Bus disputes might drive rail workers down strike route

Union fears over privatisation at Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann need to surface

The ongoing and planned strikes are building financial problems for Dublin Bus. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

The ongoing and planned strikes are building financial problems for Dublin Bus. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

 

The ongoing and impending disputes in the transport sector are the outcome of a series of developments that together have created the perfect storm.

Union members in the State transport companies have endured pay freezes, cuts to pay premiums and several cycles of cost savings. They are now seeking significant pay rises in excess of the prevailing private sector norm of 2-3 per cent a year. They can justify their posture based on past concessions, on the quickening pace of economic activity and the settlement arrived at during the summer in the long-running Luas dispute. Also lurking in the background are union fears about the creeping privatisation of the public bus services in Dublin and Bus Éireann. This more than anything else has led to union leaders’ dark forebodings in recent days that rail workers might take action in support of the position of bus workers.

Engagement between the parties is rendered more difficult still by a legacy of troubled and adversarial industrial relations. This is of long vintage and has defied various attempts to change the climate of industrial relations in the industry. Distrust has been further fed by suspicions of privatisation both by design and by stealth.

The strike remains a potent weapon in the public sector. In the private sector strike action has all but disappeared as a weapon in disputes. Strikes have declined as union membership has fallen and competitive pressures on commercial firms mean that export or domestic or markets lost through work stoppages may be irretrievable. Not so in the public sector, where union remain highly organised and retain the support of their members. Competitive pressures are muted or may be practically non-existent where markets remain highly regulated or closed.

Constraints

Dublin BusWorkplace Relations Commission

The transport unions will be emboldened by the unusually muted and phlegmatic reaction of commuters to the bus stoppages. On the face of it commuters have responded with tolerance to the stoppages – perhaps mindful that transport workers have endured serious setbacks, that they often do demanding and stressful jobs. Added to this, many workers affected by the strikes will themselves be in the process of seeking pay rises that take account of economic revival and a return to growth.

The Minister for Transport remains disposed to follow the script supplied for political leaders encountering the world of industrial relations. To be seen to intervene directly in pay disputes risks undermining the standing and dispute resolution activities of the WRC and the Labour Court, while also creating a precedent for other public sector groups contemplating or engaging in disputes over pay and conditions.

Social partnership

The Labour Court – nominally the court of last appeal in industrial relations – is careful to follow the prevailing trend in pay settlements and has historically avoided creating pay headlines. In entering or re-entering the fray in the ongoing disputes, the court will be mindful of not setting a headline that might ratchet up pay rises across the economy and in the process imperilling the large gains in pay competitiveness achieved since the advent of the crash in 2008.

It all adds up to a perfect industrial relations storm that has seriously affected thousands of bus passengers and commuters, called into question the competence of the Government and affected the commercial life of the capital.

So along what lines might the bus disputes be settled and a rail strike avoided? There are no grand designs or silver bullets for these types of industrial disputes. In the end each will be settled through pragmatism, accommodation and detailed agreements. The first challenge is to create the space in which dialogue can be re-established. Notwithstanding the Minister’s public pronouncements, his officials are likely to be in ongoing contact with the transport unions and employers, through the aegis of the WRC, to explore a basis for resuming dialogue. The headline-setting pay demands at play in the Dublin Bus dispute might be finessed by spreading pay increases over a longer period – a device used in the Luas settlement. If the parties can remove themselves from the hook of refusing to talk because they cannot be seen to concede on their respective bottom lines on pay increases, productivity concessions might then provide a basis for further progress on pay. The bigger and longer-term issue of the future of public transport and the role of the private sector will have to surface or resurface openly. A means of doing this could be flagged in settlement proposals for the current disputes. Bill Roche is professor of industrial relations and human resources at University College Dublin

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