Thursday 30 October 2014

ESB wildcats go walkabout

Shane Ross

Published 08/02/2009 | 00:00

TWO cheers for the Green Party. Am I pulling your leg ?

No, not at all. Green Party ministers John Gormley and Eamon Ryan are showing more backbone as a small party in government than Labour or the Progressive Democrats ever did. Indeed, more backbone than scores of Fianna Fail backbenchers. And much more than Taoiseach Brian Cowen.

Former Labour leader Dick Spring used to buckle to order when in coalition with Albert Reynolds or Garret FitzGerald. Whenever a political or economic crisis threatened, Dick wobbled. Ditto the Progressive Democrats.

Not John and Eamon. They are serious politicians. Fianna Fail is their chosen vehicle for long-term solutions. So they are not going to threaten the life of the Government in response to the daily barbs of the Opposition or the media.

On Wednesday it was refreshing to hear John Gormley take a swipe at the greedy ESB workforce. These are the mavericks who have snatched a 3.5 per cent wage increase in the middle of the current crisis. On the same day unemployment soared by 36,500 to 328,000.

So much for workers' solidarity. So much for everyone sharing the pain. ESB workers have pulled a stroke. John knows it. In an interview with RTE's Sean O'Rourke he was restrained but "concerned". Greenspeak for outrage.

His "concern" probably embarrassed his Green cabinet colleague Eamon Ryan, the man in charge of the ESB. But "concern" is no longer enough. That is why the Greens only earn two cheers. It is time for action. This kind of wildcat highway robbery must be stamped out.

ESB workers should be forced to repay this money. The national emergency demands it.

It is the Government's duty to compel them.

The Government owns the ESB. It appoints the board. It receives a dividend from the ESB. And now it is being defied by the ESB workforce and its board.

If the workforce does not like the proposal to take a little pain, there are 326,000 people ready to take their jobs. And if the board refuses to come to heel, they can be replaced.

A semi-state has gone walkabout. It is acting against the national interest.

No one can blame the ESB workers for trousering the booty. Any human being would do the same. But how did they manage to pull off this mother of all stunts?

Very easily. With plenty of help from the directors, the Government, the union leadership and the employers. No one stood in their way. The ESB money-grab is a perfect example of social partnership double-think.

ESB workers are paid an average of €72,000 a year. They enjoy Rolls Royce pensions, generous holidays and overtime. Like other public sector workers they are protected, they cannot be sacked.

Exactly the types, you might think, willing to make a gesture on the very day that unemployment rockets?

Think again.

On Thursday morning, ESB union boss David Naughton surfaced on RTE's Morning Ireland to defend his members' right to the 3.5 per cent award while the rest of the country was contemplating penury. He feebly parried a few telling questions from Aine Lawlor. He insisted that the ESB was "in the private sector".

News to me. I thought it was publicly owned.

It is. But he revealed that ESB workers would be exempt from the pension levy introduced for public sector workers last week. Quite a coup.

So the ESB is publicly owned and government guaranteed, but gives its workers private sector benefits.

Not a bad place to be. The semi-state flits in and out of the public/private box according to its needs. So the 72- grand guys duck the pension levy.

And ESB workers win increases when the rest of the nation is heading for the dole queues.

The Government should act immediately.

Time for Eamon Ryan to carpet ESB chairman Lochlann Quinn and chief executive Padraig McManus.

The board should instantly cancel the 3.5 per cent wage increase or walk the plank.

Otherwise they should be told to wave goodbye to their €18,000 a year part-time jobs. Eamon should then direct Padraig to take an immediate 10 per cent cut in his €534,000 remuneration. If the ESB boss protests that he deserves it, Eamon should ask for the evidence.

There is none. Padraig is untested in any other company. He has been a featherbedded ESB employee since 1973. Not exactly an indication that he has been flooded with job offers for 35 years.

The minister should tell Padraig that he is lucky. He enjoys private sector pay and public sector perks.

That should soften his cough.

Last Thursday ESB spokesmen were seriously excusing their employees' excesses with the claim that they were private sector for wage negotiations, public sector for permanence! Any additional questions I asked were refused with the smug response that the ESB was not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. So I should buzz off and read the annual report.

Protests that every cent of money spent was public money were scoffed at.

The same clowns suggested that it would cost the Exchequer millions in income tax if the workers gave up the 3.5 per cent. What rubbish.

The ESB pays the Government a dividend. Eamon, the Green minister, owns the operation. He should instruct the board to pay the Government the €10m saved by cancelling the wage hike in a bigger dividend. Give it back to the taxpayer.

Last year the ESB made profits of €432m.

Best estimates put a value on the company of between €6bn and €8bn.

Do those figures ring a bell?

Just about enough to nationalise or recapitalise the two major banks. We could do with it.

There are rumblings in the undergrowth. An old taboo is being aired. Wait and see, the sale of state assets is approaching. Not welcome for some, but if the Government is forced to raise money to keep people in jobs, the ESB will be first on the block.

And no buyer will tolerate the cosy hybrid model enjoyed by the ESB today. A creature with padded profits, with overpaid workers enjoying protection for life will be filleted. Nor will any commercial buyer tolerate the other antics of the ESB. The board would be out on its ear.

The silence of all the social partners on the pay deal of the ESB workers is stunning. Ibec has mumbled, but no more. They are deeply compromised.

Ibec may theoretically disapprove, but it is a little-known secret that the ESB pays more than €150,000 a year to top up the coffers of this morally bankrupt employers' group. Only Ibec's paymasters in the banks pay more. The board of the ESB is joined at the hip with Ibec. The workforce is supported by the union. The social partnership conspiracy has tied the ESB in a knot. United in the desire to pony up to worker and boss alike

The ESB has led a charmed life. The board, the boss and the workforce are passengers on the same gravy train. Time for the Green minister to earn the third cheer.

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