Thousands of electricians went on strike around Ireland on Monday in a major test of government and employer efforts to cut pay during a record recession.
From factory floors to corporate suites, wages and salaries have been falling as businesses adjust to plummeting demand and try to claw back competitiveness lost during the boom years of the "Celtic Tiger" economy.
The dispute centres around wage increases of around 11 per cent that they say they are owed for a number of years. A qualified contractor currently earns 21.49 euros ($30) per hour. Employers have said they can't afford to give them more money and instead are looking for a wage cut of 10 per cent.
"This will have a major impact on the whole country and not just the construction industry but on the whole economy," Eddie Keenan, director of industrial relations at the Construction Industry Federation (CIF), said.
Around 10,500 contractors are taking part in the indefinite strike, the first major industrial action since Ireland skidded into recession last year, and pickets have been set up at building sites at Dublin Airport and companies such as Intel.
"No one could survive on what they are offering us," said Pat Mooney as he picketed outside Dublin's Lansdowne Road Stadium, which is being redeveloped.
"Our members are determined to see this through, otherwise we might as well throw our tool boxes in the (river) Liffey." The electricity supply will not be affected by the strike.
Not a Good Time
SIPTU, one of Ireland's largest unions with 200,000 members, said it supported the electricians and signalled it would be prepared to join them.
SIPTU's president Jack O'Connor said if strikers requested an all-out picket at the construction sites his union would ballot members working at those sites.
"If we allow any group of workers in our economy to be isolated and beaten into the ground, which is the objective here, then it will be driven across the economy to affect all workers," O'Connor told state radio. But support for the electricians was thin on the ground.
"I'd love to know who's advising the guys that it's a good time to look for an 11 per cent pay increase," said Joe Byrne, a Dublin shopkeeper. "I'm not denying or debating that they're entitled to it but it's not a good time.
Employers have been able to push through wages cuts of around 10 per cent or more in Ireland as dole queues balloon and people with jobs count themselves lucky.
The government, meanwhile, has had to put the country on a five-year austerity diet after a debt-fuelled property boom turned Ireland from economic star to one of the industrialised world's worst performers.
Prime Minister Brian Cowen has vowed to get the budget deficit under an EU limit of three per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2013 from a targeted 10.75 per cent this year.
He is under pressure from the International Monetary Fund and others to cut public sector pay in the budget in December.
Cowen, a former finance minister, has said he was committed to taking tough action but his junior coalition partner the Green Party and members of his own party may baulk at further pain after cutbacks, tax hikes and the imposition of a pension levy prompted 100,000 people to take to the streets in February.
The CIF's Keenan signalled employers were open to negotiating with the electricians. "We have never said that this money will never be paid, we are just saying we can't afford to pay it now."