November 16, 2003

A lesson about benchmarking

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The role of teachers in Irish public life is a source of fascination. How come they have so much power in politics?

The disproportionate number of teachers in public life is one of the great unanswered questions of Irish politics. There are even a few in the present cabinet. This column has no concrete answers to the muinteoirisation of Irish politics, but their paws were all over last Thursday’s Estimates.

Now I have to be careful, coming as I do from a long line of teachers. My sisters and I were never allowed to question the integrity of even the most useless, perennially drunk, emotionally dysfunctional, casually violent teachers that we came across from low babies all the way up – and believe me there were a few psychos.

Back to the Estimates and the government’s priorities for current spending as exposed on Thursday.The long shadow of benchmarking dominates the thinking and before we go into precisely why benchmarking is bad for the economy, let’s look at what it has done to the trade union movement.

Benchmarking and the present status quo represent the ultimate victory for the teachers. It is trade unionism not for confrontation, but for the respectability of three-bed, semi-detached estates.

What happens to a trade union movement when it achieves most of its aims? Indeed, what happens to left-wing politics in general when the titanic battle between capital and workersis moreor lessover? When more Irish working people take foreign holidays than their German equivalents, what is the union movement to do? Fly Ryanair?

When the average Irish working family eats at least one takeaway Chinese meal a week, what do the unions have to mobilise for? Better pizza delivery rosters?

When the average 22-year-old working bloke blows €150 on a Saturday night, it’s hard to sustain the class war stuff.When mobile phone saturation has reached 83 per cent for the country as a whole, it is clear that almost every young worker has one.

This level of spending hardly suggests oppression. The trade unions have won, but are too stupid to realise it.We have full employment at considerably higher wages than ever before. Game, set and match to the workers.

But still they harp on about a proletariat that does not exist. It is hard to sustain the argument that there is a great conspiracy against working people when more Irish households have PlayStations then anywhere else in the world except Japan. Or when we spend three times more on DVD and video rentals than our neighbours in Britain.

We go to more concerts and gigs per head then anywhere else in the world and prices for these events are certainly not coming down.

Surveys about young Irish people reveal that trade unions are not even on their radar. There are 602,000 workers in Ireland aged between 22 and 29. Some 82 per cent of them are single, many still live with their parents and, when asked about trade unionism, the class war and all that malarkey, they glaze over.

What is the point of the trade union movement when disposable income among workers is rising faster here than anywhere in Europe,with the exception of Norway and Switzerland?

In an effort to become relevant, the union movement is now encouraging workers to turn on themselves. And more egregiously, it seems that one group of well-paid, secure workers in the public sector is urged to take up arms against their less secure neighbours in the private sector.

So the trade union movement turns against its own and `victory’ constitutes making salary gains at the expense of public services.

In Ireland, the trade union movement has become increasingly dominated by the public sector and the battle has been reduced to public versus private.

Benchmarking is a classic example of this, where the issue is how much money one group of workers can extract from another group via higher taxes if necessary. The so-called class enemies of capitalists must be splitting their sides. The state becomes an instrument for redistributing cash not from rich to poor or from working people to the less well-off on welfare, but from poor private workers to rich public sector workers.

For example, the average industrial wage is €14 an hour, but the average wage across the board taking in the public sector is €17.65 an hour, according to Goodbody Stockbrokers. This figure is dragged up by the average public sector wage which, taking into account things such as paid holidays, is just over €21 an hour (Goodbody’s). So we have the bizarre situation in Ireland where poorer workers are being asked to cough up for richer ones.

The unions have become the agents for some of the best-off workers in society at the expense of really marginalised workers (part-timers and contract workers) whom they appear to have forgotten. The ultimate mu¨inteoirisation has occurred.

The people who will pay for benchmarking are the little people, because the government is unlikely to raise revenue via increased direct taxes to pay teachers, guards and nurses. So every extra euro paid in benchmarking will be taken from somewhere.

We then have the strange situation where the lion’s share of extra public spending outlined in the Estimates will go on increased salaries, not better services. Because direct taxes will not rise, any shortfall will be clawed back through cutbacks.

It is important to note that this column is not suggesting that public sector workers should not be paid well.

On the contrary, for a society to work, it is essential that no group is demonised ideologically.

