Thursday 19 October 2017

'Crane flu' could escalate into building strikes

Ireland's highest profile building sites face disruption by the end of the month, writes Fearghal O'Connor

Tower crane drivers working in Dublin's docklands and other booming construction areas around the country voted overwhelmingly for industrial action last week in a dispute over pay. Stock photo: Bloomberg
Tower crane drivers working in Dublin's docklands and other booming construction areas around the country voted overwhelmingly for industrial action last week in a dispute over pay. Stock photo: Bloomberg

Fearghal O'Connor

Nearly all of Ireland's major building sites face shutdown later this month as the so-called "crane flu" dispute escalates.

Tower crane drivers working in Dublin's docklands and other booming construction areas around the country voted overwhelmingly for industrial action last week in a dispute over pay.

The vote for strike action will come as a blow to an industry that has begun to recover strongly as the country deals with a housing shortage and as the commercial property sector attempts to capitalise on London's possible Brexit exodus.

The move to ballot for strike action followed a mass one-day absenteeism by crane drivers at building sites earlier this month, which sources blamed on an outbreak of "crane flu".

"Will pickets be mounted? We'll see," said Unite regional officer Tom Fitzgerald, which now represents the vast bulk of crane operators in the country after they quit Siptu en masse in recent weeks.

"If the employers engage with us there won't be strike action but this dispute could hit the majority of the big sites with tower cranes," he said.

The trade union official said that it was likely that any strike would be organised to hit building sites in a sporadic way initially.

But he did not rule out the prospect that it could move to all out strike that could potentially shut building sites entirely.

The dispute comes at an unfortunate time for the industry, with new figures last week showing that activity in the sector jumped to a 15-month high and as many as 70 tower cranes visible in Dublin city centre alone. Crane drivers are key to the operation of major building sites and their absence can bring nearly all work to a halt.

They are understood to be seeking a pay rate of €27 an hour to replace a registered agreement that was abandoned by the construction sector in 2011. "We believe that crane operators should have their own specific agreement because of the specialised nature of the job that they do," said Fitzgerald.

The dispute will be heard at the Workplace Relations Commission later this week but employers have already been served with notice of industrial action, which could commence on June 27.

Trade union Unite, which represents more than 90pc of the country's tower crane drivers, balloted the crane operators. The ballot had a 77pc turnout among the country's 200 drivers and was passed by 93pc of the drivers.

The dispute also threatens to open up a serious rift between two of the country's biggest trade unions.

Sources in Unite said that they had major concerns about Siptu continuing to meet with employer representatives to discuss the crane driver dispute despite the fact that Liberty Hall no longer represents the vast bulk of those workers.

The crane drivers walked away from Siptu after it refused to lodge the pay claim on their behalf and other members of Siptu's construction branch are also understood to be considering a similar move, it is understood.

That led to a massive jump in absenteeism among crane drivers, reported last week in this newspaper, which some sources described as being similar to the infamous "blue flu" protest staged by Gardai almost two decades ago.

Other members of Siptu's construction sector are also understood to be considering a similar move, which would come as a blow to the trade union.

Banksmen -workers who direct crane drivers via radio from the ground - are now also in discussions about their own wage levels and union representation, according to sources.

Sunday Indo Business

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