinary crime will be ignored for a day, which amounts to an open invitation to burglars, muggers and bad guys of all kinds to do whatever they want that day, short of killing someone.
It's possible that this doomsday situation may be avoided because last minute negotiations are underway with the government on a slight pay improvement for the gardai. But even if this succeeds in stopping this week's police strike, there is still a long way to go to meet all of their demands. The same is true for teachers and many other workers on the state payroll who are threatening the country with a winter of misery with services severely disrupted by strikes.
Lining up as well and threatening strike action are health workers, the junior doctors who do much of the work in hospitals and the nurses who work alongside them. And union leaders who represent many others in the 300,000 strong state workforce have made it clear that their workers must also be given any pay concessions or deals that the gardai and teachers may get. The implied threat is that if they don't, they will strike as well.
We don't know yet how much disruption is going to be caused by the police strike, if it goes ahead. But there will be consequences far beyond a possible upsurge in crime.
For example, if police do not turn up to give evidence in cases, the courts will not be able to function. And -- something that will be of interest to many readers of this column -- airports may have to close or reduce the number of flights if police are not there for passport and security duties.
Flights from the U.S. go through the new Terminal 2 at Dublin Airport where there are civilian passport checkers. But the gardai still do passport checks at the old Terminal 1 and at other Irish airports, and passengers from there could be processed through T1 if the strike goes ahead.
At the very least there could be long lines. If you have booked a flight to Ireland for Friday you need to check.
All this means that we are facing a series of bitter strikes here in the coming weeks and months involving thousands of state workers of various kinds. General misery and frustration for citizens, disruption of social services and damage to the economy all lie ahead in a winter of discontent unless this can be sorted out. And at the moment things are not looking very hopeful.
What's it all about? When the financial crash hit here nearly a decade ago the government reduced pay to almost all workers on the state payroll by direct pay cuts, increased pension deductions and the ending of many special extra payments and allowances. The average cut was around 12 percent, although some of those on the highest pay levels lost up to 20 percent.
At the time there was an undertaking from the government that pay would be restored when the crisis was over and the economy and tax revenues had returned to normal. The target for the implementation of a gradual "restoration" was September 2018, and this was set out in a subsequent agreement signed by most of the unions. Over the last couple of years there have been modest increases given to state workers in most sectors as this process got underway.
However, this has not been enough to keep many workers on the state payroll happy, teachers and gardai in particular. Fast forward to the present and we find many state workers now demanding that the "pay restoration" promise be implemented immediately and in full.
They are angry because not only did they suffer heavy pay cuts but, like everyone else here, they have been hit with higher taxes and charges which have further eroded their spending power. They are now saying they have waited long enough and that pay "restoration" must be implemented without any further delay.
One reason they are so determined may be the influence of the misguided slogan "Keep the Recovery Going" used by the biggest party, Fine Gael, in the election earlier this year. Not only did that slogan not work, since Fine Gael was left limping back into power in a minority government, but it implied that the recovery was well underway, which was premature to say the least. The economy is recovering, growth is strong and tax revenues have increased to some degree, but we are still far behind where we were at the height of the boom.
This widespread belief that the economy has recovered and therefore all state workers can get back to boom time pay levels is not just premature; it is misguided. The huge increases in pay for state workers during the years of the boom were funded by the flood of revenue pouring in from property taxes.
When the property bubble burst, that revenue vanished and it's never coming back at the same level. So the idea that we can now "restore" pay for state workers to that level is nonsense.
Another bad influence in this scenario has been the surrender to the recent strikes by Luas drivers (Dublin trams) and Dublin Bus drivers, both of whom won increases of between 12 and 18 percent. And they got this even though they were already the highest paid tram and bus drivers in Europe!
Although neither group is directly employed by the state, the amount of state subvention for the services means they are state workers in all but name. And the fact that, like many state workers, they have a monopoly means they were able to hold the public to ransom.
The message was not lost on teachers, gardai and other state workers: Threaten strike chaos and you will get what you want from the present weak minority government.
Both the gardai, who are looking for a 16 percent pay hike, and teachers emphasize the plight of their younger entrants who were taken on after the crash on lower pay rates, mirroring what was happening in the private sector. They want this two-tier system ended, although they are not willing to forego any of their own high pay to make it easier for the state.
The bottom line is that teachers (and many other state workers here) already earn far more on average than their counterparts in other European countries, even in well-off countries like the U.K.
Pointing out these facts leads to much complaining from the unions about the cost of living in Ireland, the fact that young nurses, teachers and gardai are not being paid enough to ever buy a house and are now struggling to pay the soaring rents in Dublin because of the housing shortage.
But of course higher tram and bus fares to fund pay increases for drivers are just one example of why our cost of living is high. Private sector workers face the same problems, but can't blackmail the public with national strikes.
The comparison with the private sector is the most instructive in the present situation here. After the crash, private sector workers also were hit by pay cuts, although national statistics show that these were slightly less than those in the state sector.
What did happen, however, was that many private companies went bust and their workers lost their jobs. Many of the companies who survived did so by closing their pension schemes, cutting costs, reducing staff numbers and demanding longer hours and more output from those who held on to their jobs. And the workers complied because they knew this was a fight for survival and jobs.
The collapse or severe curtailment of so many pension schemes in the private sector is in sharp contrast to the continuance of the gold-plated pensions that all state workers get, equivalent to half their pay level and guaranteed for life. It's the kind of security that most private sector workers can only dream of -- many of them (in the biggest newspaper group in Ireland, to give one example) have been left with pensions that are only half what they were due after a lifetime of paying into their pension scheme.
Gardai can get a full pension (and a golden handshake of one and a half times final salary) at age 50, as long as they have 30 years service. For teachers it is age 55, with 35 years service.
Since many of these people will live into their eighties, the cost of funding these pensions would cost millions if the state had to buy annuities in the open market. Instead they are funded directly out of taxation (or state borrowing) which means the ordinary taxpayer in the private sector, who may have little or no pension, has to pay for them.
There are other advantages that many state workers get that are now history in the private sector. For example, teachers, and many other white collar state workers, get regular pay increments based on years of service instead of on real increases in productivity, and also get premium pay if they get extra qualifications. If these payments to more senior staff were surrendered, the extra funds to give equal pay to new entrants into teaching would be available immediately. But of course that is not going to happen -- compassion and solidarity only go so far.
Apart from the seven separate strike days already planned by teachers in the coming weeks, teachers are also saying they will no longer provide the agreed level of supervision (of break time) and substitution (for absent teachers) starting from next Monday. If that happens it could close schools across the country indefinitely, due to health and safety rules. That will bring all this to a head, at the same time as the police action makes the whole country a no-go area.
All this would be relatively simple in the private sector, where pay increases in the past few years have averaged two percent, not 16 percent like the gardai want -- and many companies have not been able to give any pay increases at all since the crash.
In the private sector, if the company you work for is raking in big profits you can demand more pay and threaten to strike if you don't get a fair response. If the company you work for is making a loss, you keep your head down and get on with things until the situation improves.
This year Ireland, despite the beginnings of recovery, still has to borrow to pay its bills. It's not the time for strikes by state workers, strikes which will inevitably lead to poorer services because more money will be spent on pay than on things like computers for schools -- or hospital beds.
In spite of the unfairness of all this, the likelihood is that gardai, teachers, and other state workers who will follow in their wake, will win out against the weak government and get what they are demanding. But then what had fairness ever got to do with these things?
If we lived in a fair world we would all have three months holidays a year just like the teachers! And we could all retire at 50 on a full pension for life just like the gardai!