Throughout the current Bus Éireann debacle, Government members in general — and Transport Minister Shane Ross in particular — have been at pains to say that the resolution of the dispute is a matter for the company and its staff representatives and they cannot be seen to be getting involved.
A few hours after the Workplace Relations Commission talks ended early yesterday morning Paschal Donohoe once again defended the minister in his former transport department, saying the Government is putting in place supports for the Labour Court and WRC, but is not playing any role other than that.
Until now, the hands-off approach by the Government and National Transport Authority had been seen, not just by unions but also by large sections of the public, as doing nothing to help find a resolution to the dispute.
However, the opinion of unions now is that not only are the Government, State agencies and consultants involved behind the scenes, but they are actively preventing a resolution.
“It appears that management is controlled by consultants and others outside the process who are content to see 2,600 good jobs lost in order to advance the privatisation of public transport,” said Siptu official Willie Noone. His union claimed management is not being allowed to manage the destiny of this company.
“Other agencies that were not party to the discussions at the WRC have been applying undue influence on the proceedings, restricting the ability of Bus Éireann to actually reach agreement,” said NBRU general secretary Dermot O’Leary. “It would seem that there are forces at play here which would prefer to see the demise of Bus Éireann, rather than concentrate on securing its future, for the benefit of staff and commuters alike.”
Mr O’Leary went further in an interview on RTÉ radio, pointing out that during the WRC discussions Bus Éireann management was hopping into cars all over city to meet Department figures. He said the department is playing a “restrictive role” in relation to how the issue could be resolved.
The fact is that, as they headed into the Labour Court yesterday afternoon to present their case, staff representatives were deeply disaffected and inherently distrustful of what the other side could bring to the table.
As that mood filtered down to the grassroots it will have escalated among people who, as of today, have spent 20 days on the picketline. It will have made the chances of acceptance of any recommendation to emerge from the Labour Court even more remote.
Savings have to be made. A company that was losing €50,000 a day when operating normally and €500,000 a day over the last 19 days of strike needs drastic action to survive.
The unions say they offered savings worth €18m coupled with an 11% increase in efficiency. That is significantly more than what had initially been sought from payroll cuts — in February the company said it wanted to reduce its cost base by €30m, 40% of which was to come from payroll costs.
The company concedes progress has been made and agreement reached “to eliminate many work practise inefficiencies”. However, it claims an offer it made to help to deliver financial viability was rejected by driver unions.
While no formal recommendation was forthcoming from the WRC in relation to a new consolidated wage rate incorporating overtime and premium payments, it did emerge a figure in excess of €19 per hour was on offer from the company, but unions said a figure closer to €22-23 per hour was needed.
What this dispute will come down to is firstly whether any resolution which does emerge will ensure the short-term survival of the company in the face of the massive losses it has endured; and secondly whether the efficiencies it achieves are enough to make it lean enough to compete with private operators with stripped-back terms and conditions for the routes which are to be put out to public tender in 2019.
It now seems inevitable that at least 10% of the Bus Éireann workforce will leave the company in the coming months and a consolidated pay rate will be pursued as the way workers will be remunerated going forward.
When the immediate dispute is resolved structural change of Bus Éireann will take buy-in from all stakeholders. As the NBRU told Transport Minister Shane Ross just a day into the current strike: “The role requested of your office is not, as some would have it, a direct involvement by you as minister, but one by which you can create the environment for a multi-stakeholder forum to address all of the issues at Bus Éireann.”
If there is not that buy-in from all involved, it seems hard to envisage how the State bus company will be able to compete for routes come 2019.
As Fianna Fáil transport spokesman Robert Troy pointed out: “At this late stage Minister Ross continues to refuse to convene parallel talks between all stakeholders at Bus Éireann with the aim of overcoming the deep structural problems facing the company. It’s a sad state of affairs when the minister for transport has no thoughts or potential solutions to help overcome the most destructive transport strike to hit the country in decades.”