A historian’s view of Tuesday’s public sector strike

Contributed by Brian Hanley

This Tuesday, 24 November, will see a nationwide public sector strike in protest at the government’s plans to implement cutbacks as part of their strategy of dealing with the economic crisis. The strike will see also historians joining picket lines at universities and colleges. For Irish Academics to take industrial action is rare (Marie Coleman’s history of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) tells the very interesting story of their first strike at Maynooth during 1977) and the fact that they are doing so now has caused some adverse comment. Aside from those who agree with the government’s strategy and therefore see no reason to protest against it, there are others, and I’ve had plenty of discussions on these lines myself, who believe academics are too highly paid anyway, work very short hours and have no real reason to object to cuts. Opinion among students is also divided, with the Students Union at Maynooth reportedly advising their members to pass pickets and attend college. Without a doubt there are those in academia and in university management who have been very well rewarded and are highly paid by any standards. Historians are also lucky enough to work at something we enjoy, and be able to research and write about things that interest us. But, as readers of this blog will probably know, high wages and secure contracts are far from the universal picture, particularly for younger academics, who face short term contracts and long periods of part-time work or unemployment with little prospect of a permanent contract. The view (sometimes fostered by throwaway comments from senior academics) that we are all on the pig’s back is mistaken in my opinion, though it’s understandable that some people working longer hours and doing harder jobs than us might think this.

I personally am fully in support of the strike on the 24th and would hope that most people, including post-graduates, will respect the pickets. I am less concerned with the impact that the budget may have on my wages than with what the government’s strategy symbolises. In my view it is an attempt to make the majority of the workforce pay for a crisis that was caused by bankers and property developers. There has been a year long media offensive to promote the idea that ‘we’ lost the run of ourselves during the years of the Celtic Tiger, along with a highly effective campaign to divide public and private sector workers. During that time we have heard one of the people responsible for the mismanagement of the banks in the first place describe regulation as ‘McCarthyism’ and call for drastic public spending cuts. Journalists earning far more than the majority of public sector workers have sneered about ‘teachers with villas in Croatia’ from the pages of newspapers owned by tax exiles. Owners of exclusive resturants have called for reductions in the minimum wage while trying to convince us that we weren’t being overcharged in their establishments over the last decade. Commentators have waxed lyrical about the need for ‘pain’ and ‘short sharp shocks’ seemingly oblivious that ‘pain’ for them will mean something very different than ‘pain’ for those on social welfare or low wages. Others have come over all nostalgic about the budget cutbacks of 1987-88 and how they alledgedly laid the basis for our economic boom, without considering the social impact of those cuts and the argument that our health system has still not recovered from them. We have seen the setting up of  NAMA, with it’s potential to place a generation in debt and so far reaching a measure that it should have been subject to a referendum. Historians will look back and wonder at how few critical voices there were to all this and how public commentary was dominated by those who screamed that there was ‘no alternative.’ The ICTU are far from having all the answers but the strike is at least offering an opportunity to show opposition to the government’s plans. Despite what some may believe, or wish, historians do not live in ivory towers and they should join their fellow workers across the public sector in this protest.

Brian Hanley works in the Department of History, St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra. His latest book (with Scott Millar), The Lost Revolution: the story of the Official IRA and the Workers Party, is published by Penguin Ireland.

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43 Responses to “A historian’s view of Tuesday’s public sector strike”

