Employees seek redress for years of sacrifice during austerity

As the economy grows, Stephen Rogers looks at how the deal with Luas drivers may see workers across many sectors begin campaigns for pay increases

Employees seek redress for years of sacrifice during austerity

FOR much of the last decade, anyone booking a flight with Aer Lingus at a peak time of the year would have had a sense of trepidation that a potential strike by employees could signal chaos for their travel plans.

There was often a feeling that dates for industrial action were chosen specifically because they would create the most headlines, concentrating the minds of the employer and ensuring that their grievances were addressed.

After all the upheaval of the last 10 years, the last 12 months at the airline have actually been settled industrial relations-wise and those planning to travel with Aer Lingus this summer can, it appears, book in confidence that their flight will not be disrupted. The airline is going from strength to strength, boosting the profits of its new owners IAG.

However, as we have witnessed with the Luas dispute in the last few weeks, transport unions are continuing to use dates for industrial action which will cause the highest level of disruption to the public.

Tens of thousands of people travelling into Dublin for St Patrick’s Day would have been hugely impacted if the strike action had gone ahead on that day.

As it stands, commuters this Easter weekend could still be affected if Luas workers decide the deal hammered out at the Workplace Relations Commission — which will secure pay increases of up to 18.7% for some — is rejected. Acceptance is by no means guaranteed. Sources close to the talks put the likelihood of a ballot in favour as “50-50”.

But even if the increases are backed by the Luas workers, the battle they have fought — ultimately successfully — could spell trouble for the travelling public in the coming months.

As one seasoned trade union figure pointed out: “People in the room last Tuesday and Wednesday [when the Luas deal was hammered out] knew the significant knock-on impact that was going to have. All bets are off now.”

Dublin Bus drivers are due before the Workplace Relations Commission on Wednesday. On February 4, drivers’ union, the National Bus and Rail Union (NBRU), lodged a pay claim with the company seeking parity with Luas drivers for its members in Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann.

It is a certainty that demand will now be increased to match what was offered to the Luas drivers last week.

Furthermore, Irish Rail drivers, unhappy at the closing of the gap between their salaries and those of the Luas drivers, as they believe there is much more involved in their roles, have lodged for increases reaching 25%.

“There is a vast difference, a vast gulf, between the duties of a train driver and a tram driver — one being heavy rail and one light rail,” said NBRU general secretary Dermot O’Leary.

“Some of the conditions and standards train drivers work under are far more rigorous than those of a Luas driver, with respect to Luas drivers.”

Management and unions at Irish Rail have only recently been in mediation — with the latter seeking recognition for past productivity.

Those talks were fraught with animosity. Discussions on pay increases worth 25% just a few months after Irish Rail claimed it was losing in excess of €1.5m a month are likely to bring that animosity to a whole new level.

Irish Rail workers are familiar with leveraging their demands with threats of strike action which will hit services to the public most forcefully. In August 2014, disgruntled staff announced a series of stoppages on days which included the dates of All Ireland GAA finals.

Every time one of the country’s major transport providers is hit by strike action, the cost to the company can be measured in the millions. Irish Rail has said the claim for a 25% increase is not “grounded in reality” considering it has an accumulated deficit of €135m and is only paying wages and bills through loans. It is unlikely, therefore, that the company will allow itself to come anywhere near to paying what is being demanded.

The net result is that the public should brace itself for transport chaos over the summer as days and days of strikes are threatened and, very likely, carried out.

It is not just in the transport sphere that unrest is bubbling. After years of pay freezes and cuts, increases are now being demanded by employees in numerous sections of the private sector, While 2% is being flagged as the norm, many feel that is too little for the sacrifices that have been made.

The Workplace Relations Commission is likely to have its work cut out over the next six to 12 months in mediating between the sides.

And the public sector is also becoming restless. Leading public service trade unionist, Tom Geraghty, told a recent Industrial Relations News conference that If economic growth rates of 7% are sustained, the Government would not be able to justify continuing with the financial emergency legislation that was used to cut the wages of public servants.

“If the existing high levels of growth continues, you can absolutely take it for granted that we will be looking to speed up the process of restoration,” he said.

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