The background to the current industrial relations dispute in Trinity College stretches back to the economic crash of 2008 and the Fianna Fáil/Green Party government’s attack on public service workers at the time. The crash was the result of a worldwide banking crisis, but had very significant factors that were local to Ireland. Despite the crash being caused by banks, property developers, financial speculators and politicians, the Fianna Fáil/Green Party government decided to cut the wages of public servants with the draconian FEMPI legislation (Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest), and to impose a pension levy.
Following them, the Fine Gael/Labour government continued to target public servants with pay cuts and unilateral changes to their working conditions, such as increased working hours, cuts to sick leave, cuts to overtime payments and non-replacement of staff.
Making public servants pay
“College management […] gladly embraced the ‘race to the bottom’ mentality”
Further angering public servants, who had suffered financially due to a crisis not of their making, the government caved to pressure from the European Union to pay off the debts of private Irish banks to financial speculators. This decision resulted in a €63 billion bailout programme imposed by the European Commission, European Central Bank (ECB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The response of the trade union movement to this severe attack on their members’ pay and working conditions was weak and defeatist, partly due to the inherent conservatism of the union leadership and the dominance of the Labour Party in some of the major unions. Public servants felt abandoned, and a successful media campaign to drive a wedge between public and private sectors put members under further pressure.
In Trinity, there was obviously a decision made to “never let a good crisis go to waste”, and management saw the weakness of the unions as an opportunity to impose local changes to the terms and conditions of employment of its staff. Examples were the attempt to enforce a redeployment-of-staff policy without consultation with the unions, and greater restrictions on family-friendly initiatives such as flexitime, job sharing and part-time work.
The crisis in Trinity
“Senior staff were demoted, others had to reapply for their own jobs, attempts were made to replace permanent positions with contracts and new positions were designed with no clear role”
With morale already poor among staff, a disastrous restructuring programme called START caused it to plummet further. This consultant-led restructuring imposed a top-down approach which ensured that the experience and expertise of those staff providing front-line services were not included in the planning of the new structure. Senior staff were demoted, others had to reapply for their own jobs, attempts were made to replace permanent positions with contracts and new positions were designed with no clear role. The Employment Control Framework, imposed by the government to restrict public service employee numbers, was used as a blunt instrument to stop the replacement of service staff. Ironically, the number of management positions increased during this same period. This didn’t go unnoticed by staff.
The previous structure in the various departments worked relatively well, and some minor changes would have resulted in improvements to the services. Unfortunately, the top-down approach and its hapless implementation has led to a situation where the services provided to students and staff have deteriorated. It appears to have escaped the attention of management that academics require good service and support staff to provide a world-class service to students.
The overall purpose of the various restructuring programmes was to cut the number of permanent staff, force those who remain to do more, and outsource at every available opportunity.
Events outside College naturally affect those within the walls of the institution. When it appeared that the economy was improving, ordinary people began to demand change. The opposition to what had happened during the economic crisis crystallised in the anti-water tax movement. This demand for change and for a share of the improving economy resulted in industrial unrest, with strikes and threatened strikes by Luas workers, bus workers, nurses and even Gardaí.
“academics require good service and support staff to provide a world-class service to students”
In College, having experienced the attacks on working conditions and the clueless management of the restructuring process, staff were left deeply unhappy and in the mood to take action. Rumblings about confronting management had been the norm for months, but the proverbial “straw which broke the camel’s back” was the total lack of respect shown to staff when it was unilaterally decided by management to halt promotions, impose a policy of replacing permanent positions with contracts and refuse to replace support and service staff who left or retired.
Throughout this period promotions for senior academics continued, leading support staff to conclude that management were happy to preside over a two-tier employment policy which favoured academics over their support and service colleagues. A world-renowned university resorting to precarious employment for staff at a time when there is a backlash internationally against insecure work convinced many that College management had gladly embraced the “race to the bottom” mentality.
A meeting for staff, whether unionised or not, was organised jointly by Unite and SIPTU. Such was the level of interest that the original venue had to be changed to a much larger one. The mood of the meeting was one of anger and determination. The members instructed the shop stewards to begin organising a campaign to confront management. TDs and senators were written to, heads of departments and schools were contacted, and most importantly, a ballot for industrial action was organised. 73% of SIPTU members and 92% of Unite members voted for strike action. The results of the ballots provide evidence of the anger of staff and their determination that no further disrespect will be accepted.
The difficulty now for College management is how to appease their staff. The issues of promotion, contracts and replacement of staff can be resolved, but the lack of trust among staff and plummeting morale will take a lot more consideration. The results of a survey on morale among Unite members showed attitudes which should seriously worry management. Shockingly, 90% of those surveyed said they didn’t trust management, and 98% felt that morale is worse now than in 2008. Whether College management have the ability to seriously address these issues remains to be seen.