  1. Mac Says:

    Well Said Brian

  2. Sarah Campbell. Says:

    Fully agree with Brian here. I fully support the strike on the 24th and all that it represents. It is the only weapon that the working class have. While we all realise that the Government needs to make cuts, I hate the approach that they have taken – i.e. to divide the working class, to try and argue that public sector workers are overpaid (when in fact only a small proportion of the public sector, namely politicians, are over-paid) and when times were good they privatised the profits, now they want to socialise the losses. Respecting the amount of work that a lecturer does (which is so much more than any of us would think) the situation is that a cleaner in one of Ireland’s top universities is in the same tax-bracket as the Heads of Department there. There has to be a fairer way. I wish the collective outrage at last week’s football result could also be harnessed against NAMA, which in my opinion is the single biggest con by the government since the foundation of the state. People need to be heard, anger needs to be channelled, there are other ways than those being proposed. The provost of Trinity, as well as the presidents of the other universities will be receiving a massive increase in their wages due to something that was agreed almost 2 years ago. FAS directors and HSE directors are getting golden handshakes of over €1 million. This Christmas working class families will have their social welfare cut, many will turn to money-lenders who will charge mostly 40 percent interest rates. I think that anyone who crosses the picket line or does not support this strike needs to take a long hard look at themselves.

  3. remaunsell Says:

    Well said Brian. Two aspects of public pay policy have gone unremarked. One is the differential paid to those from assistant principal officers upwards in the department of finance. And this is for? Eh for keeping the economy in good shape.

    The other is nixers for academics. This can enlarge the pay of lecturers and professors. This can be commissioned work or it can be sitting on the boards of bodies such as AIB or DEPFA ( for the uninitiated DEPFA is the German version of anglo, and the behaviour of its Irish subsidiary earned the title of the wild west for the IFSC in a german newspaper.

    What people of professorial rank were on the audit committees of AIB and DEPFA?

    answers on a postcard please- prize is a half finished block of appartments in Kilbeggan

  4. Frank Says:

    I don’t support the strike. It will achieve nothing and as a part-time worker in an academic institution I am set to lose a day’s pay which I was not planning on doing without what with Christmas coming soon. I am annoyed about the fact that part-time workers don’t seem to have any say in whether or not they want to work and that this strike was imposed on everyone whether they liked it or not. I’m all for strikes in legitimate situations but in this instance the country needs us to band together and not to selfishly take a day off when the going gets too tough. I’m sure some of the fatcat academics are delighted with this unexpected day off courtesy of the fatcat union leaders as they can both catch up on their christmas shopping but I for one am not!

  5. Proposition Joe Says:

    @Sarah Campbell

    “the situation is that a cleaner in one of Ireland’s top universities is in the same tax-bracket as the Heads of Department there.”

    Sorry to be a nit-picker, but that’s simply not correct.

  6. remaunsell Says:

    @ proposition joe

    It might be helpful then to state what would be correct.

    maybe ‘ a cleaner working directly for a university would by working overtime put themselves in the same tax bracket as a head of department’

    Sarah’s point being I think that there are only two tax rates. According to Finance orthodoxy advocating a higher rate for those over 120,000 or so is considered a heinous thought crime. Green Jersey etc. thats how they earn their additional allowance.

  7. Lean Says:

    @ Sarah and Proposition Joe
    There are only two tax brackets, 20% and 42%. If you earn more than c. 500 euro a week you are in the higher tax bracket. So in fact cleaners (or anyone earning more than 500 a week) are probably in the same tax bracket as Michael O’Leary. Doesn’t mean they earn anything near as much. Unless you think 500 (before tax) a week is too much for cleaners.

  8. Proposition Joe Says:

    @Lean & remaunsell

    Well the effect the income & health levies is to give us about four different tax brackets:

    ~18k-45k: 26%
    ~45k-75k: 47%
    ~75k-175k: 50%
    ~175k up: 52%

    The exact point at which the 47% bracket kicks in depends on whether the employee is assessed as being single (€36,400) , lone-parent (€40,400) or married single-income (€45,400).

    But in no sense would a cleaner or anyone else on €500-a-week be anywhere near the 42%[sic] bracket. Instead they would be in the 26% bracket and also be in receipt of tax credits bringing their effective rate of tax down quite low.

    The head of department would be in the 50% or 52% bracket, depending on whether special off-scale payments are involved.

  9. Sarah Campbell. Says:

    @Proposition Joe – Trinity College Dublin. That info came from a cleaner in one of the buildings there and a lecturer in the building.

