Held to ransom as ESB unions get set for strike
Blackouts could cost millions a day in winter of discontent
UNIONS at the ESB have been accused of holding the country to ransom as the threat of electricity blackouts in the run-up to Christmas increases.
A meeting of union delegates representing ESB workers agreed to serve notice of industrial action on the company in their row over a €1.6bn deficit in the pension scheme.
If it goes ahead, it will be the first industrial action at the semi-state company since 1991 when a five-day strike almost toppled Charlie Haughey's Fianna Fail and PD coalition government.
Formal notice due to be served on the company next Friday will expire on Monday, December 16 – just as the Christmas rush reaches its peak.
The hospitality industry warned that restaurants and pubs would haemorrhage up to €10m a day if power was cut, at a time of year when they should be enjoying their healthiest profits.
The Dublin City Business Improvement District estimates that the power cuts could cost up to €150m in the capital alone if they were to continue up to Christmas.
And organisations representing older people warned of the dire dangers of allowing power outages to take place.
A power strike would also be a major blow for the Government as it exits the bailout on December 15 – the day before unions' notice of action is due to expire.
It is struggling to contain a simmering winter of discontent as there have been industrial disputes at transport companies, secondary schools and hospitals in recent months.
Brendan Ogle, secretary of the ESB group of unions, said that hopefully it would not come to power cuts but warned that "potentially it could happen".
Mr Ogle also confirmed that in the event action goes ahead on the 16th, it will be suspended for the Christmas period. However, he would only define this as being from Christmas Eve "at least".
The Government will pile pressure on both unions and management at the ESB to sort out the dispute in the coming days.
Unions and management will meet next week in an effort to resolve the dispute at the semi-state, where workers earn an average of almost €65,000 a year and enjoy discounted energy bills. Coalition sources indicated the Government wanted to see both sides sort the problem out without any impact on the public.
"I do not think the general public will understand why a profitable company, which returns dividends, is not in a position to sort out its pension scheme," a senior government source said.
The unions will meet ESB chief executive Pat O'Doherty next Thursday in a last-ditch bid to break the impasse on the pension issue, which has now been simmering for three years.
Mr Ogle said this dispute is not an attempt, as suggested, to foist the deficit on the taxpayer.
"This is a dispute between the unions and the ESB, not the Government," said Mr Ogle.
"This has no financial implications for the Government or the taxpayer. The unions would be appalled if the deficit brought about by the ESB's mismanagement of the scheme fell on the taxpayer," Mr Ogle added.
The ESB group of unions – which includes Siptu, Teeu, Unite, the craft union, Ucatt and the clerical union, the Esu – have not yet indicated exactly what form any action will take if those talks fail.
Communications and Energy Minister Pat Rabbitte said he was glad unions and management would meet next week.
"Nobody intends that the ESB pension scheme will be wound up, and Government notes that the Pensions Board assessment is that the scheme is on track and will be in surplus by 2018," he said.
The unions claim the company breached a 2010 agreement to bridge the then pension deficit of €1.6bn by referring to the scheme in its annual accounts as a defined contribution scheme, which passed the pension risk to the employee, rather than a defined benefit scheme, under which the employer bears the risk.
Under the 2010 agreement, the company injected €591m to bridge the deficit while workers contributed a pay freeze and a cut in pension payments.
The company has maintained the 2010 agreement is "on track" to reduce the deficit but insists it has no liability to fund future deficits in the scheme.
- Martin Frawley, Sam Griffin and Fionnan Sheahan