Pressure on public transport
It’s crunch time at CIÉ. Under pressure from Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar, CIÉ management devised business plans to cut costs and make bus and rail services self-financing. But the trade unions involved have threatened to strike if some of the actions are implemented. The disputed measures are due to be initiated within Bus Éireann from the middle of next month.
Already, taxi drivers and private bus operators are rubbing their hands at the prospect of a withdrawal of public transport services. The reaction reflects their expectation of an increase in business but also a conviction that the public transport sector has been excessively protected and feather-bedded. Past governments, it is true, declined to introduce competition. They also pressurised CIÉ management to settle union disputes at the threat stage, rather than face the wrath of a footsore public. In those days, however, alternative bus services were not available; the number of taxis limited and the public finances had not collapsed. This time, the risks facing the CIÉ companies, their unions and workforce are immense.
Last October, Mr Varadkar said CIÉ would collapse unless four things were done: the company produced realistic business plans; it cut costs; it sold off core assets and it secured new credit facilities. The announcement was made even as the Government revoked an earlier decision to provide CIÉ with emergency funding of €36 million to keep services running. Government patience had run out over failure to secure trade union agreement on a recovery plan.
Since then, the CIÉ companies – Dublin Bus, Bus Éireann and Iarnród Éireann – have produced plans that involve cutting pay and terms of employment. The Bus Éireann recovery plan involves cuts in overtime rates, in expenses and allowances. Clerical and executive staff would work a longer week and annual leave and rota payments would be reduced. In response, Siptu and the National Bus and Railworkers’ Union have announced they will ballot for strike action that may involve all CIÉ companies. Negotiations have been time-consuming and difficult. The unions declined an invitation to go to the Labour Court where binding rulings might be made on the recovery plan and they then accused management of taking unilateral action.
Management and unions are in a hard place. The companies are being asked to provide services with a reduced Government subsidy, even as fuel prices rise and passenger numbers fall. Savings have to be made and confrontation appears inevitable. Unions and workers should have regard to the larger picture and ensure that, when the dust eventually settles, a viable public transport system can continue to serve Irish commuters.