Joe O’Toole: Bus Éireann row will be resolved in the usual way

The company and its unions know the Government must make a move at some stage

Bus Éireann workers outside Leinster House, Dublin. Photograph: Brian Hutton/PA Wire

Bus Éireann workers outside Leinster House, Dublin. Photograph: Brian Hutton/PA Wire

 

Like Banquo’s ghost there is another player, invisible for the moment, hovering above the melee that is the bus strike. That’s the Government.

Workers are facing a reduction in wages. Hardly surprising or shocking then to find them fighting cuts and trying to protect their conditions of service.

Are they the avant-garde of a new workers’ revolution seeking to overthrow the Government? No, they are just fellow citizens working to pay for homes and families and to have an unremarkable but decent lifestyle.

They’re ordinary folk who vote for Government and Opposition parties in roughly the same ratio as the rest of us. Their strike might be unpopular but it is perfectly rational.

However, trying to mark out the pitch of industrial relations space around the bus strike is also complicated.

It is intricate and complex and like looking through a kaleidoscope: flashes of argument here, streaks of anger there and strange shapes being thrown all over the place.

The stark truth is that if nobody moves then the bus company dies

One way to get to grips with it is to deconstruct it into its simple constituent parts and then to reformulate it and view the goings-on from a new perspective.

The National Bus and Railworkers’ Union (NBRU) had long threatened strike action, but did seek to delay and delay in the hope that a white knight might descend on the talks with a bag of money.

Ramping it up

Only Shane Ross did not saddle up so the union raised the ante. That brought us into the national strike.

The next steps already announced are set to be street action, further strikes and extending the campaign to trains and other services.

The NBRU is doing so in the full knowledge that the company does not have the wherewithal to resolve its problems. So why are they ramping it up?

Contemporaneously, the company side shared those tortuous hours negotiating to seek a solution. It could not be found.

It might be expected that in those circumstances the board would try to slow things down, but not a bit of it.

On the contrary, it sent the union the bald message that it was full-steam ahead in implementing the cuts.

The unions’ straight answer in real time was an immediate strike. Hardly an unexpected outcome.

As the general public loses patience, they will turn on the Government, which is beginning to feel the pain

Next, the Bus Éireann board raises the stakes again by announcing that it cannot sign off on its accounts, conjuring the spectre of insolvency and fears of compulsory redundancies. So why are they ramping it up?

Add into the mix the Workplace Relations Commission’s recognition that the protagonists on their own do not have the capacity to resolve matters.

Let’s finally note the stark truth that if nobody moves then the company dies.

On the assumption that neither the company board nor the union executives are completely stupid, they each must know that the other cannot deliver a solution.

It must be that the hard-nosed actions of both sides are aimed at another target which is hiding in plain sight.

The board knows and the unions know that the Government must, and will, at some stage make a move. Already the rural Government TDs are getting publicly edgy.

Further pressure

The Minister for Transport can’t solve this on his own and Ross is smart enough to stay off the pitch, putting even further pressure on the Government to get involved.

As the general public loses patience, they will turn on the Government, which is beginning to feel the pain. It’s all pointing in one direction. The ball will shortly land in its court.

And the noises off stage at the Transport Committee this week are significant.

Ross stated that he cannot give money to Expressway but is ready to increase support for Public Service Obligation.

He also said that he will not write a cheque to raise wages but will increase support for the cost of free travel.

In other words, for every door closed there was another waiting to be opened, even specifying two possible conduits.

He even stated that he would be happy to hear proposals from the union side, only not during industrial action. How many more winks and nods do we need?

Government will find some appropriate but indirect recipe to put meat on Minister Ross’s suggestions. Sure, isn’t it already committed to increasing resources for public transport anyway?

It’s a slow dance but at some point strikes will be suspended to explore these possibilities.

Eventually, the unions will accept new efficiencies and some changed conditions.

Management will magic the new money into extra productivity options that will require workers to work differently but earn enough to compensate for the basic cuts. And, yes, there will be some redundancies, but voluntary.

Joe O’Toole is a former senator and past president of the ICTU

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