I can't see bus drivers striking to protect a 36-hour clerical work week
Published 27/12/2012 | 17:00
Has nobody told Bus Eireann and the trade unions representing its workers that it's good to talk? And even better if each side concedes a little ground for that all-important meeting in the middle?
I only ask, because judging by the rumblings from the national carrier, public transport disruption could be bearing down on bus passengers within weeks. As of early January, when ballots are counted, the unions are confident they'll have a mandate for potential strike action.
Now, I really don't believe any bus worker wants to go on strike, however hard done by they feel. Not straight after Christmas, with bills due to arrive, and never during a recession.
So the fact that workers' representatives at the semi-state have balloted for the right to wave that big stick at management shows something has been lost in communication.
The action was precipitated by a raft of cost-cutting measures aimed at saving €9m, due to be implemented from January 13.
However, no redundancies are envisaged and basic wages will be protected, although the unions dispute the latter. Changes range from a lower overtime rate, to longer working hours for clerical staff and executives.
Obviously, nobody wants their employment arrangements altered to their detriment. But tough times are upon us, and people in various lines of business are taking it on the chin.
That's not to say unions should roll over when the slashing hook hovers – their leaders must always act in the best interests of members. If some employers had their way, workers would find their pay docked for lavatory and meal breaks. The power of unions shouldn't blind people to the importance of the movement's existence. It sprang from the need to protect workers.
But when details to changes proposed at the bus company emerged, my reaction was utter amazement at some of the working practises.
Take the longer working-hours proposal: the company's plan is to increase them from the current level of 36, to 39 hours a week for clerical staff. It's astounding that anyone should try to stand over a 36-hour week for office workers – a four-day week, by the way.
As for overtime rates: the proposal is to reduce them from time and a half to 1.25 times the normal working rate. Premium rates are paid for bank holidays at triple time. So, room for a little bit of give here, most of us might think. Especially people in the private sector. Otherwise known as the real world.
In the private sector, where the relevant minister can't be petitioned for additional funds when the going gets tough, unprofitability leads to job losses. But Bus Eireann employees face no such threat.
All CIE companies have been ordered to effect economies, and Bus Eireann announced its business recovery plan last June. It has been attempting since then to implement changes by agreement – without progress.
Bus Eireann chief executive Martin Nolan has accused the unions of being unwilling to engage with Labour Court cost-cutting talks. Failure to approve the plan will lead to a potential annual loss of €16m, he warns.
The challenges are considerable. Higher fuel costs – a €4m rise in 2012 alone – passenger numbers falling by 20pc in recent years, private competitors cherrypicking routes and reduced state funding are among the barriers with which the semi-state is dealing.
There has been a 25pc reduction in funding to the company over the last three years, with a further 6pc reduction anticipated for 2013, and more reductions expected. So the road ahead has quite a few potholes.
The unions argue that changes can't be imposed without consultation. And they are perfectly correct there. Still, urging members to give a strike mandate in defence of a clerical worker's right to a 36-hour week is a cause unlikely to win favour with the public. Some of the drivers must be rolling their eyes over that one, too.
I sincerely trust it won't come to strike action, and I have no doubt bus workers share that hope. Over the holiday period, there must be twinges of fear in the homes of union members at even the remote possibility.
Especially as people with long memories may recall a CIE craftsmen's strike in 1981, when the Army was brought in and ran 50 trucks in Dublin to help keep the capital moving.
Let's acknowledge at this point that driving a bus is no easy job. Every day, the driver is responsible for the lives of all the passengers he carries – one slip of concentration and the results could be catastrophic.
So if unions cooperate with management and facilitate the savings needed – hopefully returning the company to profitability – they should receive cast-iron pledges about job protection.
But that can't happen without face-time.