Cliff Taylor: Shutting down bus, rail services without notice is unconscionable
Travelling public takes hit in the war between trade unions and Government
Dublin Bus: the fleet was out of service on Friday due to secondary picketing during an unofficial strike by transport workers as part of the Bus Éireann strike. Photograph: Alan Betson
If the Bus Éireann workers and their unions were looking for public sympathy for their cause, they blew it on Friday. The secondary picketing that took out the rail and Dublin Bus services for the morning rush-hour period – completely unannounced – was a throwback to industrial battles from another era.
The trade unions half washed their hands, with Siptu saying it did not “condone” the action and “regretted” the disruption caused, but adding that it understood the frustration of Bus Éireann workers. Did it understand everyone else’s frustration too?
Siptu and the other unions have regularly accused government and the business sector of trying to cause division between public and private sector employees. Its members could hardly have done a better job of doing just this on Friday – while also alienating its public sector colleagues. Across the country people were left scrambling to try to get to work, school or college, many paying for taxis and most arriving late.
Maybe this could have been shrugged off in the Irish economy of the 1970s and 1980s, when most businesses operated on a more relaxed timescale and job security was the norm. But not today. Many in the private sector are working in jobs where it makes a difference whether you show up at 7am or 7.45am. Many, particular younger people, are in temporary, part-time or short-term positions and have little or none of the security of their public sector colleagues. They are precisely the kind of people trade unions should be standing up for. Instead they have no problem sacrificing them for their own ends.
To cause this disruption by picketing companies with which the trade unions were not even in dispute was unconscionable – and quite probably illegal. For the unions to suggest that they would go ahead and ballot for industrial action in Dublin Bus and Irish Rail – “in solidarity” with their Bus Éireann colleagues – shows that they have scant regard for the rest of us. They say they don’t condone industrial action in the other transport companies on a wildcat basis, but are clearly happy to consider such action once a ballot is conducted.
Part of what is going on is a war of wills between the trade unions and the Government. The travelling public is the collateral damage. While some within the unions may want to use disputes to pursue a wider agenda of economic disruption, the fundamental issue is more straightforward. Bus Éireann is losing a load of money and the trade unions are betting that, sooner or later, the Government will help to bail it out. But what happens when it runs out of cash?
Bus Éireann management, the management of its parent CIÉ and the Government are all culpable for allowing it to come to this. Back in January 2015, talks began between Bus Éireann,CIÉ and the Department of Transport on the financial outlook, but successive “plans” were rejected, pushing the company now closer to the financial brink. As we reported during the week, the company lost more than €1.7 million in the first eight weeks of the year – before accounting for a €437,000 redundancy bill. It should never have been allowed to get to this. Now the problem for all sides is that the strike will have accelerated the financial problem.
There is a business in Bus Éireann, but only if the two sides can quickly agree how to operate on a lower cost basis. But with competition now in the market, EU rules on tendering routes, the problem is that the company’s cost are simply too high. And as an aside, it is worth noting that the cost of third-party claims was not far off €1 million in the first eight weeks of the year, three times the level in the same period in 2016. The cancerous claims culture in this country is not costless.
This is about one other battle, too: the fight by trade unions to remain relevant. Numbers have fallen consistently. Back in the 1980s, more than six out of every 10 employees were in unions. This has now fallen to less than one in three now.
Already the union movement has lost most of the private sector, with only about one in six private sector employees now in a union. Even in the public sector union numbers have fallen back and the latest figures suggest less than two out of every three employees are unionised. In the fast-growing multinational dominated tech sector, unions are largely absent.
Arguably unions are an anachronism in many of today’s workplaces. The cliche that change is relentless is all too true for many industries. The trade union approach – to try to protect the terms and conditions of all employees – often does not sit easily in this environment.
This does not mean employees are necessarily disadvantaged; certainly in many generally non-unionised sector such as technology and business services there is fierce competition to attract the best and hold on to them. But of course there is a wider problem,too, in stagnant real earnings for many and the rise of part-time, insecure employment – the so-called “precariat”. The problem for unions is that the temporary outsiders in the workplace are rarely their members, leaving them fighting to protect the pay and perks of an older, largely public-sector workforce in secure employment.
The danger for trade unions is of becoming more and more marginalised, fighting for the public sector and immune to the kind of pressures to change and job insecurity faced in private business. Shutting down the buses and railways without notice is only going to persuade those in the private sector that trade unionists are living on a different planet.