Irish government employees staged their biggest strike in at least three decades on Tuesday, with about 250,000 workers protesting against plans to cut pay to contain the budget deficit.
All schools were closed. Hospitals cancelled elective surgery appointments. All but emergency services faced disruption as nurses, teachers, firefighters and other state employees joined the stoppage against plans to cut €1.3bn (£1.7bn, $1.9bn) from the public sector pay bill.
Placard-carrying union members marched outside the office of the prime minister and other ministry buildings in Dublin, as well as state-owned museums and art galleries. Only in the flood-affected areas of the west of the country did unions agree to call off the strike action.
Trade unions oppose pay cuts and want the government to extend the proposed fiscal adjustment over a 10-year period, returning the Irish deficit to 3 per cent of gross domestic product by 2017 rather than 2014 as the government, in agreement with the European Commission, has proposed. Trade unions also want to see higher taxes for the rich.
On a picket line outside the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions in central Dublin, Pat Cullen complained that public employees were being unfairly asked to bear all the pain of the budget adjustments.
He said that in targeting public sector workers, the government was pitting the private sector against the public sector. “They make it seem it’s all my fault and not the fault of the bankers and the rich people who brought down the economy,” he says.
Public sector workers have already taken an effective 7.5 per cent cut in take-home pay after the government unilaterally introduced a pension levy in February. The pay increase of 2.5 per cent due under the national pay accord in October last year has been suspended.
Trade union leaders have told their members the government is looking for a further 5 per cent pay cut in 2010 to help stabilise the budget deficit, which even with the proposed cuts is set to be about 12 per cent of GDP next year.
Bernard Harbor, a spokesman for the Impact union, which represents 65,000 public sector workers, said: “If the government cuts pay again then there will be more industrial action.”
With government and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in talks on Tuesday afternoon, Mr Harbor said that the two sides had to find solutions that achieved “payroll savings that don’t affect people’s basic pay”.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg