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All aboard for the summer of discontent

Article by Brian Hayes MEP, published in the Sunday Business Post on 3rd April 2016

As we emerge from the crash, it is inevitable that pay claims are now being made. As the economy has turned it’s important that the 1.9 million people at work are properly rewarded for their sacrifices in recent years. While reducing tax is one way to boost domestic demand and to put money into people’s pockets, moderate and competitive wage increases are another. What’s important now, is to have some agreement around how we manage the expectation and the reality of improving wage conditions. We cannot afford to go back on the improved competitiveness that is seen in the Irish economy since 2010.

What was utterly depressing about the LUAS strike over Easter weekend in Dublin was that it brought us back in industrial relations terms thirty years. The on-again-off-again negotiations came from the fawlty towers handbook of managing industrial relations. It was as if the actors in the conflict were playing out a drama from another time. The action seemed so far removed from a modern public transport system in a modern capital city.

Everyone has a right to strike, but using the busiest weekend of the year, as literally hundreds of thousands of visitors wanted to see the centenary events – was a cynical move that should be called out for what it was.

 The media battle between the company and unions has generated much heat but little light. There is uncertainty as to the amount of the claim and what was offered by both sides. Claim and counter claim has left commuters and the general public confused about the process and unhappy at the result.

Those most affected by these strikes are ordinary people who demand a service and who subvent public transport by their taxes. And as Senator Sean Barrett has correctly said there is virtually no transparency around the use of that subvention across he public transport companies.

It is clear that the transport workers are due an increase in there pay. No one should doubt that. The offers already made by the LUAS operator are an indication that pay rates need to increase. The issue is of course by how much and that must be a matter for proper negotiation and agreement between all the parties.

With further LUAS strikes a real possibility and pay claims submitted across the public transport sector, many are worried that we could be entering a dangerous period. What’s at issue now is not the right of workers or unions to strike. What’s at issue now is how proportionate or indeed fair is the unions response to this situation. Agreement has to be found. But that agreement is not helped by an over the top response which attacks the very people who are core to the viability of that transport business – the travelling public.

Europe has been to the fore in protected, promoted and defended the rights and working conditions of our citizens. These rights include health and safety at work, equal opportunities for women and men, protection against discrimination and fundamental labour law. Europe has made a difference in demanding fair treatment in member states of the EU. From minimum wage legislation to challenging unfair rulings, such as the Waterford crystal pensions case, Europe has supported organised labour.

Yes progress has been made. But that progress should not be abused by a disproportionate and irresponsible use of strike action. Strikes have to be the last option and also cannot be used to batter the public in some modern day propaganda war between unions.

Now before the howls of the left begin in earnest, let’s honestly look at some recent examples. It has been well reported that SIPTU secured exclusive negotiation rights with the LUAS operator at the expense of NBRU, TSSA and other unions on the basis of preventing inter-union rows. Critically it also included a no-strike clause for a number of years which was later removed. How did any union voluntarily agree to give up the hard won right to strike? By giving up this key negotiating tool did the union sow the seeds of the current dispute?

In the wake of the LUAS strike, Irish Rail staff have submitted a claim and failure to reach agreement on that claim has reportedly delayed the introduction of the 10 minute DART service. Is it fair or justifiable to use the introduction of a new service as a tactic to negotiate an unrelated outstanding pay claim? I know some have suggested that the two are unrelated. But what will the public think when the introduction of a new service, that should have happened, is not now happening. A union spokesperson warned of a potential “summer of discontent” over rail pay claims. But at who’s cost will this discontent be played out? And in heralding a “summer of discontent” are some relishing the prospect of bringing us back decades?

In modern Ireland it is untenable that every public sector pay claim is accompanied by strike action. The great majority of public sector unions would not accept this behaviour. In fact the public sector unions have shown great courage in agreeing difficult pay rounds on two separate occasions with the previous government in the most challenging of times. The incendiary language of the 70s, on both sides, needs to be put to one side.

Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s lost out to too many days of strike action and a bad industrial relations atmosphere. We were a basket case economy where wages price inflation tried, unsuccessfully, to keep pace with actual inflation in the Economy.

In fairness to Charlie Haughey he recognised that a social partnership model, was the right direction to take in trying to moderate a sensible pay policy. While the model of social partnership that followed Mr Haughey was much tarnished by a doubling of the public sector wage bill over 10 years, the core of the idea was and remains a good one. Maybe the Luas dispute or the “summer of discontent” that some are wishing for might provoke some fresh thinking on the potential for some new national wage agreement or mechanism to find agreement without recourse to strike action?

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