Unions can only blame themselves if members' jobs are subcontracted because of their archaic practices
Jack O'Connor of Siptu continues to advocate holding a referendum to ensure that our water services are never privatised. I agree with him.
The Eircom story, with corporate raiders extracting millions from the company and staff cashing in on huge lump sums, while the network was starved of investment, is a salutary lesson we must heed.
The fact that large areas of the country are still without broadband in 2015 is largely due to this "unacceptable face of capitalism".
Given the Government's reassurances that the utility will never be privatised, one thing seems pretty inevitable: down the road many of the jobs in Irish Water will be sub-contracted out, that is privatised, and this will happen largely because of the antics of trade union members and the officials who purport to lead them.
Last week, the Municipal Branch of IMPACT served notice of industrial action on Dublin City Council (DCC) as follows: "One week's notice of industrial action up to and including strike as the council are deciding to implement a new practice without prior engagement".
This threat of a strike that will affect, among many other public services, the repair of leaks to the city's decaying water pipes, is not over some major disruptive change like radically new rosters.
The threat is over the council's determination to eliminate the allowance of one hour per week for outdoor staff to cash their pay cheques and 15 minutes for office staff.
This change was first included in the council's Croke Park Action Plan in 2010 but the proposal was never pursued by management because it was resisted by the unions.
It took until June 2014 before a formal proposal was again put to the unions to secure implementation of this change. The unions requested deferral to allow for "engagement". Management agreed to defer implementation from July 2014 to September 2014. A further deferral was requested by the unions who then said they wanted the matter to be referred to a third party.
The council agreed to defer implementation a second time, until January 2015 and clearly signalled that implementation would proceed in January 2015.
Eventually the unions were advised that cheque-cashing time would be terminated with effect from last Monday.
The unions referred the matter to the Labour Court and there is a hearing scheduled for early March. The council indicated it was going to implement, which it is were entitled to do, as per the Public Service Agreement, at which point the above notice of industrial action was issued.
The most bizarre aspect of this whole story is that all staff concerned are paid electronically! It is not just the unions who have a case to answer here. The fact that cheque-cashing time has been eliminated across most of the country raises questions about the capacity of Dublin City Council management to implement signed agreements.
Also, I understand that someone in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has advised the council to defer implementation " in the interests of good industrial relations". What are council management to do in this situation?
It is quite common for line management to be held back from implementing contentious decisions by local HR people who seem to be influenced by their minister's wish to avoid trouble, especially coming up to an election.
Contrary to popular belief, there are mechanisms for dealing with poor performers, but the irony is that the person who risks most in doing so may be the manager who decides to stick to his guns and apply the rules in full. In this context it is imperative that managers receive full backing right up along the chain of command, to the minister if necessary.
Faced with this kind of messing, which died out in the private sector 20 to 30 years ago, it is only a matter of time that local government managers will be forced by public opinion and by Government to sub-contract out services.
And when that happens trade union leaders will be up in arms, but they will have no one to blame but themselves.
On a Sunday morning last year I observed a crew of seven Dublin City Water Unit staff fixing a leak; there was one in the small hole, another in a JCB and five others not even leaning on their shovels. When I enquired of DCC whether these men were on premium rates for a call-out I was told 'yes' but that I should not be concerned because "in future the bill would be sent to Irish Water".
The trade unions representing men involved in this kind of over-manning have secured guarantees of employment out to 2026.
Great for them, but not for the public who will pay for it in their water bills. I favour having trade unions, especially as a protection against the kind of exploitation that has occurred in the retail, catering or shipping sectors. I also favour retaining as public services water supply, prisons, disability services and many others.
However, once there is effective regulation these services can be delivered in a cost-effective way by the private sector, as illustrated by the network of independent certified gas fitters who come to fix your boiler if it goes on the blink.
As the programme of public service reform continues, the unions and their members have a choice: either put an end to the kind of indefensible practices mentioned here, which add to the bills and charges imposed on the public, and modernise, or else see public service jobs sub-contracted out to private providers in ever greater numbers.
Dr Eddie Molloy is a management consultant