DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland's largest trade union on Thursday said it would authorize ballots for industrial action among its public service members unless the government agrees in the next week to start new pay talks by February next year.
Public sector wages were cut during the financial crisis and the government agreed with most unions last year to gradually restore some by 2018 but calls for faster and full restoration are growing amid a rapid economic recovery.
Irish secondary school teachers went on strike earlier this week, days after a first-ever police strike was deferred by a last-minute pay offer. Doctors and nurses are also balloting for action, threatening years of near unbroken industrial peace.
"We utterly reject the assertion that there is no money and that it is a choice between pay increases and services for the public," said Jack O'Connor, head of the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), the biggest trade union representing one in five public service workers.
"Economic conditions have improved considerably more rapidly than those which were envisaged when the Lansdowne Road (pay) agreement was negotiated," O'Connor said in a statement announcing that members could be balloted over industrial action.
Despite boasting the fastest growing economy in Europe, the government is still only starting to reverse many austerity cuts implemented during the crisis and has told unions it does not have the resources to restore pay rates all in one go.
Economists warn doing so would also risk delaying increases in record low levels of capital spending and reductions in high income tax rates at a time when neighboring Britain's decision to leave the European Union threatens economic growth.
The government has appointed an independent public service pay commission to advise on pay matters. It is due to provide an initial report in the second quarter of 2017, well after the deadline handed down by SIPTU on Thursday.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Richard Balmforth)