independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

No risk of blackout as deal stands

* Initial ESB statement causes fury among unions n But workers reassured over deficit worries

Planning to turn off the lights: ESB group of unions' secretary Brendan Ogle
ESB group of unions' secretary Brendan Ogle

UNIONS and management at the ESB moved to reassure the public that there would be no blackout after tensions rose over the agreement on their pension dispute.

Brendan Ogle, secretary of the group of unions confirmed that notice of industrial action was formally withdrawn or was in the process of being withdrawn by each of the unions yesterday afternoon.

To the relief of the public, businesses and the Government ,who were preparing for blackouts at one of the busiest times of the year, Mr Ogle said that "there was no longer any threat to the power supply" and that the agreement was "a good outcome for workers".

Mr Ogle also confirmed that legal action taken by four ESB workers would also be withdrawn. These workers were challenging the company issuing dividends to the Government while there was a deficit in the pension scheme.

However, the agreement almost became derailed hours after it was signed.

The agreement states that the disputed pension scheme is a defined benefit scheme, which shares the risk between workers and the company -- and not a defined contribution scheme, which would shift all the risk on to the workers.

Critically for the unions, the agreement goes on to say that the parties are agreed "that should deficits arise in the scheme at any time in the future they will engage together in line with normal practice to seek agreement in relation to that matter".I

This essentially gave Mr Ogle and the unions what they were looking for -- reassurance that the company would at least sit down and negotiate with the unions on how to bridge any future deficit in the scheme.

IRRESPONSIBLE

A statement by the ESB on Sunday afternoon said that "there would be no change to the accounting treatment of the scheme in the company's financial statement as a result".

This provoked fury among the unions, with acting general secretary of the TEEU Arthur Hall calling the ESB statement "irresponsible" but asking for everybody to relax. However, by midday yesterday the company issued a second, briefer statement which said that the "ESB reiterates that it accepts the LRC-brokered settlement to the pensions dispute".

Last year, the ESB referred to the pension scheme as a defined contribution scheme and said in its accounts that it had no liability "whatsoever" for any future deficits.

This shift in emphasis was primarily designed to reassure international lenders that the company was not facing a huge liability in its pension scheme. But instead it set the unions on course for the first strike at the company in 22 years.

The existing €1.6bn deficit is effectively theoretical in that it is required by the pension regulator -- and only if the scheme and the company were wound up today.

The majority of defined benefit pension schemes are in deficit.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said it was an "enormous relief that there is not going to be a strike" which would have been "absolutely catastrophic".

Martin Frawley

Irish Independent

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