In addition, the way the market values different activities is highly questionable. For example, it is clear to me that a nurse worked off his or her feet in and accident and emergency ward would be missed much more than a currency trader in the IFSC if both of them were to pack it in tomorrow. Yet the currency trader gets paid multiples of the nurse’s salary.

Having worked in the public sector, sometimes the sheer pointlessness of your job is more soul-destroying than any money worries. In my experience, atrocious management, cliqueishness and middle-management pettiness are the greatest enemies of clerical and executive officers in most government departments.

However, benchmarking and the way it tries to make idiots of us, is not the way to go about gaining broad support for public sector workers.

An American expression sums up benchmarking: “Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining.” This is what the unions are trying to do.

The first major lie of benchmarking is that public sector workers are badly paid and need to be remunerated visa-vis the private sector.The second lie is that the public sector is having recruitment problems. Last year, the public sector was the most dynamic job creator in the economy, and there is no problem with staff retention.

Benchmarking is a product of the betrayal of blue-collar trade unionism by its white-collar equivalents in the trade union movement. It says more about the way that social partnership runs the country than constituting any real concern for public sector workers. Benchmarking is a direct product of social partnership. You can’t have one without the other.

It is more to do with the traditional pecking order of society in which teachers used to be well-off and above tradesmen and small shopkeepers.

Now that this has changed, the teachers have flipped, more out of snobby indignation then relative poverty. And as everyone who has ever sat in a classroom knows, hell hath no fury like a teacher questioned, let alone scorned.

  1. John Hayes

    As a private sector worker in a family business who works
    60+ hours a week, gets at most 20 days holidays a year and
    has had 5 sick days in the last 13 years I find it
    offensive that a teacher who works 18 hours a week 33 weeks
    a year (or 18X33/60= about 10 of my weeks) says they should
    be benchmarked against me.
    You are a comparitavly lone voice for the silent majority
    of people who are too buise making sure they will have a
    job next week to protest about the public sector tail
    waging the private sector dog.
    Keep up the good work.
    p.s. it was great to see you making a show of Fintan
    o’Toole on TV3 the other night. I can’t stand it when
    people advance social arguments dressed us as economic

  2. Billy Byrne

    As a tradesman in the local authority sector. I saw how
    many of my fellow workers left the council during the
    Celtic tiger, because the at that time we were on €9.68
    per hour and the private sector were getting €14 per
    hour.We were told that benchmarking was the way forward.
    At the present moment the private sector tradesman earns €
    17 to €20 per hour When the last payment of the
    benchmarking is paid in 2005 We will have the FANTASTIC
    sum of €16.45. That is provided we pass all the tests
    along the way. What will the private sector be on at that

  3. Jerry Melinn

    I was interested in the discussion on Agenda (16th Nov.)
    about Charlie McCreevy. While I would not always agree with
    Frank Fitzgibbon(I am an Eircom employee and active in the
    CWU) I do agree with his description of Charlie as ‘an
    accidental idealogist’. If he were to have an idealogy of
    taxing consumption I assume the horse racing and betting
    industries would fall into that category. One glance at the
    cartoon strip on the back page of the SBP today sums up the
    position. More seriously, in economic terms savings are
    defined as consumption foregone, therefore the SSIA would
    not fit the bill for such a policy either. The bottom line
    is as my economics lecturer once said – Governments will
    get the money from somewhere and in my view using the path
    of least resistance.
    I would not disagree with some of the points you make in
    today’s column either – perhaps a debate on good corporate
    citizenship from trade unions as well as companies is

  4. John Hayes

    Does Billy Byrne acknowledge that a subsidized pension and
    guaranteed job security for most people in the public
    sector means that a direct comparison with the private
    sector is a nonsense.
    As for pay rates for trades-people in the private sector,
    they will get what their skill and the market will allow.
    They do not get automatic pay rises due to time served and
    a high level of flexibility and responsibility is expected
    from employers.


