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Monday 23 October 2017

Copycat strikes led to big pay rises for workers

An inflation-busting deal for Luas staff set a course for bus workers, teachers and gardaí to follow as we spiralled towards a Winter of Discontent

Members of ASTI outside St Mary's College, Dundalk in October
Members of ASTI outside St Mary's College, Dundalk in October
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

It was a year when workers returned to the picket line in large numbers, and by late October, the country was in danger of being plunged into a 'Winter of ­Discontent'.

During 2016, Luas and bus workers, teachers and gardaí were among those voting for strike action in one of the worst years of industrial unrest in recent memory.

The Lansdowne Road agreement, signed last year and aimed at an orderly restoration of public-service pay, seemed to unravel at alarming speed, and by the end of the year, there was concern that generous salary rises might leave less money for improved services.

Fine Gael was partly blamed for the spate of disputes that ran from February to November. Bill Roche, professor of industrial relations at UCD, said the ruling party helped to ramp up the demands of workers with its "Let's keep the recovery going" slogan.

In the public service, we saw a fury that had built up since the recession suddenly being released. If Fine Gael were suggesting that the country was in fine financial health, it was time for workers who had the power to stake a claim.

The sense of grievance was probably heightened by a worsening housing crisis, which saw many in low-to-middle-income jobs struggle to keep a roof over their heads in the midst of the supposed recovery.

It was the Luas dispute that set the ball rolling in February. Drivers and tram-operator Transdev became embroiled in a tussle over pay that led to 12 days of strike action.

This led to severe inconvenience for those who depended on the service, and some commuters chose to walk to work along the empty Luas tracks.

The strike seemed intractable, but was eventually resolved in the Labour Court with a settlement that seemed highly favourable to the workers, and led to knock-on demands in other workplaces.

Drivers were given wage increases of between 15.6pc and 18.3pc which would run up to September 2020, as well as a €750 payment immediately.

The pay package amounted to increases ranging from 3.5pc to 4pc per year over the four-year period.

After the successful strike by the Luas drivers, it was inevitable that others would quickly follow suit, and Dublin Bus drivers were the next to stop their engines.

Bus services in the capital were halted by strikes on six days and 11 further days of stoppages were planned, including a strike that was to coincide with the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship final replay.

The bus dispute was settled following talks between management and unions at the Workplace Relations Commission.

Another decent deal saw staff receive pay rises totalling 11.25pc over three years, amounting to 3.75pc per year - it was on a par with the Luas deal and significantly higher than average awards in the private sector.

Many other workers, who might have been without pay rises for years, could only look on enviously.

Transport strike are hardly unexpected, but the success of the Luas and bus workers led to employees in other sectors threatening industrial action, and some of the most conspicuous militancy came from unexpected quarters.

The Government really had to stand up and take notice when both the Garda Representative Association (GRA) and Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI) voted to take part in several unprecedented strike days in November over pay and conditions.

This led to mounting concern that security would be compromised if the Force stopped working. Householders and shop-keepers feared that they would be sitting ducks for criminals, and there were also concerns for road safety.

The strike days were deferred only hours before the first planned stoppage after a deal was agreed at the Labour Court.

Although the AGSI had taken limited industrial action, the Government was mightily relieved that the full-scale strikes were called off at the midnight hour, but the settlement came at an estimated cost of €50m a year to the taxpayer.

The pay rise granted to gardaí depended on years of service.

The Labour Court deal gave the country's 10,330 frontline gardaí an estimated increase in annual pay of between €2,800 and €3,100. New recruits did well out of the deal, with a pay rising from €23,000 to around €29,500.

The prospect of a 'Winter of Discontent' was heightened when the teachers came out at the same time as the planned action by gardaí.

The Association of Secondary School Teachers Ireland (ASTI) was embroiled in prolonged disputes with the Government during the year over pay for new entrants, supervision duties and the new Junior Cycle curriculum.

ASTI was involved in three days of industrial action, and further strikes were suspended to allow for talks.

The row between Government and ASTI followed the union's rejection of the Lansdowne Road Agreement, resulting in one-day strikes and withdrawal from supervision and substitution duties on dates in October and early November.

The strike action forced hundreds of school closures on each of the days, and resulted in inevitable criticism of the profession.

The teachers' strike won less sympathy from the public than the action by the gardaí. While there was a sense of urgency about settling the garda dispute, the squabbles with teachers have dragged on, and are likely to continue into next year.

Further industrial action by the teachers was deferred while members considered pay proposals from the Department of Education.

However, the ASTI's Central Executive Council recommended that members reject the deal.

The garda deal inevitably prompted calls for a new public pay agreement to replace the Lansdowne Road Agreement, which only took effect earlier this year.

While ministers insisted the garda deal fitted into that agreement, other unions, including SIPTU, suggested that all bets were off and are now demanding that they should be compensated with a similar deal.

The public-sector unions agreed to put off votes for industrial action after Paschal Donohoe announced his department would invite them to talks on the implications of the €50m garda deal.

These discussions will conclude by the end of next month.

It has been reported that the public servants will now demand a deal worth about €1,500 per employee in order to keep them satisfied.

That is on top of a €1,000 pay rise already due to those earning less than €65,000 next September, under the Lansdowne Road Agreement. Donohoe did not rule out the possibility that the Government will pay extra increases to public servants in order to avoid widespread industrial action.

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