Friday 21 October 2016

Vision needed to avoid bus strike 'contagion'

Published 24/09/2016 | 02:30

Cartoonist: Ken Lee
Cartoonist: Ken Lee

"But fumble in a greasy till, and add the halfpence to the pence'' - WB. Yeats

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There won't be many Dublin commuters who are thinking of WB Yeats today as they struggle with the reality of the ongoing work stoppages at Dublin Bus. Many will tussle through traffic wedged and weary, others will lament the journeys that might have been if only the 33A were passing their way. Some will have solidarity and sympathy for the Dublin Bus drivers, while others will view the strike as an unnecessary nuisance, as inconvenience increasingly overrides understanding.

In one of his most celebrated works, 'September 1913', Yeats laments a time when politics was less egotistical and self-serving. It was viewed by many as a commentary on the most severe and significant industrial dispute in our history, the 1913 Lockout, as Irish workers fought for the right to unionise.

In our centennial year, as we commemorate so many of our heroic forefathers and their fight for fundamental rights and freedom, one wonders how they might view the current industrial relations landscape.

This Government is facing into a tremendously sensitive period in terms of increasing union demands and pay claims. If some mechanism is not devised to deal with the looming problems on the industrial relations front, this generation of political and union leaders may be left with a legacy that is simply reduced to squabbling over shillings.

So far, the debate around the most pressing industrial relations dispute at Dublin Bus has been distilled down to a power struggle over a pow-wow between the Transport Minister and the unions. Minister Shane Ross says he is unwilling to engage with workers' unions fighting for 15pc pay increases. The unions claim workers deserve this increase. The Labour Relations Commission (LRC) has suggested 8.5pc, with built-in productivity conditions. Were the minister to engage the bus drivers, he would immediately undermine the clout of the LRC and the National Transport Authority - an agency whose very existence is designed to deliver more public transport services with more efficiencies for publicly-funded investment.

Crucially for the unions, if they cannot inveigle the minister into the tangle, their influence looks diminished publicly. Worse still, they are forced to remain outside of the political arena and are permanently parked in the processes of the Labour Relations Commission with the Department of Transport.

So, on the face of it, Minister Ross our anti-hero (neither White Knight nor Sugar Daddy) is correct in his handling of the problem to date. The difficulty for him is the potential for costly contagion. If this industrial action is not solved, it could very quickly spread to other CIÉ companies, firstly to Bus Éireann and then onwards to Irish Rail. Further escalation could leave this fragile Government facing the first general public transport strike since 2000. Then it is not just a Dublin-centric problem, its nationwide.

The solution to the Dublin Bus pay problem is not easy. It is not merely about finding an optimum figure to keep the workers and their employers happy. Because this solution will not be a ceiling for pay at Dublin Bus, it will create a floor for other workers to commence individual bargaining.

When dealing with workers' pay, contagion has to be managed; it is always unpredictable and relentless. It cannot be contained within the transport sector. Strikes are a bit like buses you see - you wait for ages for a good aul' strike and then, hey presto, they all arrive at the same time.

After years of pent-up austerity, the aggrieved are lining up: gardaí, nurses, and teachers, are all keenly waiting to see the outcome on the buses. Bolstered by the increasingly positive Exchequer figures and high on the helium of '26pc' growth rates last year, these workers have suffered the pain of a crippling recession. Now, they say, it's payback time.

The remedy to the problem does not lie in dealing with any of these issues in isolation. The solution lies in a detailed and holistic socio-economic approach that is built on consensus, not conflict.

One thing is for sure: if we are to capitalise on the tentative recovery that the Irish people have worked hard for, we need to create policies that are aimed at surviving beyond the next Budget. Longer-term plans and bigger visions are needed urgently.

Options, however unpalatable to this Government now, will become even more so if LRC recommendations are increasingly ignored, and we become clouded by a fog of industrial war.

A version of social partnership on the one hand and privatisation on the other are the two extreme options available to Government now.

Recently pilloried as the root of all evil, social partnership was initially a simple model. Born out of a decade of strikes and unrest which commenced with the maintenance strike of January 1969, social partnership was the antidote that promised industrial peace in return for nominal wage increases and tax reductions. As expectations and workforces grew, so did the social partnership model. While it did not get everything right, it did not get everything wrong - it was useful in its time.

Fundamentally, it was a concept, an overarching employer-employee agreement that was easy to understand and easy to sell publicly.

Predominant policies and concepts are in very short supply from this Government, though.

Does anyone really know what the current Government's industrial relations policy actually is?

Currently, Shane Ross is driving along in a bus lane all of his own, albeit in the right direction.

While no one wants him to simply open the State cheque book, he could have some role in calling the sides together to explain the Government's position, clearly detailing the wider implications for the economy of this and other potential pay claims.

Beyond token calls for Minister Ross to intervene, the main opposition parties have been remarkably silent. But it will not be long before they are also forced to reveal their hands. Fianna Fáil will be targeted soon as wily union leaders will attempt to divide and conquer.

One hopes a voice will emerge from Government which sets out a vision and a clear set of guidelines for the industrial relations roadmap that deals with the substantive problem in a more comprehensive way than pass the political parcel.

We can but dream.

"Romantic Ireland's dead and gone, it's with O'Leary in the grave."

Irish Independent

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