    I have to say I enjoy both your radio program and agenda on
    tv. You may guess a but coming, and you are right. I think
    when you get on your anti-teacher,they are the route of all
    evil, why cant they be like my market orientated friends
    like colin hunt vibe, it can be hard to take. Of course
    there are ineffectual teachers,as there are bankers,
    economists ( no offence! )barristers etc. I think the
    simplistic public sector bad private the road to nirvana is
    misguided. There are a lot of teachers in the government.
    Could it be they couldn’t ‘hack it’ like many of those who
    end up lecturing in colleges of education? My view which is
    I admit biased, is that the government has in fact done
    very little for teachers. They have been aided by weak
    leadership in the unions, many of whom seem to have an
    eye on the next available government sinecure. An example
    of this is the way they signed up for successive pay deals
    that delivered puny increases in real terms. Benchmarking
    on paper does appear to give an appreciable rise. However
    this has been on hold for a number of years now, a case of
    bread tomorrow perhaps. You probably won’t
    read this but I now feel calm now and at peace with the

  6. oliver Cosgrove

    With reference to the comment posted by John Hayes;

    The standard teacher contract is 22 contact hours per week.
    This does not include time needed to set up classes for
    practical work, correct exams, monitor students classwork
    etc. I think its about time this particular canard was laid
    to rest.

    There is a free market John, why not become a teacher if
    your think it is such an easy number. All you need to do is
    get an honours degree, a higher diploma in education (
    takes about 4/5 years )and then spend a couple of years
    working on temporary contracts.

    The benchmarking award is the least that teachers deserve
    for signing up and complyint to successive national pay
    deals which until recently did not keep pace with inflation.

  7. John Hayes

    In response to Oliver Cosgrove, 22 hours a week plus set up
    time for 33 weeks a year will hardly reduce the average
    public sector worker to tears of sympathy. Most of us study
    or acquire skills outside our working ours.
    I would however like to admit that teachers are an easy
    target as everyone in the country has been through the
    education system and sees themselves as a bit of an expert.
    Just as parents get exorcised about the leaving cert when
    their kids are doing it and don’t give it a second thought
    the next year.
    The problem is that we all had the teacher that should not
    have been let inside the school building but spent their
    working life being protected by the system.
    Again we have all seen the teacher who spends his or her
    life doing far more than is expected, those teachers cannot
    get paid enough. It must be soul destroying to work in a
    job that not only does not punish those who are patently
    unable to do the job but also does not reward those who
    Until the teaching profession starts to behave as a real
    profession and set and police high standards, the stick of
    the “crap” teacher will always be available to beat them
    The teaching unions have, in the eyes of the public,
    lowered all teachers to the lowest common denominator. You
    should be demanding that the dead wood is removed, not
    threatening to go on strike saying, “how can you quantify
    what a teacher does?” when someone suggests that there
    should be a sanction for bad teachers.
    I fully accept that this is a common problem in the public
    sector but I also agree with teachers when they tell me
    that their job is one of most important there is.
    That is why I could not be a teacher, and hat’s off to
    those of you, who the rest of us remember, who go the extra
    mile despite the structure you work in and not because of

  8. Laura

    I for one am very angry at the lies being peddled by the
    public sector unions. I am a private sector worker and my
    total pay increase since 1997 has been 14%. In the
    meantimes my rent has nearly tripled and the cost of living
    has soared. Most of the employers I have worked for have
    had pay freezes and increases are often only
    miserable “merit” increases. Most use the arguement that
    they are paying “market rates” and suggest that anybody
    already getting 25k (not even the so called average
    industrial wage) is overpaid and refuse to pay them more.
    Meanwhile, your trade unions ignore our pleas for help and
    don’t even reply to us when we try to find out about

    At the sametime you cushy public sector workers work in
    semi state bodies like the IDA which hugely subsidise our
    multinational employers to milk and exploit workers and
    deny them fair wages. Some of the biggest names in Ireland
    are synonymous with “low pay”, yet get massive subsidies
    and are responsible for a lot of the GDP increases. Yet in
    your negotiations you never think a subsidy should come
    with responsibilities.

    The demands for security is laughable, in my company lots
    of us are facing redundancy within 12 months, we have no
    security at all. Why should anybody working in Aer Rianta
    or CIE be guaranteed a job for life when nobody has that
    nowadays? Who is going to pay for it? All I see at home
    is rich lazy public sector workers on huge wages, some of
    whom own 4 or 5 shanty like houses which they rent out to
    poorer people at exhorbirant rates. The public sector were
    paid 13% higher than the private sector before benchmarking
    ever started – stop peddling your lies to the rest of us.

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