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Eilis O'Hanlon: Like Radiator Man, unions risk being told 'on yer bike'

It was a coup for Liveline that a man should slip his neck inside a bicycle lock and clamp himself to a radiator in the Revenue Commissioners' office at exactly the right time to make his protest the centrepiece of Thursday's show.

Even better that the man himself agreed to talk on air. For Chris, the property tax protester in question, things didn't turn out quite so well. In fact, Chris may well consider filing this one under the heading Things That Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time.

Right from the off, Joe Duffy wasn't exactly oozing sympathy for the man, his fellow protesters from the Campaign Against Home and Water Taxes, or even the cause for which they had attached themselves so melodramatically to the furniture. What particularly irked the RTE presenter was that Chris had tossed away the key and was therefore just presuming that the fire brigade would come and get him out of his self-imposed imprisonment.

Callers were scarcely more supportive. "I think he's a very stupid man," declared the first woman to comment on air. What if there was a fire somewhere, or a child that needed rescuing, whilst Chris was wasting the fire brigade's time? On Twitter, users were gleefully suggesting that he be left there overnight, or even all weekend, to teach him a lesson. Others called Liveline to demand that the property tax protesters be charged for every cent of the cost of sending gardai and firemen to the scene.

To be honest, it all became rather unpleasant, with one caller styling himself 'Fine Gael Mick' even channeling his inner Enda Kenny by suggesting that Radiator Man should get himself a job instead. Chris explained that he'd been trying to do just that. Mick responded that he obviously hadn't been going about it the right way. You'd think unemployment was a character defect rather than a brutal recessionary reality.

Chris seemed like a nice enough fellow, and it did seem odd that he was getting a hard time when politicians such as Clare Daly and Joan Collins, who cut their teeth on similar protests against local authority charges, get nowhere near such a pasting on the national airwaves. His plight – made redundant from his job as a carpenter; returning to college to upskill in an effort to make himself more employable; applying for hundreds of jobs without luck; falling into mortgage arrears; and now being landed with a bill for property tax because he happens to have bought his home during the boom rather than renting – would also have been grimly familiar to many struggling with personal distress.

But if the incident showed anything, it's that there is rarely any sympathy for people who go out of their way to make a nuisance of themselves.

There's a message there for the Government, if only they would listen. Right now, they're afraid of the unions. They may be talking tough over the so-called Haddington Road deal, spewing the usual rhetoric about trains leaving the station and the unions needing to get on board fast before they lose the chance to benefit from the kinder terms on offer; but behind the good cop, bad cop spin, Fine Gael and Labour wouldn't even have given the unions a second chance after the breakdown of the Croke Park II process, or offered them such generous terms in the renegotiation, if they weren't deathly afraid of the havoc the unions could unleash on the country in strikes.

What they fail to grasp is that it's not the unions of whom they would actually be afraid in such a scenario, it's the public. The nightmare scenario for ministers is not that unions go on strike, but that the public will blame the Government for the ensuing chaos and punish them accordingly.

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And perhaps we would. There's always that risk. But it's a risk the unions would be running as well.

Public sector unions know that support isn't guaranteed when taking industrial action. That's why the drivers made sure they still ran school buses during the recent dispute with management, because the sight of thousands of Junior and Leaving Cert pupils unable to get to school at the most crucial time of the year would have enraged parents and turned public opinion against the strikers. Bus drivers trod carefully because they were scared. Every dispute contains the seeds of its own destruction. Take it too far and an inevitable backlash begins.

Yet when Leo Varadkar dared to say the unsayable during the recent dispute – that it was better for strikes to go ahead than for the necessary reforms not to be made – he was immediately drowned out by the shushing of colleagues, particularly in Labour ranks, terrified of rousing the dragon of union power.

The Government should be reminding the unions at every turn that they may have the power to bring the country to a standstill, as the people from the Campaign Against Home and Water Taxes brought business at the Revenue Commissioners' office to a shuddering halt last Thursday, but that they're as powerless in the face of the withering disdain of an inconvenienced and stressed public as poor Chris bicycle-locked to the radiator.

The common theme expressed by Liveline callers last week was that, however unjust the property tax might be, the only outcome of people like Chris not paying his way would be that others, also struggling in hard times, would have to pick up the tab.

If they don't tread carefully, the public sector unions could find themselves turning into Chris, provoking the same ire from people who can see that, if the unions aren't willing to make the necessary sacrifices to return the country to living within its means, others will be forced to make those sacrifices for them, and that will inevitably be private sector workers without the same job protection or enviable pension arrangements.

Rather than begging the unions not to clamp themselves to the radiators, the Government should be handing out bicycle locks and inviting them to get on with it. The unions should listen carefully to last Thursday's Liveline before deciding it's a wise move.

Irish Independent