Sunday 20 October 2019

You wanted the Irish to protest? Well, this is what it looks like: Strike-land

The Dublin Bus strike hasn't won much sympathy from the media. Sarah Carey is glad someone has the power and leverage to fight back

The picket line at the Broadstone Depot. Photo: Philip Fitzpatrick/Collins
The picket line at the Broadstone Depot. Photo: Philip Fitzpatrick/Collins

Sarah Carey

Before I get to the maths of public transport, let me reflect on human nature. Most of us form opinions based on emotion rather than reason and then seek out those facts that comfort us best. When I found myself shouting "Up The Workers!" at my bus-driver neighbour on his way to the picket, I knew why I was cheering.

When I turned on the radio and heard journalists, print or broadcast, implicitly and explicitly judge the strikers, I knew what was going on there, too.

Media is a disaster for those who work in it right now. For "freelance"; read "zero-hours contractor". For "self-employed"; see "services contractor". Many of us have no sick pay, no holiday pay, no rights and no guarantee of a job next week, never mind next year.

That's modern life in a disrupted industry in which pay cuts are casually communicated by email, with protest neither expected nor entertained. We meekly accept our condition knowing we are without leverage or value. Or leave for a proper job in public relations, as so many of my colleagues have done. Those left behind can choose to define lack of security as flexibility or internalise the neo-liberal agenda; projecting our feelings of impotence and frustration on to those who have what we don't: organised labour.

And so before I switched off the blanket coverage of the strike, I heard items framed by ailing businesses, stranded passengers and useless politicians. I didn't hear much in the way of sympathy or even joy that at least some people in this country still possess a beating heart, a pulse of protest, an air of defiance and a willingness to say: enough.

Strike I say. The withdrawal of labour has power and is honourable. And let Bus Eireann and Irish Rail go out, too. Whatever happened to the syndicated strike? Why should one strike only for oneself? Strike for the others, too.

Get them all out on the street in support of the lads who drive the plain people around the heaving streets, avoiding jay-walkers, reckless cyclists, the drug addicts and the drunks. Why shouldn't they get a pay rise every eight years while executive pay continues to multiply out of all proportion to its value? ("But I'm worth it!" they tell themselves despite the failed strategies; the planning fallacies; the budgets busted; the missed targets and project delays rampant throughout the private and public sector.)

You think that's too much? You think I've really lost it now?

Okay then. Tell the unions to go into a room and let the management use their soothing reasonable tones to explain why it simply can't be done. Approve as the drivers accept the compromise and shuffle back to their jobs. Assess events in terms of winners and losers, judging the minister as a success or failure - because the horse race is really what it's all about.

And that's grand. But what you don't get to do the following day is hark back to the days of the troika and the banks, and sneer at the governments for seeing reason and taking the deal and doing what must be done. Don't wistfully admire the spirit of the Greeks for taking to the streets (not that it did them any good) and lament that the Irish lacked the spine to do likewise. If you want protest, this is what it looks like.

There are costs. Services are suspended. Things will stop working. People will be inconvenienced. There is no win-win when labour is withdrawn. It's not something you can do on a Sunday afternoon. The point of a strike is that there is pain. That's the leverage. That's why it works.

And so, finally, the maths. Or rather the principle of the maths. The commentators and politicians constantly refer to the public transport subsidy as if it represents failure. That it's unreasonable to expect the "public purse" to give directly to public transport. That the balance sheet of the CIE companies should show a profit, because that's what companies do, right? But the profit to good public transport is not seen on a balance sheet. The profit to moving people around the city and country is to society and, of course indirectly, the economy. When you expect public transport to make a profit you get the British Rail debacle. That's why all around the world public transport is subsidised - heavily.

One Deloitte & Touche survey (from 2009) showed that of several comparable cities Dublin received the lowest subsidy for bus transport. Lyon received 79pc; Brussels 68pc, Amsterdam 62pc, Zurich 57pc, London 39pc, while Dublin buses got just 29pc.

Of course there are brilliant private transport companies out there. Enfield, where I live, enjoys great competition. For instance, Kearns Transport came in and scooped up the passengers that Bus Eireann literally left standing on the road and runs a fantastic, well-priced commuter service in and out to Dublin. But in the middle of the day, when there are no crowds and you need to get to the next town and not Dublin, who rolls up to take the pensioners? It's the old 115 from Bus Eireann. It's fine to put the profitable routes out to tender, but that just increases the public service obligation on the CIE companies.

So as a political principle there shouldn't be any challenge to the idea that public transport deserves public money. Obviously that shouldn't be used as an excuse for poor practice, but neither should the financial standards of commercialism and the increasingly poor employment practices of the private sector become a stick with which to beat our bus and rail companies. If the public sector is to be the last bastion of secure employment with benefits for ordinary workers and not the preserve of the executive classes, then that should be cherished not torn apart.

Finally, a word on the peculiar beast known as the 'Commercial Semi-State'. They tell us this hybrid was formed due to EU rules on competition. We own the ESB, Bord Gais and CIE, but they tell us the sole shareholder, the minster, mustn't interfere with its management. This condition has grated with me for a long time. If we own the companies and pay the bills, why should we be denied the right to run those companies for our benefit?

I don't particularly approve of the structure of the current Government. I'd have gone back to the country rather than reward the splitters and Independents. But the one upside of their presence is that they should challenge the obedience on policies like this.

There must be a way to win back our right to manage that which we own. Politicians have been complicit in allowing themselves to be reformed to the point of impotence. Having legislated away their powers, they see themselves free of blame. But they can't see that without power, like media workers, their labour has lost value. Transport Minister Shane Ross may relish his refusal to intervene, but he might reflect that one day, like us, he'll have to fight for his own relevance.

Sunday Independent

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