Sunday 22 July 2018

Is hugely disruptive Luas row really about pay at all?

Alana Butler walking from Dundrum to Dublin city centre along the Luas tracks at Ranelagh during the strike in February. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Alana Butler walking from Dundrum to Dublin city centre along the Luas tracks at Ranelagh during the strike in February. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Anne-Marie Walsh

It's one of the most unpopular disputes of recent times, so it's hard to understand why Luas workers are not champing at the bit when offered pay rises most workers could only dream about.

The pay claim they submitted to Transdev of up to 53.8pc, albeit over three years, seemed completely outrageous when inflation is running at zero. Most workers are getting annual increases in the region of 3pc.

But Luas workers have rejected a proposal for pay increases way above the norm - despite their own union's recommendation that it was the best that could be had at the Workplace Relations Commission.

They could have won a major public relations victory last weekend during the 1916 centenary commemorations by calling off their strike as a gesture of goodwill, but still they persisted.

The huge sign that currently embellishes Liberty Hall remembering James Connolly and his comrades is likely to annoy anyone who had to walk to town during the commemorations.

The result is that many people are wondering if this highly disruptive row is really about pay at all. As a result, many conspiracy theories are floating about in relation to what is going on in Jack O'Connor's head and the type of strategy that has been developed at Liberty Hall.

Siptu has always put itself forward as a bastion of anti-privatisation and outsourcing policies. Could it be that this is the real end-game in terms of the dispute?

However, it is difficult to see the advantages to it of the Luas operation returning to State hands. Siptu negotiated a 'closed-shop' agreement with Connex when it won the Luas contract back in the early noughties, which meant it is the only union in the workplace. It has had success in fending off privatisation in the bus service.

But some critics have pointed out that it "bangs the drum, but eventually succumbs" and was the union in many workplaces where privatisation took place, including Aer Lingus and bin services in Dublin and Cork.

The fact that a major pay increase could be won in one of the first big disputes of the year must be tantalising, after years of pay freezes, fighting cuts and the collapse of social partnership during the crisis years. This would have a ripple effect throughout the whole economy and give it a strong agenda with workers who have clearly rejected the political parties' tax cut promises after years of austerity. It would assist public service unions hungry for justification to demand further pay restoration before the Lansdowne Road deal runs out.

Social partnership became a dirty phrase during the crisis years, but another welcome side effect for Siptu would be the fact that it might concentrate the minds of the two main political parties on the need for some sort of social dialogue.

The union, which had heavily backed Labour in the General Election, must be devastated by the result and keen to keep itself relevant to the workforce and rebuild its membership.

Siptu is likely to have taken umbrage at the plan to introduce a 'yellow pack' workforce under the Workplace Relations Commission proposals. This is something it is fighting in the public sector.

But these potentially positive outcomes may not be so much a grand masterplan, as side effects.

After all, the union must be conscious that this dispute is doing its image appalling damage among swathes of the public.

The rejection of the proposals has brought Siptu into unknown territory.

But the reason for the deadlock may be much more mundane.

The strike is, by all accounts, being run by shop stewards rather than Siptu officials. Early in the dispute, the union admitted it did not come up with the 53.8pc figure, and most tellingly, the Workplace Relations Commission package was rejected despite its recommendation.

At the time, senior union sources commented that although you shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, on the other hand, you could lead him to water but you cannot make him drink.

Like Harristown at Dublin Bus in the past, the Luas depots have become hotbeds for hardliners and the so-called 'Trots'.

It is also alleged that Siptu has not had a close relationship with the Luas workforce on the shopfloor over the years as it has not had to, mainly due to an anti-strike clause that has since been dismantled.

And, of course, the fact that the country does not have a government is no doubt fuelling this free-for-all attitude.

Irish Independent

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