Diarmaid Ferriter: Right to strike is also part of the legacy of 1916

The letters sent to Luas workers invokes the ghost of the 1913 Dublin lock out

Luas Strikers photographed at the Luas Depot in Sandyford, Dublin. Picture Nick Bradshaw

Luas Strikers photographed at the Luas Depot in Sandyford, Dublin. Picture Nick Bradshaw

 

When interviewed during the week about the bitter Luas dispute, Gerry Madden, managing director of Transdev, which operates the Luas service, directed a cheap shot at the striking Luas workers, suggesting they “had done their worst at the Easter commemorations”.

This was a reference to the halting of the trams on Easter Sunday and Monday. There was much annoyance on the part of many that the workers included that weekend in their schedule of stoppages, and plenty of references to the public relations damage done to the workers and their trade union, Siptu, as a result, but we cannot have it both ways.

In commemorating 1916 we were also honouring those who set out from the trade union headquarters Liberty Hall, on Easter Monday 1916 and the role of the Irish Citizen Army in the Rising. The right of workers to be unionised and strike in pursuit of their claims was one of the many ingredients that came to the boil in 1916 and the Luas dispute one hundred years on is a reminder of the endurance and continuing relevance of that right.

The letters sent to Luas employees earlier this week putting them on protective notice and threatening them with recovery of the costs of the dispute makes an all-out strike a distinct possibility, which also invokes the ghosts of old; it was at the end of August 1913 that tram drivers in Dublin, as members of the ITGWU, abandoned their vehicles at the outset the Dublin lockout of that year.

1913 Lockout

In recalling the 1913 Lockout in the 1950s, the musician Leo Maguire wrote a song about the Irish Citizen Army (with whom, as a child, he had sung at a rally in 1913) which included the line “There’s nothing but hate ‘neath a sullen sky,” a line which seems to be a fair summary of what many private and public sector employees and their employers are feeling today.

Given the depth of frustration that exists on the part of teachers, gardaí and those working in retail amongst others about pay and conditions, it is likely the “sullen sky” will burst open soon and rain down a torrent of disputes. One of the more contentious aspects of the Luas dispute relates to new entrants being paid less than the current lowest rate of pay; it is precisely this divisive issue in the public sector that has dominated much of the complaints of teachers and gardaí. During the current process of government formation is enough thought, if any, being given as to how this fractiousness should be managed and whether there is a need to look at the possibility of a new partnership agreement between government, employers and trade unions? For its champions, historic social partnership was a crucial factor in creating the stability and industrial peace to sustain economic expansion; to its critics it was about a smothering and destructive protectionism between privileged groups, resulting in a bloated, overpaid public service.

From boom to bust

Analysis of partnership has been remarkably polarised and inevitably, the journey from boom to bust has coloured assessments. In 2007, industrial journalists Tim Hastings, Brian Sheehan and Pádraig Yeates wrote a book, Saving the future: how social partnership shaped Ireland’s economic success. Despite the title, the book did not claim social partnership was solely responsible for the Irish economic boom, but the authors made much of its centrality to political, economic and social life and its significant contribution to “shaping modern Ireland”. In contrast, last year public affairs consultant and former adviser to the Department of the Taoiseach Gerard Howlin characterised partnership as “the ultimate insider deal . . . over the seven pay agreements between 1987 and 2008, what began on the back of sharp fiscal adjustments, in restoring competitiveness, ended by reversing them and destroying competitiveness . . . Social partnership once did the State some service, then it utterly undid it”.

Whatever about the merits or otherwise of the partnership agreements spanning almost 20 years, the contemporary political and economic challenge is to frame some kind of updated model of agreement that will address the implications of people being paid differently for doing the same job and the struggle to pay for basics.

It is all very well for Madden to assert that Transdev operates in over 20 countries “and they did research but could not find a tram driver anywhere else getting close to the pay and conditions in Dublin”. Surely the most important issue in relation to that is the cost of living in different countries?

Surveys published by the EU and the Central Statistics Office have found that Ireland is the fifth most expensive country in the EU despite experiencing the lowest increase in inflation rates in the EU.

Any chance Transdev would do research into costs of living across its 20 country empire?

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