Martin Frawley

Why the major queues at the passport office?

The Department of Foreign Affairs issued a public notice that the Cpsu and the Pseu unions had informed the passport service that their members "will not operate public counters from 1pm on Friday, 19 March, and therefore the passport offices in Dublin, Cork and Balbriggan will be closed to the public from then".

This prompted a run on the offices in Molesworth Street by people who understood the offices would be closed indefinitely from that Friday afternoon.

Eoin Ronayne of the Cpsu (the main union involved) pointed out that they had been engaged in similar afternoon counter closures across all government offices for months and the action was not indefinite.

Ronayne said management's notice was "Machiavellian" and designed to provoke a row with the union.

So what is going on at the office?

There are about 60 people employed in the Dublin office on Molesworth Street. The Cpsu admits that its go-slow has contributed to the backlog of 50,000 passports. But the union claims that it is operating with 50 less staff as a result of the government's moratorium on recruitment and this has also contributed to the problem.

Management counters that it has 50 part-time staff ready to move in to deal with the seasonal peak in demand for passports but the union is preventing this.

Will the workers be docked pay?

The Cpsu's concession to exempt the passport office from the counter closures last Friday removed the immediate threat of pay being docked as it was only a refusal to work the counters that management said would spark such action. But with one eye on its militant rump, the union said that if the pay talks broke down, it reserved the right to escalate what it said was legitimate industrial action against paycuts.

But hasn't the Department of Finance warned against managers creating martyrs by imposing paycuts?

Last month, Finance – the de facto employer of all public servants – issued a memo to local personnel managers warning them not to suspend staff or dock pay without checking with Finance first. This was seen as an effort by Finance to avoid a local flashpoint that it couldn't control.

It is understood that Finance was informed and therefore sanctioned Minister Micheál Martin's warnings to the passport office staff about docking pay, suggesting this was a deliberately-chosen battlefield.

Why the Cpsu?

The Cpsu claims it is engaged in a work-to-rule like all other unions, but it has pushed the envelope as far as it can go, if not beyond. While it argues that members are working on other duties when counters are closed, refusing to operate a public counter in a public office is more than a work-to-rule.

Others, such as nurses and teachers, have backed off such disruptive action to give the national pay talks some air.

But the Cpsu has always contained a vocal minority of militant members that have exerted disproportionate influence on union activities.

Union leaders Blair Horan and Eoin Ronayne have to steer a delicate line between the members' demands and what they know is achievable at the negotiating table.

The Cpsu maintains that low-paid public servants should have special dispensation from the paycuts.

Finance argues that a maximum salary of €35,500 (after 15 years) for a clerical officer is not low.

Can This Derail the Pay Talks?

The belief is that the sudden escalation of the dispute in the passport office was the government laying down a marker to the Cpsu that it won't be held to ransom.

Unlike the other public service unions' more pragmatic approach to these talks, the Cpsu is demanding full restoration of the January paycuts with back-payment.

This will not happen and no parties want the Cpsu's militancy to scuttle the prospects of an overall deal.