    What the cuts will mean is that it will become a case where people simply won’t be able to afford to work. It won’t be worth their while.

    A fairer method might be to tax those earning €100,000 plus more, instead of hitting at those lower paid.

    Any part-time worker, if they wish, can go to work for the day. There is nothing stopping them. I personally cannot think of a more legitimate cause to strike than the fact that our Government has totally let us down and is expecting the ordinary worker to pick up the bill for Anglo-Irish etc, and insists that we all need to work together! The workers need to band together and get a fairer solution, which by striking they hopefully do.

  10. Bill Compton Says:

    ‘I’m sure some of the fatcat academics are delighted with this unexpected day off courtesy of the fatcat union leaders as they can both catch up on their christmas shopping but I for one am not!’

    Union members will be picketing tomorrow and not shopping. All on strike will lose a day’s pay. Those who want to attend work will not be docked according to most colleges. The ‘fat cat’ librarians, security guards, cleaners, caterers, office secretaries and college gym staff will also be on strike. When you get a full-time job Frank be sure and tell the union you don’t want any pay rises they secure.
    Also please tell Denis O’Brien and Tony O’Reilly that its time to pull together (and Seanie Fitz).

  11. Proposition Joe Says:


    “That info came from a cleaner in one of the buildings there and a lecturer in the building. ”

    Its a peculiarly Irish thing that we think we’re far more heavily taxed than we actually are in reality.

  12. Sarah Campbell. Says:

    @ Proposition Joe

    Fair point, I take it on board, although I don’t really think it detracts from the argument that it won’t be worthwhile actually working if cuts are aimed at ordinary workers instead of those higher paid.

  13. A historians view of the strike… « The Cedar Lounge Revolution Says:

    […] by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized. trackback You’ll find Brian Hanley’s thoughts here (or if you’re Proposition Joe you’ve already found them – kudos to that man, […]

  14. Frank Says:

    I’m perfectly happy with my part-time job, thank you very much. What I object to is the fact that I don’t have a choice to work as my building is fully closed for the strike. I want to work but my employer won’t let me.

  15. Justin the capitalist Says:

    Gotta go with Frank on this. I want to work tomorrow but will not be allowed. The strike will produce nothing. A change in Government will produce nothing. The system by which universities are governed should change, i.e., the privatization of the universities, and the introduction of higher student fees in coordination with state-sponsored student loans. (Stay with me on this)…
    I support everyone’s right to pursue an education, but it is not the responsibility of the state and its citizens to educate the masses, no more than it is their responsibility to foot the bill for weddings, birthday parties or funerals. An education is a personal undertaking and should be financed as such. A degree is worth more if one has sacrificed something of themselves for it and invested personally. I’m in debt up to my eyeballs but my education is worth it. There are safety nets to ensure that a payment plan can be hashed out even on the meekest salary (which certainly awaits young academics). Otherwise, whenever the state is unable to balance its expenses and give education a fair shake there will be uproar. Plus, under the private system, the university may determine the salaries of its scholars rather than those in government. Of course then they picket would still occur at the university and I would still be barred from study that day 😉
    Great post Brian; great follow-up everyone.

  16. Sarah Campbell. Says:

    Ha, what do you call €1500 ‘registration fee/admin fees’ – it’s fees by a roundabout way, without the provision of low interest loans for students. People power CAN change things. It’s apathy that has gotten this country, and the world, into the mess that we’re in. If you look back in history, of course public protest changed things. If nothing else, it might get a reaction from the government. If nothing else, it will allow people to show that they are not going to simply sit back and take it. Last year Brian Lenihan was amazed that such savage cuts had passed by the Irish public without a public out-cry. He noted that had it been France, there would have been protests. After last weeks football result, I certainly wouldn’t suggest becoming more like the French, but why do we whinge and moan , instead of doing something about it?

