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.