Bus Éireann dispute: Both sides must face hard reality

The company is threatened with insolvency and there is a real prospect of industrial action spreading to other parts of the State-owned transport sector

Faced by the industrial relations equivalent of a perfect storm, Bus Éireann stopped short yesterday of proceeding immediately with some of the most controversial elements of a survival plan it says is essential to its future. But the decision to go ahead with 55 other changes brought a swift – and probably inevitable – response.

The National Bus and Rail Union and Siptu said they would begin an all-out strike if the changes are implemented as planned next Monday. Extreme positions have been on display at Bus Éireann for some time. On one hand, management has been seeking comprehensive change that would radically improve the company’s finances in a single package.

On the other, trade unions have been reluctant to recognise the financial realities created by private sector competition and traditional work practices. The company is threatened with insolvency within a matter of months and there is a real prospect now of industrial action spreading to other parts of the State-owned transport sector.

Minister for Transport Shane Ross has been criticised for urging management and unions to sort it out between themselves. EU rules specifically prevent the subsidisation of commercial enterprises by Government. However, some wriggle room might be found within the free travel scheme and under the heading of social and community service.


Ministers have used the public purse to resolve such disputes in the past. The stance taken by Mr Ross reflects a significant change. But it may not survive the influence of commuter anger on this shaky, minority Government if transport services are withdrawn.

Competition in the area of State-owned transport creates efficiencies and drives down prices, as was seen with Ryanair and Aer Lingus. These developments are positive for consumers but they usually result in reductions to the pay and conditions of workers. As inter-city bus routes were opened to the private sector in recent years, Bus Éireann struggled to compete. Traditional routes, pay levels and inflexible work practices all contributed to a worsening financial situation.

For decades, successive governments have attempted to introduce competition into the public transport system. CIÉ was split into separate companies. The National Transport Authority was established. Long distance bus routes were opened to private competition. Luas came into being (operated by a private company) and tendering is underway to run 10 per cent of Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus services. But trade unions view privatisation as "a race to the bottom".

Commuters are now transferring their custom to user-friendly private companies. That is an unambiguous message for Bus Éireann management and unions. As with all industrial disputes, negotiation and compromise offer the only viable way forward.