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By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - Irish trade unions' cooperation with a string of unpopular governments, most of them centre-right, has helped Ireland avoid the destabilising protests seen in other bailed out countries.
They stayed out of Europe-wide strikes last month against austerity that brought millions to marches in Spain, Portugal and Greece, three countries suffering most from the crisis.
But the union base has grown impatient, accusing leaders of being no better than the property developers and bankers they despise, just as talks start on a new national pay deal to keep the industrial peace through three more years of austerity.
"A lot of them have been sleeping with the enemy," said truck driver and shop steward at Ireland's largest trade union SIPTU, Michael Slattery, holding a placard demanding a general strike over austerity at a rare rally in Dublin last week.
"When you have the likes of (SIPTU president) Jack O'Connor taking home 180 grand a year, how can he represent a man that's bringing home 30 or 40 thousand? It's crazy," Slattery said.
O'Connor actually earns 115,000 euros ($148,500) a year, SIPTU said, nearly four times the average industrial wage.
Other lower paid workers also bristled at the 100,000 euros-plus salaries enjoyed by most union leaders and perks enjoyed by mid-level officials like free ipads and iphones. One union spent recent months fighting to build Ireland's largest skyscraper.
"Just look at their wages, they are the same as the politicians," said Bill McLaughlin, a member of the Technical, Electrical & Engineering Union (TEEU).
He was one of a few thousand people who took part in the protest which was led by unions but where several union leaders were jeered.
Just as their high wages are a symptom of years of excessive public spending, the unions pragmatic approach is borne from the tradition of consensual politics in Ireland which has never been run along ideological lines.
The country has no prominent left-wing newspaper and few dissenting political voices to austerity. The centre-left Labour Party, junior partners in government, are leftist with a small "l" and it was one of their own ministers who first introduced Ireland's ultra low corporation tax in the 1990s.
Ireland also does not have a tradition of protest, a trait that stretches as far back as the pivotal 1916 Easter Rising against British rule which initially fizzled out, partly due to a lack of public support.
Richard Boyd Barrett of the tiny United Left Alliance group, who sat in parliament as other trade unions across Europe led a day of protest earlier this month, believes that the Irish unions close ties with Labour, to which 12 individual unions are affiliated, has blunted their response.
"There has been very little resistance by the official trade union movement... A section are holding back to defend the interests of the Labour Party," said Boyd Barrett.
"Hopefully now we are beginning to see a challenge to the failure of the trade union leadership expressed on the street."
With those leaders sitting down to begin talks with the government this week on extending and achieving more savings from a key public sector pay agreement, analysts are not so sure that there will be a change of tack.
The so-called Croke Park deal, negotiated almost three years ago before Ireland was bailed out, promised no cuts in basic pay in exchange for reform of working practices, ending months of minor industrial unrest that peaked with the last general strike in Ireland in November 2009.
There was less industrial action in Ireland last year than in any other year on record, with 5-times fewer days lost to disputes than in 2004, at the height of the "Celtic Tiger" boom.
Without the pay deal there would be industrial disorder and chaos in the public service, according to University College Dublin's Bill Roche, meaning neither side will want to scrap an agreement that has few parallels across Europe.
"In other countries trade union movements haven't often or ever been given an opportunity to co-manage austerity in the manner that it has occurred here," said Roche, a professor of industrial relations.
"That's the single biggest difference... They see it as being better inside the tent peeing out than outside the tent peeing in which is often what's happening in other countries."
Conscious of large-scale layoffs in the private sector that has seen unemployment reach its highest level in almost two decades at just under 15 percent, the majority of the union's base are putting little pressure on the leadership for action.
Union leaders, one of whom told Reuters two years ago that industrial action risked upsetting bond markets, acknowledge that they have to do more but will not waver from their practical course of action.
"Do the unions have to do more? Yes but that has got to be intelligent and reflect what average workers want to do and it is not going to be shaped by hankering and shouting," said Liam Doran, head of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation.
"Irish people do understand that the solution is not entirely in our own hands. We have a role to play, perhaps we have to be more strident in that role but ultimately this will be solved by pan-European action."
(Additional reporting Carmel Crimmins and Conor Humphries; editing by Anna Willard)
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