FAMILIES are facing a crippling double blow of an ESB strike next week and the shutdown of about 500 schools weeks after Christmas.
Two of the most disruptive strikes in decades loom large as ESB unions threaten all-out action from 8am on Monday week, while the Government has confirmed 17,000 teachers could be taken off the payroll from January 17.
The tough action against members of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) has been implemented as it remains the only union holding out against the Haddington Road pay and productivity deal.
The Government last night upped the ante for the deal to be accepted by the 17,000 members of the ASTI, which will involve taking on supervision and substitution duties as part of their core work.
If they refuse to do so, it is expected that about 70pc of secondary schools will close because ASTI members – plus some teachers who are not in a union – will not get paid.
Members of ASTI are currently being balloted for a third time on a different version of the deal, but its executive has recommended a 'No' vote again.
The ballot ends on December 18 and the outcome will set the scene for what schools, their pupils and parents can expect to return to in the new year.
If ASTI members reject the deal again, schools will reopen following the Christmas break on January 6 with the cloud of imminent closure hanging over them.
Traditionally, supervision and substitution work was voluntary and paid.
But under the Haddington Road deal, all teachers are obliged to perform these duties for no payment.
About 70pc of ASTI members have continued to volunteer for the work since September, pending resolution of the issue with Government over Haddington Road.
The Government accepted that position, in the hope that the dispute would be resolved, but now it is getting ready to take a hard line in the event that the deal is rejected again.
Meanwhile, ESB management and unions remained locked in talks at a secret location in Dublin for much of yesterday after the union warned that workers would down tools from 8am on December 16.
It is expected the talks will continue through the weekend as the Labour Relations Commissioner (LRC) desperately attempts to broker a deal.
For the first time since the crisis began, the Government admitted that electricity customers would be affected if strike action at the ESB goes ahead, but that shut-offs would be flagged in advance.
"All ESB-generated power will be off the bars from 8am on Monday December 16," a spokesman for the ESB unions said, adding emergency cover would be provided.
The tough negotiating position followed the ESB telling investors last month that it had "no legal obligation" to fund the pension deficit, a claim denied by the union.
Ironically, despite the bitter divide between both sides, management would also benefit from the pension scheme being in surplus as they are also members.
In a statement last night, the Department of Energy said that efforts were ongoing to resolve the dispute, which centres on a €1.7bn hole in the fund.
"In the event of industrial action at ESB, supplies to electricity customers may be affected," it said.
"EirGrid, the independent operator of the national grid, will seek to minimise disruption through its management of the power system.
"Every effort will be made to keep as many customers supplied as possible, particularly vital services and infrastructure."
While hospitals, garda stations and fire stations are unlikely to be affected, the Irish Independent has learnt that commuters face disruption.
Energy Minister Pat Rabbitte said it was a "very grave situation" and that industrial action was an "out of proportion" response from unions.
"Here we are threatened with a dispute that is completely out of proportion with the issues," he said.
"There is no intention on the part of the company to wind up the scheme.
"The (pensions) regulator has made plain that the scheme is on track, the funding plan is on track, and the scheme will be in kilter by 2018.
"Anybody who retires between now and 2018 will get their full pension."
ESB union leader Brendan Ogle said that officials met with the minister in November last year to discuss problems with the scheme, and that he could have helped avert the crisis.
"If Minister Rabbitte had worked with us and the ESB to resolve this problem we would not be in the position we are in today," he said.
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin again called for the strike action to be called off, saying the country faced an "appalling vista".
Katherine Donnelly, Paul Melia and Daniel McConnell