Anger at Christmas blackout threat by ESB union leaders
Power cuts 'inevitable' in €1.6bn pension row
BUSINESS leaders have warned of dire consequences for the recovering economy if the country is hit with a series of power outages threatened in the run-up to Christmas.
ESB union officials say power cuts are "inevitable" in the two weeks leading up to the festive period, unless an 11th-hour solution is found in the dispute over the ESB's pension scheme.
Management and unions in the semi-state electricity company have been negotiating over how to deal with a €1.6bn hole in the scheme.
Secretary of the ESB group of unions Brendan Ogle warned that his members would not be deflected by the anticipated public anger over industrial action at the busiest shopping period of the year.
A strike would cause fury among families, while there are major concerns that older people are extremely vulnerable to cuts in their light and heating.
Power cuts would be a huge setback for the business community – with the retail sector particularly vulnerable.
After five years of the economic crisis, retailers were hoping Christmas 2013 would mark the start of a real recovery.
Now they face the prospect of a disruptive campaign of industrial action involving power cuts during the crucial run-up to Christmas.
Union officials will meet on Friday to decide whether to push forward with strike action or enter fresh talks.
Should they opt for strike action, notice would most likely be served on the ESB on November 29, and the strike would follow once the notice expires on December 13.
The Government condemned the threat of power cuts, saying it would be "unthinkable" for an ESB strike to shut down power to the country.
However, in a sign of the hardening position of the unions, Unite spokes- man Richie Browne said: "We have been talking to the company and several government departments for the last two years on this issue and effectively nothing has happened, so it is hard to see how an invite to talks is going to resolve things at this stage."
Some 87.5pc of staff who voted on the issue were in favour of industrial action.
IBEC chief executive Danny McCoy said power outages in the run-up to Christmas were a big concern to the wider business community. "Clearly we'd be calling on all sides to show restraint here.
"It won't serve the business nor the employees well to engage in industrial disputes that will have knock-on consequences for other employers and employees, especially in the run-up to Christmas," he said.
The Restaurant Association of Ireland chief executive Adrian Cummins said power cuts would have a "devastating" effect on the sector. "Christmas is a vital time for the industry. Around 30pc to 40pc of revenue is gathered in the five to six weeks in the run-up to Christmas, especially for those catering for the party season," he said.
Both Mr Cummins and Richard Guiney, chief executive of the Dublin City Business Improvement District, called for everything possible to be done to avert strike action.
"It is unfortunate that the ESB workers can hold the country to ransom over something that should be sorted out between the unions and the ESB management," Mr Cummins said.
Power outages at the coldest, darkest time of year would also cause massive disruption for families.
Age Action Ireland said it would be hugely concerned for elderly people who depend on electricity for their cooking and heating.
Spokesman Eamon Timmins said: "How are we going to prevent hardship when we're coming into a winter when it's bitterly cold?
"We hope that the HSE has a contingency plan in place as to how they're going to deal with those in need."
The row between unions and management centres on the categorisation of the company's defined benefit scheme in its financial statements.
According to the company, the scheme has been referred to, for accounting purposes, as a defined contribution scheme since 2010.
By doing this, the company does not have to record the €1.6bn pension deficit on its balance sheet, making it easier for it to borrow on international money markets.
However, the unions have cried foul at this accounting treatment, claiming it has transferred all of the risk on to the shoulders of the workers.
In response, the ESB claims this is incorrect and that its legal obligations remain the same, regardless of the accounting treatment used.
Mr Ogle said the unions had worked with ESB management and four government departments since the issue emerged in relation to the hole in the pension scheme.
"It does not require weeks and months of talks, it simply requires the ESB to apply the law as it applies to the pension scheme," he said.
"With the membership profile of the scheme and the geographical spread, it is very, very difficult to envisage industrial action in ESB that does not have an actual or a threatened effect on power supplies," said Mr Ogle.
Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore's spokesman said the Labour leader was opposed to a strike at the semi-state company.
"It's unthinkable there would be a disruption to power supplies at this time – or any time," the spokesman said.
The ESB last night refused to engage in the war of words over the pensions issue and reiterated its invitation to the unions to attend talks to resolve the impasse.
By Shane Phelan and Louise Hogan