Those the gods destroy they first make mad. I’m reminded of this wisdom this week when I hear Minister Dempsey responding to the air traffic controllers dispute with a suggestion to ban strike action in essential services. The cabinet’s union bashing continues with suggestions that they will refuse to pass on union deductions from their employees in an attempt to break opposition to pay cuts. This threat should be ignored by public service workers. I say; Bring it on, Let me explain; It’s my view that any such attempt is illegal under data protection law.
It seems that they have learnt nothing in all their years in power other than bullying their workers. About 9 years ago my own union ASTI were locked in a bitter pay dispute with the government, a dispute that we lost and one that I believe our union has yet to fully recover from. Part of our action was to work to rule and not to supervise for absent colleagues. As a result school boards of management closed schools on health and safety grounds although staff were in situ and willing to work. The government moved quickly to withhold 5 days pay from teachers over the Christmas holidays. .
I was particularly annoyed by this move and was one of 42 teachers to take their case to the Data Protection Commissioner in January 2001. I pointed out that my membership of a union is a matter for me and the union concerned. The only reason I had notified the department of my ASTI membership was to facilitate me in paying my union dues, in exactly the same way that VHI, pension, AVC payments etc are processed. I pointed out that the salaries section had no other dealings with me and that if the department had an issue with me that they were obliged to write to me directly asking me if I had been party to a work to rule protest and then following a response taken the action they did
The commissioner investigated my case and found in my favour. The government was obliged to return the deducted pay, not just to me but to every teacher. This 2001 decision is highly relevant to the government’s latest plan.
The Data Commissioner satisfied himself that data relating to my ASTI membership “was obtained by the Department for the sole purpose of deducting ASTI subscription from salary and remitting such deductions to the ASTI and for no other purpose. Using the data for another purpose contravenes section 2 of the Data Protection Act 1988.” Following this decision the Department of Education was warned not to repeat this action as a heavy fine would be imposed.
There are many similarities in what happened to me and what the government is now proposing to do to IMPACT, SIPTU, CPSU members. If what is reported happens, Brian Lenihan will direct officials to assess each employee record, cancel their subscription to the union and presumably return it to their pay packet without written notification from the employee whose money it is in the first place. If they don’t do that they will have to hold on to their employees money against the employees instruction provoking a Fr Ted situation where the money will be resting in their account!
The facility to deduct union membership from salaries was offered to the employee from the state, not from the union. The state pays the union at the direction of the states employee. They cannot unilaterally decide to withdraw that facility without entering into a discussion with its employees. They cannot, to quote the judgement, take information for the purpose of facilitating payment and use it for a political purpose of discommoding a union. Am I the only one who sees this as being a breach of an employee’s confidential data and rights? If you can try this one on with an employee’s union subvention what’s to stop a similar move to thwart payment to a health insurance provider if the government doesn’t like the cut of them too?
Since I started teaching how we were paid has changed enormously. We were told that it was all about the cashless society. The ATM (beloved of those of us who cast a sceptical eye in bench marking) replaced the cheque. But what we’re getting now is the amoral society. One where the Greens and FF will do, as they put it euphemistically, what has to be done to put this country back on its feet. There’s many a public servant who’ll be on their feet soon enough but not in the way that Cowen and company imagine.