Luas row shows how strikes have ignited tensions

Analysis: Public dispute between Jack O’Connor and Kieran Mulvey is unprecedented

Pay proposals rejected by Luas staff have led to further strike action. But what terms are the workers looking for?

 

Radio listeners who tuned into RTÉ’s Morning Ireland on Friday could have been forgiven for thinking otherwise, but there is no history of bad blood between Jack O’Connor and Kieran Mulvey.

However, the public row between the Siptu leader and the head of the Workplace Relations Commission – the organisation charged with trying to resolve disputes – is probably unprecedented.

O’Connor demanded that Mulvey resign after the latter criticised Luas staff for not accepting a pay award, cuttingly saying a time to depart “arrives for everyone”.

For those affected, the real issue is not Friday’s row but the dispute itself, which will see the light rail system in Dublin brought to a halt this weekend, inconveniencing tens of thousands of people.

However, the broadcast row illustrates how the Luas dispute, which has proven to be intractable, has heightened tensions all around.

Sources suggested O’Connor was angry at what he perceived as Mulvey adopting a biased stance in criticising the Luas workers and Siptu at a critical time.

Further intervention

Mulvey is designated as a deputy secretary general in the Civil Service. But he is not an archetypal senior public servant.

Throughout his 25 years as head of the Labour Relations Commission (now Workplace Relations Commission) he has spoken out on matters he considered to be important.

Only two weeks ago he effectively criticised management in the Luas dispute over their plans at the time to bring in buses to replace tram services on St Patrick’s Day.

In 2009 he criticised judges who had not made voluntary payments to the State in lieu of the pension levy imposed on all public servants.

As far back as 2003 Mulvey publicly argued the threat of industrial action was used “too willingly” in the public sector and public enterprises.

Rural backgrounds

But they are very different in personality. Mulvey is flamboyant, appearing regularly on television and radio.

He is considered widely to be extremely good at his job and has been relied on by governments for decades to broker difficult agreements.

He chaired the talks that led to the Croke Park, Haddington Road and Lansdowne Road deals on public service pay and productivity.

He was also central in resolving serious rows at Aer Lingus, Waterford Crystal and several in the transport sector over recent years.

O’Connor is perceived by some as intense and thinks very deeply about issues. However, he is also considered to be one of the union movement’s best strategists and can be very engaging in conversation.

His genuine commitment to his members and workers is unquestioned.

Supporters argue O’Connor has been vilified by critics for adopting very difficult positions after the economic crisis, such as on the public service agreements.

Mulvey is due to step down as head of the WRC within the next two months, while O’Connor is scheduled to finish his term as Siptu leader towards the end of next year.

The Luas row itself seems no nearer a resolution, though. After this weekend, two further days of strikes are planned for later this month.

A return to the WRC now seems unlikely, given the row on Friday.

The matter may now have to fall to the Labour Court or else some new form of third-party mediation.