100,000 to be hit by 'inevitable' rail strike -- Varadkar
Transport Minister predicts commuter chaos in weeks
TRANSPORT Minister Leo Varadkar has been criticised after warning of "inevitable strike action" at Irish Rail, which will cause massive disruption for more than 100,000 commuters within weeks.
Mr Varadkar said he was "not hopeful" that agreement could be reached between management and unions over plans to cut payroll costs by nearly €5m a year.
Talks between the company and employee unions at the Labour Relations Commission (LRC) ended in failure before Christmas, and Mr Varadkar told the Irish Independent he could "see strikes happening" before March.
But Fianna Fail transport spokesman Timmy Dooley dismissed Mr Varadkar's downbeat assessment as "defeatist."
"The minister seems to accept that a strike is a fait accompli. That's a very defeatist attitude," he said, pointing out that it was Mr Varadkar's job to make sure the strike did not happen.
But the Transport Minister is adamant that annual payroll savings of €4.7m must be achieved at Irish Rail, as they were in Dublin Bus and Bus Eireann. "The last thing anyone wants to see is passengers disrupted and I would hope that some agreement can be reached, but within the next one to two months, I can see rail strikes happening," Mr Varadkar said.
He expects the matter to go before the Labour Court in the coming weeks.
But given the gap between the sides, interruptions to Dart, Intercity and Commuter services are virtually certain -- and he does not expect a resolution before commuters are affected.
"It will go now most likely to the Labour Court and, while I hope there is a solution, I am not hopeful. But the bottom line is that the payroll savings must be achieved," he added.
This is not the first time that Mr Varadkar has intervened in an industrial dispute at the CIE semi-state transport companies.
Last August, he urged Dublin Bus workers not to reject cost-cutting plans from management; while the previous May, he said he would rather see a second Bus Eireann strike than a deal that failed to achieve sufficient savings.
Union sources said the impasse was down to the company's failure to adhere to agreements secured with them over cost-cutting restructuring.
In 2012, Irish Rail had previously agreed terms with unions to allow 450 staff members to leave the company voluntarily, but had to renege on those terms because of financial difficulties.
Agreement was reached with trade unions to further reduce payroll costs, encompassing changes in allowances, annual leave and sick-leave provisions and a range of other cost areas.
Staff numbers have been reduced from more than 6,000 in 2002 to just over 3,800 last year.
Despite that, Irish Rail came back with a fresh demand of €4.7m in additional savings direct from payroll, to which the unions are vehemently opposed.
According to its most recent financial figures, Irish Rail had a deficit of €22.5m in 2012, despite looking for a €36m bailout from Mr Varadkar.
He has made it known that no similar reprieve is available for the company and that he and the Government want the savings to be achieved.
Hard-line elements within the workforce have made it known that unless the agreement on the voluntary redundancies can be reinstated, then all other discussions are "off the table".
Fianna Fail transport spokesman Timmy Dooley said there was still time for a strike to be averted.
"It is his job as Minister for Transport to act as an honest broker between the company and the workers and more particularly represent the interests of the travelling public to ensure that strikes do not happen.
"He has to involve himself much more intimately with the talks between unions and management. If he did that, he wouldn't be giving the 'spectator's view' as if he is on the sideline."
Mr Dooley said that state employees had been taking a hit on their pay and many were at breaking point.
"What is needed at Irish Rail is rationalisation of all their costs. The simple approach preferred by this Government is to look at wage costs of ordinary workers rather than peripheral costs.
"One can understand the anger of workers whose pay is being cut to achieve €4.7m of savings a year while €50m is being flitted away at Irish Water on consultants," Mr Dooley added.
In a statement, Irish Rail said it did not believe the differences between the company and unions were "insurmountable", but admitted that savings were needed.
"While we have achieved savings of over €63m in annual operating costs since 2008, Iarnrod Eireann urgently requires to reduce its costbase further, including payroll savings, and have engaged with our trade unions to achieve this," the statement said.
Disgruntled users will no doubt take to the company's active Twitter page to complain about the inconvenience. Here is a gallery of some of the best tweets sent to the company in recent months.