Belfast Telegraph

Taking aim at unions will add insult to injury

By Liam Clarke

Running a large organisation like the public service would be far more difficult without full-time union officials to sort our problems as they occur.

The recent “fury” that the health service spends £1.8m a year paying members of staff to do union duties and negotiate with them rings a bit hollow.

Health accounts for more than half of the Stormont budget and has a huge, scattered workforce.

As might be expected, the other departments spend far less, anything between £31,304 in Environment and £187,000 in Finance and Personnel.

“Let the unions pay them,” is the cry from critics. “£1m would fund 35 full-time band five nurses, or almost 72,000 hours of domiciliary care.

“It would fund around 100 hip procedures, provide over 1,700 weeks in a nursing home for an elderly person,” points out Trevor Clarke of the Ulster Unionists.

Jim Wells, the Health Minister, who has had his differences with the unions, is going to review the amount.

It is a populist line, but these “trade union officials” are workers who are released by management and paid their normal wage to negotiate with them and act as contacts when problems occur.

The arrangement has been cost-effective up to now; we have few public sector strikes. Historically, the most disruptive strike, the Ulster Workers Council stoppage which brought down power-sharing in 1974, had nothing at all to do with the unions. In a big organisation, releasing

workers from their jobs

temporarily provides people with recent experience who know what they are talking about.

It is less effective to get some apparatchik in from headquarters to sort out a problem in the kitchens, or the wards.

Somebody who has actually worked there is more likely to spot a way forward which avoids disruption.

Politicians are lashing out, because strike action is threatened.

But surely that is par for the course when they are forcing through an unprecedented programme of cuts and redundancies?

It would be strange if unions, or the workforce even if there were no unions, didn’t feel hard done by.

At the end of the day, we have to emerge from these cuts and this period of tension as best we can.

That means maximising opportunities to work together.

Mr Wells and the other ministers should be using every tool they can, including working with union officials, in order to avoid disruption to services.

This is no time to take a provocative, pre-emptive strike, which could poison relations for years.

It is the politicians — not the public servants — who have allowed the situation to deteriorate to this point.

They should be trying to make this thing work, not digging in with some half-baked plan to neuter the unions.

Belfast Telegraph


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