Luas refusal of 18% pay offer is driving up expectations

Other public transport sector workers now voicing disaffection and clamouring for more, writes Stephen Rogers

Luas refusal of 18% pay offer is driving up expectations

A TRADE union at one of the country’s multinationals has confirmed it will demand a pay rise for its members.

The union spokesman was reluctant to say, ahead of full consultation with members, how much would be sought. However, when pressed on whether the increase would be “significant”, he replied: “Well, we are not going to do a Luas on it”.

The original, 53% demand from the Luas workers, and the subsequent rejection of up to 18% over 33 months, following protracted negotiations at the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), has generated waves across the trade-union movement — as has the way the company has subsequently sought to tackle the situation.

Such percentages had been unprecedented. Even WRC director general, Kieran Mulvey, in the interview that brought him into conflict with Siptu president, Jack O’Connor, earlier this month, said that most union officials, and most union members, if they had got those kinds of proposals from the commission, “would go back to their members and receive a standing ovation”.

That is because the trend in the private sector had been for increases of 2%-3%. An Industrial Relations News/CIPD survey forecasted average increases of 2.8% for 2016.

In the wake of the Luas claim, the National Bus and Rail Union quickly indicated it would be seeking rises of up to 25% for its members in Irish Rail, while bus workers put in a claim for up to 13%.

An image comparing a Luas driver and a junior doctor spread quickly across social media. Beneath the picture, the reader was told the junior doctor worked 72 hours on-call duty per week, needed five years of training, yet had a starting salary of €30,000. It said the doctors were fighting for an end to 24-hour shifts.

Beneath the picture of the tram driver, it said he worked 36.5 hours per week, had a seven-week training course, and a starting salary of €32,000. It said Luas drivers were fighting for an additional 53%.

Some of the figures were contestable — but the point was clear and reflected the view of many members of the public.

Transport is the area of most industrial unrest and it is unsurprising that it is the other transport workers who have been quickest to react.

Train drivers say their job is more taxing than their tram colleagues’. Bus workers are not going to let Luas drivers steal a march on them. Transport workers are also best-placed to get headline-grabbing attention when their claims are not met. The threat — or, in the case of the Luas, implementation — of strike action that will disable networks is a significant bargaining tool.

It forces the employer to address the grievance promptly, or to go on the offensive, as Transdev did.

The Luas claim has not ignited a free-for-all in other areas of the private sector, with many companies quietly hammering out deals, with staff, at local level.

However, as conference season gets into full swing among the public sector unions, pay restoration will be near the top of most agendas. Representatives of gardaí, nurses, and civil servants have all been vocal, in recent days, about renegotiating the Lansdowne Road pay agreement, given the healthier state of the country’s bank balance.

LRA, which started in January, runs until 2018, and only partially restores cuts to pay and conditions, which were imposed on public servants during the recession.

As Tom Geraghty, general secretary of the Public Service Executive Union, told the Industrial Relations News (IRN) annual conference, last month: “If the existing, high levels of growth continue, you can absolutely take it for granted that we will be looking to speed-up the process of restoration.” However, he admitted that it may be too early to make a judgment now, given that the capacity of the State to roll back the emergency legislation could be contingent on external factors.

Others have been more forthright. Siptu vice-president, Gene Mealy, said: “All public servants, regardless of grade, category, or profession, who suffered hardship and contributed significantly during the crisis, must now benefit in any accelerated restoration agreement.

“Those who call for sectoral restoration are failing to take cognisance of the contribution made by all public servants, particularly those on low pay.”

Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation general secretary, Liam Doran, said he didn’t think there was “any chance” public sector unions would wait for LRA to end, as the public finances continued to grow.

However, when WRC director general, Kieran Mulvey, who mediated LRA as the chief executive of the Labour Relations Commission, hinted at a need for renegotiation, people sat up and took notice.

In an RTÉ interview, he said: “In regard to workers who are in the frontline services, we did try, under the Lansdowne Road Agreement, to start restoring the pay. Obviously, that is not happening quick enough, in the view of new entrants.

“I think this issue has arisen, and there is such a major noise around this issue that it will have to be addressed again, in the context of the Lansdowne Road Agreement. I think, if the public exchequer improves, there is nothing to stop the agreement being revisited at a certain stage.”

Mulvey said that if the country could not recruit teachers, gardaí, civil servants and nurses, because of pay, it would have to be revisited.

However, within days of Mr Mulvey’s comments, the secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform had called a press conference to rule out renegotiating LRA.

“Pay and the evolution of pay, the pay bill, must be seen in the overall context of the overall fiscal position,” Robert Watt said, adding that Ireland was still running a government deficit and that any money allocated to pay “is less money for improvement of services, it’s less money for social housing, and for a variety of improvements that people are advocating all the time”.

He hotly disputed that there was any difficulty in recruiting new entrants, pointing out that 25,000 people applied for 550 positions with the gardaí, and that there were 46,000 applications for civil service roles in two years.

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