The plain fact of the matter is that it is both – not because senior States Members are eager to put the public workforce in its place or to treat it unfairly, but because the present economic circumstances demand prudence and restraint.
In spite of this, public-sector employees and the union officials who represent them have every right to be resentful and angry about the present pay position. Naturally enough, they are concerned and in high dudgeon because the pay freeze is being imposed unilaterally by government.
People will, of course, always resent uncongenial orders from above, but there is more to the present controversy than bad news about pay packets. The freeze flies in the face of the tradition of free collective bargaining that unions and many of their members view as the cornerstone of industrial relations.
There is a substantial difference in the way in which the Council of Ministers and many private-sector organisations have chosen to respond to the pay issue in these difficult times.
Many Island firms have also chosen to follow the freeze route, but many of them have also explained the difficult realities of the situation to their workforces and have managed to achieve the necessary savings by consent rather than compulsion.
Ministers might well have imagined that consent to a freeze was unlikely to be given, but had consultation taken place, union leaders would not now be able to point out that they have been sidelined.
Now all appeals for the public sector to ‘live in the real world’ – such as the one which recently emanated from a Chamber of Commerce business forum – are likely to fall on deaf ears. More dangerously, although the determination of ministers is likely to produce the desired result in terms of a freeze, it is also likely to spur increased union militancy.
With winter approaching and in the midst of a recession, the last thing that this Island needs is the mass action that has already been threatened by trade union leaders.
The unions should most certainly understand this if they have any intention of acting responsibly and in the long-term best interests not only of the Island but also of their members. However, if industrial unrest does break out, the government will have to ask itself if the pay freeze, and the predictable reaction to it, has been handled in an appropriately pragmatic manner.