WHEN the buses stop running, it's more than a clue that all is not well. And there is a serious risk that, by the end of this week, we could be heading back to the future – back to the industrial relations horror that was Ireland of the 1970s and 1980s.
Efforts to salvage something from the wreckage of the Croke Park II on public-service pay hang by a thread as Labour Relations Commission boss Kieran Mulvey reports on his three weeks of talks with unions to Public Spending Minister Brendan Howlin today.
As a new week starts on a fairly negative tone, there is a sense that many issues that have been too long pushed to one side are now confronting us. There is now a sense that these issues are taking us head-on. The Bus Eireann dispute is not part of Croke Park II but it is linked to a general public-sector problem. It is a difficult one as the management has for almost a year pointed up the need to halt cumulative losses of €27m over the past five years with a cost-saving package.
Union leaders say their members stand to lose €70 to €80 per week from already modest wages. The issue has been twice with the Labour Relations Commission and once with the Labour Court. But the unions have rejected suggested compromise.
So now, neither management nor unions can back down without considerable loss of face. Waiting in the wings is a growing private-sector network of coach companies hoping to make income in the short term and secure a bigger chunk of market in the longer term. The innocent victims in all of this, the travelling public, will be grateful to see private buses roll up to those stops.
Bus Eireann risks permanently losing market share and this could mean job losses in the medium term. In the anatomy of an industrial dispute, a strike is very occasionally needed to bring things to a head. But a settlement has to follow a strike at some stage – so for everyone's sake, not least the travelling public, let it be sooner rather than later.
The handling of the Bus Eireann dispute will set a tone for the bigger-picture public-sector issue. Since the unions delivered a 'No' on April 16 to Croke Park II, the unions' rhetoric has increased, warning against enforced pay cuts, and there has been no change from the government stance that €300m needs to be cut from the public pay bill this year.
But behind the rhetoric, there has been a welcome desire on both sides to stay back from the brink. Last night, there was some hope, but not much confidence, that Kieran Mulvey might be able to pull some sort of conjuring trick.
But even here, the signals emanating from both Government and unions suggest that a partial or sectoral deal on public pay is the only possibility. Such an outcome could lead to increased militancy on the refusenik side of the union camp, making strikes a more real prospect whatever happens.
Since the unions signed up to Charlie Haughey's 'Programme for National Recovery' in October 1988, there has been considerable and prolonged public-sector industrial peace. One of the consequences of that quarter-century lull is that there are now few people on either side, Government or unions, who know how to manage through a series of tough industrial actions, which would in most cases inevitably escalate to full-blown strikes.
Intriguing to see two Labour Party ministers now facing their 'union brothers and sisters' head-on here. Yesterday, it fell to Junior Transport Minister Alan Kelly to field the Bus Eireann questions. For months now, Public Spending Minister Brendan Howlin has been filling the bigger gap.
Mr Howlin, in particular, is entitled to some credit for the way he has stood his ground on this one. The stance of such key Labour Party people leaves little doubt that in extremis the party would vote for mandatory public pay cuts. In fact, it is quite possible that Labour TDs and senators could be forced to vote for pay cuts before their Fine Gael counterparts are called upon to swallow and vote the new abortion legislation through.
That dreaded issue comes back on the agenda again later this week with a new round of hearings at the Oireachtas Health Committee due to begin on Friday. Taoiseach Enda Kenny will again be looking to the committee chairman, Cork TD Jerry Buttimer, to repeat his feat of smoothly handling similar hearings in January.
In a curious way, the image of tens of thousands of stranded commuters and the threat of widespread disruption across the public sector might bring a certain economic and political context to this abortion debate. Both issues, however, share the characteristic of having been ignored for too long – and of being in a position where they must now be dealt with.
And by this time next week, we should know a lot more about the outcome of both matters.