  17. Justin the capitalist Says:

    Totally agree Sarah. But 1500 euro for annual fees is NOTHING. Seriously, what do students spend on nights out annually? On clothes? Etc. It’s all part of what I was saying…what is your education worth to you? If you want heat in the library, technology in the classroom, etc., that takes money. Let’s not depend on the government for provision – I feel like universities can be self-sustained! I just don’t see standing in a picket line as doing something about it. Numbers are fine, but action is required. True though, if we could harness the outrage caused by an unobserved handball toward educational reform we might have something.

  18. Sarah Campbell. Says:

    it’s not about education reform or fees though. that’s a different argument. It’s about the Government privatising profits during the Celtic Tiger years, giving millions and billions of euro to their developer mates and Anglo-Irish, allowing banks to invest the public’s money willy nilly in high risk investments unregulated, allowing the chosen few to cash in on it and become rich and then expect us to socialise the losses that we are now ALL feeling when things go wrong.

  19. Irish Left Review · Pue’s Occurrences | Historian Brian Hanley on Today’s Strike Says:

    […] Pue’s Occurrences | Historian Brian Hanley on Today’s Strike […]

  20. Frank Says:

    I’ve been listening to the radio debates today and thus far, unless I missed it, noone has spoken up for the rights of part-time workers who are paid an hourly rate and are unable to work because their buildings are closed. Full-time workers, even on a modest income, may be able to absorb a full day’s pay cut but the same is not true for part-time workers. Please consider our rights before thinking of embarking on another day of action.

  21. Lean Says:

    @ proposition, Joe. Sorry for the semantics, still think Sarah should have specified whether she meant ‘tax brackets’, or ‘recently introduced, only for public servants levy brackets’, but your point remains sound. To liken the salary of a cleaner to that of a head of department is a) fundamentally wrong and b) based on an assumption that it is easier to clean up people’s poo than to sit in an office doing a job which you essentially enjoy.
    @Frank, dunno what institution you’re with but we got given the option to reschedule our tutorials and be paid once the powers that be decided to close college altogether. I got the impression they were hoping we would.

  22. Sarah Campbell. Says:

    Sorry, I meant tax brackets, as opposed to the recently introduced, only for public servants levy brackets. But yes, proposition Joe’s point remains sound and enlightening. Although I back my argument that there are much fairer methods than those being proposed.

    And Lean, you’re absolutely correct in saying that most of the time, salaries CAN’T be compared. That is essentially what the government and their pals at IBEC are trying to do by causing rifts and divisions between those in the public sector and those in the private sector

  23. puesoccurrences Says:

    One Trinity department that I know of has requested both staff and students to come to college today.

    A little unfair I think to request part-time staff who are not in unions to cross a picket line and to suffer the repercussions by either not being paid for the day or being black listed by the people who are out on strike- hardly fair!

    I will have to agree with Frank- no one has considered the part time staff. The majority of them are not in unions and while some places have given them the opportunity to re-schedule their classes they are not represented on any level throughout the college. They are considered disposable staff throughout the university system. I know that in WIT (for instance) all staff, part time and full time, are requested to join a union. At a university level part time staff are afraid to kick off in case they upset senior staff who they may sit in front of for a job interview (if they are lucky) in a few years time.


  24. Frank Says:

    Many thanks for your support Lisa. Lean, not everyone who checks out this history blog is an historian. There are many other types of part-time workers in a university and I am one of them with an interest in history. Congrats to all responsible for putting this blog together.

  25. Conor McCabe Says:

    Frank, you need to join a union.

  26. Conor McCabe Says:


    “At a university level part time staff are afraid to kick off in case they upset senior staff who they may sit in front of for a job interview (if they are lucky) in a few years time.”

    There’s nothing peculiarly third level about that. In a recent survey the majority of non-union workers said that they’d join a union but fear of their employer’s reaction stopped them.

    • puesoccurrences Says:

      Shows how institutionalised I am Conor! You are right and it is prevalent in all small industries… fear of getting a bad reputation.


