Wednesday 28 September 2016

Public is on bus drivers' side - so far - and holding us to ransom is wrong

Published 10/09/2016 | 02:30

People walking to work in Dublin Photo: Tom Burke
People walking to work in Dublin Photo: Tom Burke

My father was a bus driver. So I know it's not an easy job, between shift work, a seven-day rota and the responsibility it carries - drivers hold people's lives between their hands.

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In addition, a certain amount of risk from violence looms during the working day. Drivers are subjected to verbal and physical assault, while Dublin drivers also suffer stress negotiating city gridlock.

It is a testament to how well they fulfil their duties with courtesy and efficiency that the public is largely supportive of striking drivers, despite the inconvenience.

Early days yet, of course. There were two days of labour withdrawal this week, with notice given for two more 48-hour stoppages in the coming weeks. But even on tight-packed Darts and Luas trams, when tempers were tetchy, people were slow to criticise the drivers. "Eight years is a long time to go without a pay rise," was a common remark. Wages have remained static since 2008.

So, do the drivers have a good case for more money? In fact, they were offered quite a decent pay rise and rejected it. The Labour Court recommended a 2.75pc pay award every year for three years. On offer was 8.25pc in total for all 3,364 employees - without productivity changes. Drivers say they won't accept less than the 3.8pc won by Luas drivers recently.

We are told the offer is unacceptable because many drivers are struggling to get by, and this is undoubtedly the case for many of us in various walks of life. Bills seem to land on the doormat from all directions.

However, pay increases can only be funded through two sources: dearer tickets or an increased State subvention to Dublin Bus. There is no ATM machine in the sky with free withdrawals.

A billion euro is available in next month's Budget, to include public spending increases and tax cuts. If the Government folds beneath a wave of pay claims from groups already receiving additional money through the Lansdowne Road Agreement, then public service discipline will unravel.

So, there are wider consequences from giving an extra pay rise to drivers - especially if it is simply on the basis of their worth because they were loyal through difficult times. Most kept their jobs, while the private sector was decimated. Naturally, it could be higher, but drivers are in reasonably paid and secure employment.

The median income for full-time workers in Ireland last year was €32,000, and public sector workers earned more than those in the private sector - where lots of people are on less money than in 2008 and can expect no improvement.

It is true that anyone in private rental accommodation is hit hard. There has been a 9pc increase in rents in the 12 months ending August 2016. Motor insurance is up by 28pc, health insurance by 6.7pc and home insurance by 10.6pc. However, food is down 1pc, a significant element in any household's budget, and petrol and diesel are more than 10pc cheaper.

Overall, prices have remained relatively flat, according to Central Statistics Office figures published this week. Although people might not have noticed it, prices actually fell by 0.1pc over that period. (Interestingly, all public and private bus fares are 0.4pc higher despite the fuel fall.)

In short, we are seeing drivers offered a pay increase in an environment where prices are flat. Consequently, if I were making the case for a pay rise, I wouldn't cite the cost of living, expensive though Ireland is. Nor would I wave that 6pc promised to drivers in 2009 and shelved because of the collapsed economy. Losing that 6pc was nothing compared with the devastation wreaked elsewhere, leading to unemployment and emigration.

However, if I were negotiating on behalf of drivers, I would advance an argument for additional payment as danger money. Some of the routes Dublin Bus is obliged to service can be risky for drivers - it's like entering Dodge City without any back-up.

Dublin Bus has returned to profitability, making €10m in 2014. This, despite the previous Government slashing the subvention, and distributing 10pc of the routes - profitable ones - to private tender. So clearly the drivers believe they ought to have a share of the profits. And any well-run company understands the need to carve up the bounty with its employees. Except those numbers don't add up to a jackpot.

Union spokespeople understand that, I suspect, and propose a bigger subvention from the Exchequer to Dublin Bus, with pay increases drawn from that pot. The association with the State arises from an obligation to support non-profitable bus routes. But that means the public purse funding the pay rises which drivers want.

As for the stoppages - strikes result from a communications breakdown. It is disconcerting to see how little was done by both management and union negotiators to talk through their differences before the first of the strikes.

This trouble should have been foreseen at the time of the Luas dispute earlier this year, and concerted efforts made at negotiation and compromise. Were serious steps taken to avert a strike? There is no evidence of it. And let's remember, not just unions but the management side share responsibility for preventing industrial war. When workers have grievances they have the right to pursue them, while management have responsibilities to the company.

But using fellow citizens as collateral damage during disputes is intolerable.

Holding the public to ransom is the worst possible outcome for both parties. The repercussions for the elderly, school children, people trying to keep hospital appointments or reach work - that's just taken as a given. Causing chaos cannot be taken for granted.

Competing interests enter the play when 400,000 people a day rely on a service which is withdrawn. When Dublin Bus drivers push that red button, there are far-reaching economic and social consequences.

In the public interest, then, the Transport Minister must ensure both parties sit at the negotiating table with a genuine wish to reach terms. Perhaps productivity concessions in return for an improved offer can be agreed. But pay hikes at the expense of the public purse, while people are left standing by bus stops? Anyone recommending that is failing to read the road ahead.

Irish Independent

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