It’s time we realised we’re part of a much larger picture

Eoin Griffin once again treats us with his two cents on matters, this time on the USI and their recent decision to call for a renegotiating of the Croke Park Agreement 

Very occasionally I subject myself to listening to George Hook’s drive time show on Newstalk. It has become an infrequent habit of mine, once every 3-4 weeks I’ll tune in for my fill of blue tinged propaganda. I was treated to a double treat recently (17 April) when George was interviewing another person I love to dislike, Michael O’Leary, supposed champion of the low fares airline industry and all round poster boy for deregulation. It took them 6 minutes before I had to change the dial. O’Leary described how to get out of the economic mess Ireland is in “we all have to work harder”. He singled out teachers and nurses for particular mention “teachers can work harder… nurses instead of working 36 hours a week can work 44”. This reflects a broader school of thought on the current situation in Ireland. It is not the failure of neo-liberal ideology or the failure of modern capitalism; instead it is front line workers, most particularly public sector workers that are to blame for the current mess that the country is in.

This discussion leads us to consider the seemingly infinite discussion of the Public Service Agreement 2010-2014 (the Croke Park agreement to you and me) and what the agreement actually stipulates, while focusing on the impacts it is and will have on education. Added to this is the need to appreciate where we are destined to end up if the Croke Park agreement is fully implemented.

UCD delegation who proposed the motion at USI Congress.
Picture Conor McCabe Photography.

This has been pushed to the forefront of the student movement’s agenda with the passing of a motion at the recent USI congress. While a number of contentious motions were discussed throughout the week, perhaps the most far reaching and important decisions made was the decision to mandate the officer board of USI to lobby for the renegotiation of the Croke Park agreement. This topic encouraged an extremely heated debate and was one of the few motions to encourage a clear split between the proponents of right and left wing ideologies. What became clear during the discussion is the fact that the student movement is split quite evenly between students who seem to accept the narrative of the recession that is presented to them by the mainstream media, the one that reads “we all lost the run of ourselves” and those who refuse the collective blame for the proven failure of the bankers, property speculators, and the disastrous decision making of the Fianna Fail government in September 2008.

The arguments proposing the motion suggested that other Unions and their members had not supported USI in the past, however no instances or particular Unions were named in these accusations. In my own experience in NUIM members of IFUT and IMPACT have both been more than willing to engage with students. The arguments in opposition to this motion were predictable and well argued; that there is much to be gained from standing with workers on our campuses and that an attack on one is an attack on all. While this debate continued before my eyes what really struck me was how the Croke Park Agreement and the public service in general were being blamed for the challenges we now face in the shortage of funding for the education sector. Yet there was no attempt to pick out individual policies or provide a critique as to how things could work better. Instead we were treated to generalisations and anecdotes about how much lecturers and college bureaucrats are paid. No allowance was made for the moratorium on public sector recruitment and how poor the conditions of short-term contract staff in colleges actually are.

This is nothing new for USI, in December 2010 its National Council called for the renegotiation of the Croke Park agreement. It was UCD who brought forward the policy at that time as well. However what is the Croke Park agreement? Considering all one ever hears about it is bad, how come individual policies are not referred to or lone elements of it criticised? Could our government and public sector really be working within a framework that seems to be totally unworkable and regressive? Here follows the main policies of the agreement.

The Croke Park agreement provides a framework for both management and public servants to change the way in which the public sector does its work so that the amount of money and people employed in the sector can decrease drastically. Aligned to this is a dedication to not have an impact on frontline services and actually improve the quality of service to the user. This agreement was signed between ICTU’s (Irish Congress of Trade Unions) Public Services Committee and the Irish government in April 2010.

In exchange for the delivery of savings and efficiencies within the Public Sector the government of the day agreed to no further reductions in pay following the cuts in 2009 and 2010. In accordance with this no compulsory redundancies would take place as long as employees were flexible to redeployment.

Economist Michael Taft (centre) taking part in a panel discussion at this years USI Congress.
Picture Conor McCabe Photography

The First Progress Report for the Croke Park Agreement  estimated that Exchequer pay bills would fall to €14.795bn by the end of 2011, which would represent a fall from the peak of €17.514bn in 2009, a cut of 15.5%. Now that’s all well and good but I really can’t quantify or understand figures of money once they go above 4 zeros (so I’ll move swiftly along). It is now that we get down to the approachable figures, with a reduction of staff numbers in the public sector numbered at 5 349 to the end of March 2011. To take this example and apply it to the education sector the two years to the to the end of 2010 saw staff numbers in Universities fall by 6% while student numbers rose by 3%.

Our current government aims to cut the spending per capita on public services by 14% by the end of 2015. Michael Taft has written at some length about this;

“If they persist in this, we could find Irish public service spending falling behind by up to 40% of EU averages. Now, there are those who will argue that through ‘getting more for less’ and taking the ‘tough decisions’ we can have European level of services on the cheap – up to 40% cheaper.”

The Croke Park agreement is based not on service improvements but on employment reduction and increasing private contracting. However for the short term it does provide some modicum of protection for workers. To suggest it should be renegotiated purely for the benefit of students and their educational benefit is short sighted and reactionary. Instead one should consider the context in which this agreement was signed. Austerity, “successfully” cutting jobs and reducing the money circulating within an economy will not lead to growth. In fact it will lead to the opposite.

So while the Croke Park agreement is far from perfect students must make the effort to build links with other Unions on our campuses. People have to begin to engage with the dearth of funding for public services and begin to appreciate that this is only part of a much larger picture.

-Eoin Griffin

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