  27. dmfod Says:

    Frank you are being rather short-sighted giving out about losing a day’s pay when the strike is against pay cuts in the public sector in which you work. How would you feel if the government cut your hourly rate of pay?

  28. Linda Says:

    I think that if I was one of the contract staff in Trinity whose job was on the line, or a full time member of university staff asked to take a paycut I’d be fairly annoyed that the provost is set to get a 19% pay rise this year. There is no money to buy history books this year and no money to employ someone to catalogue history books, but there is money to give the best paid person in the college a massive payrise!

  29. Sarah Campbell. Says:

    Point well made dmfod!

  30. Frank Says:

    dmfod, there’s nothing shortsighted about losing 120 euros pay for nothing achieved and I am not looking forward to losing the same when the next hopeless day of action takes place. I’m happy to accept a cut in my hourly pay if it benefits the country.

  31. D-blowin Says:

    While I support people’s right to protest over injustice, I have a real difficulty with the strike today. In particular with the obsessive need to blame someone for the current recession. (People are even looking for someone to blame over the floods!).

    Did the “bankers” act negligently over the past ten years? Yes
    Should some of them be prosecuted and jailed? Yes
    Did the Government fail to regulate the banks sufficiently? Yes
    Was it said Government who created policy that fuelled the property bubble? Yes
    Did they also recklessly mismanage the vast revenue generated by the Celtic Tiger? Absolutely!

    But wait – who benefited from this?

    Today there is a culture of mass denial of any complicity in the current situation. Whose pay, benefits and general quality of life increased substantially over the past ten years? Who took out 100% mortgages to buy overpriced properties? Who took personal credit to unprecedented levels? Who stood by while elected public representatives re-zoned land for the developers? The Irish public.

    The “Public versus Private sector” debate is pointless – we all have employers. Yet, employers in the private sector have little choice if their business cannot sustain the levels of employment created during prosperous times. The costs of the business have to reduce, i.e. either the number of staff reduces or they all remain but get paid less. Everyone accepts this. Yet in the Public Sector, where the employer is the Government, people have much more difficulty with this concept. During the boom the public services could afford to employ more people and pay them more. So why is it such a surprise that the Government is having to make this difficult choice in order to reduce Public expenditure? The difference between the Public and Private sectors is that if either makes staff redundant, the Government has to pick up the tab.

    It’s not necessarily a case of people being “overpaid” – it’s more a case of people being paid more than their employer can afford.

    The tragedy of the situation is the mismanagement of money when it was plentiful. We can probably point to where money was spent on valued projects. Roads? Social housing? Flood defences? But was it spent where most needed? Has the Health Service improved for the whole country? Has the number of porta-cabins used as classrooms reduced? Have schoolchildren got sufficient books and access to technology?

    So what are the alternatives to redundancy or pay cuts? Do the Unions know? Does Labour or Fine Gael know? In the private sector the alternative is to charge more for your product/service. Would this work in the public sector? Charge more for a visit to the doctor? Charge more for refuse collection? Charge students more for a university education?

    The other alternative is, for a private company, going into administration, examination, receivership, etc. For Ireland Inc. this means the IMF! I wonder what they would do…..

    Just in case you’re wondering – I work for a charity. Hence I essentially have a “private” employer but my salary is according to a public sector pay scale.

    • Conor McCabe Says:

      just on this point:

      “Who took out 100% mortgages to buy overpriced properties? Who took personal credit to unprecedented levels? Who stood by while elected public representatives re-zoned land for the developers? The Irish public.”

      A basic human need – housing, shelter – is all but privatised in Ireland in the past 40 years and with no other viable option but private rental or private purchase open to them, somehow it is their fault for taking that rigged path. The argument, one used by Irish media and commentators all the time, is flawed.

      an interesting figure. From 1922 to 1981, 80% of all new housing in Ireland was funded in some way with public money. That is, both “public” and so-called “private” housing projects received government money. Interesting stats. are the figures for publicly-funded housing construction from 1922-1932, and 1932-1942. Almost the same amount of housing units are built, but the Cummann na nGaedhal houses are “private” while the Fianna Fail ones are “public”.

