High salaries and public trust

The size of the salaries of senior trade union officials has hit the news in Ireland recently. As I write this, Eddie Downey, former president of the IFA, and a decent and honest man, is on the radio explaining the severance package of the IFA’s general secretary. At the same time as the IFA, and its members, face big challenges like climate change, falling commodity prices, and plans to increase dairy production, the organisation is consumed with a row about salaries. It appears that Eddie Downey was getting about €147,000 + benefits, and the secretary-general about €450,000. These salaries were not widely known to the members of the organisation, and when these became public knowledge there was an enormous row.

At the same time the secretary-general of the INMO,  Liam Doran, a notably effective trade union official, is refusing to comment on his salary. As his members move towards strike action next week, the media are looking to see how much he is paid. He’s not telling. He should!

I’m sensitive to these types of issue, for a few reasons.

I’m a member of two trade unions, SIPTU and the IMO. I was also in the IMO a few years ago when the previous CEO left amid a storm of protest about salaries and pensions. I was actually on the IMO executive when his predecessor left, in the late 1980’s, not long after the NCHD strike, in a similar row about salaries, and payments. These rows did serious damage to the IMO, and were a very severe distraction from the day-to-day work of the organization.

I was at a meeting a few weeks ago, attended by some senior figures from the world of higher education. The papers a few days previously had reported problems with unauthorised payments in UCC. The comment was made, to wide agreement, that it was a terrible shame that much of the coverage of our university sector was about extra payments to senior staff, and the high salaries of a small number of people. There is only so much media coverage, and only so much political capital, for higher education, and this was being spent defending a side issue, rather than dealing with the big problems.

I’m also a professor working in an Irish university, on a well known, and public, salary scale. I’m at the top of the scale which is €136,276.00 or €114,350 after FEMPI. This is a very good salary, and is much higher than most people earn in Ireland. I’m a public servant, and I am paid from other people’s taxes.

Am I worth it? Truly I don’t know – I try to give good value, I get no more than the going rate for my job, and I’d be very dubious about any proposal to increase it. But it is not secret. The Government sets it, and the HEA (of which I’m a member) requires the whole sector to stick to the payscale.

I also earn more than the CEO’s of most of our hospitals – thinking objectively they have harder jobs than I, with greater levels of responsibility, and ought to be paid more. Of course, senior hospital managers also ran into difficulties with unapproved, private payments. People assume, often correctly, that what is hidden is likely to be embarrassing. Candour goes a long way to retaining trust.

I suppose my final view is that people who do difficult jobs should be paid fairly for those jobs. This includes senior trade unionists, and hospital CEO’s. The only way I can think of to stop the pay becoming a story and damaging the organisation, is to make the salary public. CEO’s in listed companies generally have to make their salaries public. Shareholders may disapprove, but at least they know. A similar policy might benefit our trade unions.

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