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Andrew Lynch: The fight between state and workers will be dirty, damaging and drawn out

Things are about to get nasty. For almost a quarter of a century we've been spoiled by the comfort blanket of social partnership that guaranteed industrial peace.

Now that era is well and truly over -- and as the "work-to-rule" action that's just started in the public sector suggests, we're in for a long drawn-out war between Government and unions in which nothing less than the future of the country is at stake. Because this will not be like any industrial conflict we've ever seen before, the old rulebook can be thrown out of the window.

The union leaders privately admit that a traditional campaign of mass strikes and monster marches is not going to get them anywhere. Equally, the Government knows it may have to use some dirty tricks to combat the guerrilla tactics that their opponents are about to deploy. If you need to ring a school, hospital or anybody in the civil service this week, don't be surprised if your call goes unanswered. Office hours will become completely inflexible, while some areas will see rolling stoppages.

Nobody will die as a result of these actions, but over a period of time they are likely to cause severe irritation among the people who have to use our public services. The Government has already signalled, however, that two can play that game.

A memorandum drawn up by the Department of Finance outlines some radical proposals to curb the services that it currently provides to unions in the public sector.

They include the axing of funding, the removal of training grants and ending the facility for union subscriptions to be deducted at source from workers' payslips -- a potentially embarrassing move, since some members might not bother making alternative arrangements.

Under normal circumstances, much of this might seem like rather petty behaviour. However, nobody should underestimate the gulf of bitterness that was created on all sides by the breakdown in negotiations over a new pay deal just before last month's Budget.

Campaign

In particular the union leaders feel seriously humiliated over the way their 12 days' unpaid leave proposal was shot down -- and one way or another, they're determined to have their revenge.

The problem for Jack O'Connor and co is that it will be far from clear to the public what exactly this campaign is supposed to achieve. Nobody in their right mind expects Brian Lenihan to come out of Government Buildings with his hands up and announce that the Budget pay cuts will be reversed.

And while some union leaders have openly stated that they intend to bring down the FF-Green coalition, Brian Cowen and John Gormley have made it clear that they'll move heaven and earth in order to avoid an early general election.

In fact, the real objectives of the upcoming action are ones that the unions can't admit. The first is simply to let off steam, a necessary release valve when you've just suffered a painful defeat.

The second is to frighten the Government off making any change to the minimum wage. Finally, they want to ensure that at least next December's Budget will leave them alone -- an important consideration given that Lenihan has already warned them he'll need to save another €3bn in 2011.

All this means that Kieran Mulvey, chief executive of the Labour Relations Commission, is about to become one of the busiest men in Ireland.

Over the weekend he admitted that if they really want to, public servants can cause "gridlock" in a very short space of time. He also stated bluntly that his organisation was not prepared to become a "boxing referee" between unions and employers who want to "punch themselves to death over 15 rounds".

Seconds out. The fight is set to begin -- and it won't be settled by a knockout punch any time soon.