      “The Market” cannot supply housing on a scale demanded by the type of economic system which pertains in Ireland. That is why the government had to step in and subsidise it. Since the 1980s, though, what we’ve seen a full scale assault on public housing – the change is that whereas in the past the individual was helped out with purchase/rental – until the 1980s local councils were one of the three main suppliers of mortgages – now it’s the builder and speculator who is helped out while the purchaser/renter – of a basic human need, mind, so there´s no escaping the route unless you want to be homeless – is left to “the market” to find a price.

      All of this was pointed out by various department of finance reports in the late 1990s, the damage such a change in policy would have on the economy, but McCreevy and Fianna Fail totally ignored the warnings, and kept on subsidising commercial and residental construction to the tune of billions.

      Just on the 100% mortgages. From 1996 to 2007 Ireland had a mortgage boom, not a housing boom. There was a huge oversupply of housing units – in mid-2006 it stood at over 270,000 housing units – and yet prices kept on rising. The reason being, it was a scam by the banks and builders. The fallout from that scam we’re living through now.

      As for alternatives, Michael Taft of Notes on the Front has been blogging alternatives, viable alternatives, for close on three years now. check out his site, there’s over three years of economic debate and discussion on it.

  32. Sarah Campbell. Says:


    Great points, certainly make you think. I have a hard time dealing with the issue of ‘who benefitted?’ during the Celtic Tiger Era, because I think while everyone enjoyed an improved standard of living, there’s a huge difference between those living in Foxrock say, and those living in Drimnagh, Crumlin, Tallaght and many other inner city areas. Certainly the middle class prospered. And again, there will be a difference in who will feel the cuts the most when they come in. I think that needs to be addressed. Everyone, myself included, is willing to go through bad times, but in proportion to what we have. Therefore, those with more should pay more.

    There is an argument to be made for higher taxes. In Belgium, the Government taxes almost 40%. However, that money goes on health, education etc and there is a more equal and classless society. If I could trust the Government in Ireland to do the same, then I’d have no problem paying that sort of tax so that I could enjoy a high standard of health care and education. However, we have all seen what our government does with the money so that idea wouldn’t really work.

    But there are alternatives. The banks should have been nationalised first off and then higher taxes for the better paid.

  33. D-blowin Says:


    I agree entirely that higher taxes are justified IF the money is spent on improving the standard of universal healthcare and education. I wonder if it’s too late to create a classless society. Presumably there has always been the divide between Foxrock and Crumlin, and probably always will be. Although how many people living in Foxrock only do so because of the Celtic Tiger?

    Just on your point about the banks being nationalised – how is this a better option than NAMA? Does it still not make the taxpayer liable for the debts?

  34. Sarah Campbell. Says:

    Perhaps, but at least they would have more say in the running of the banks. NAMA has simply shackled us to a decade of debt without the government even being able to tell the banks what to do. There is no guarantee that they will start to lend money again. It’s all built on a ‘hope for the best’ philosophy. Not only that, but we have absolutely no idea how much bad debt we have signed up to. Is it Anglo-Irish, or one of the other major banks, who didn’t not release their end of year figures until AFTER NAMA had gone through the Dail and Seanad. They’re still taking us for a ride. The banks will be nationalised eventually in my opinion. People are just afraid of the word ‘nationalisation’ because it sounds socialist. It’s time to listen to the socialist argument.

  35. puesoccurrences Says:

    I’m glad that this post has generated debate and interest. I just want to make a note of the fact that I have removed a post from the comments which was essentially nothing more than a personal insult directed at one of the other discussants. Please discuss, but insults will not be tolerated.


  36. You have been reading, in order of appearance… « Pue's Occurrences Says:

    […] A historian’s view of Tuesday’s public sector strike, 23 November 2009 Brian Hanley on the reaction to government cutbacks. […]

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