As hundreds of thousands of commuters make plans for a third 48-hour strike by Dublin Bus drivers next week, talks beginning on Wednesday could decide whether travel disruption spreads beyond the capital within days.
Bus Éireann management and driver trade unions are due to meet at the Workplace Relations Commission with pay at the top of the agenda.
One of those unions, the National Bus and Rail Union (NBRU), has since February been demanding pay parity with Luas drivers. As the light rail drivers subsequently benefited from a significant pay rise, the union demands will be even higher. The pay issue is likely to go through a number of mediation processes before industrial action would emerge over it.
However, union sources say they believe there are changes in the pipeline to Bus Éireann’s Expressway service and the NBRU already has a mandate for industrial action if the company moves to implement any changes without agreement. They fear the changes could emerge within a matter of days, meaning action could be activated soon.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of commuters had to find alternative transport yet again yesterday as the Dublin Bus strike stopped services for a fourth day.
Management issued a statement yesterday morning claiming the disruption had so far cost it in excess of €4m “and continues to impact the financial stability of the company”.
Services will be hit again for four days this month and at least 11 days next month.
The drivers are striking over the company’s refusal to raise its offer of an 8.2% pay increase over three years, as recommended by the Labour Court. The unions rejected that recommendation and indicated that they want 15% over the same period as well as the payment of a 6% increase, due from 2008.
Transport Minister Shane Ross has been urged on numerous occasions since the dispute began to intervene. However, he told reporters: “I am very eager for it to be resolved. I feel great empathy for everyone involved, particularly the commuters who have been inconvenienced. I am certainly not inactive. I am monitoring it very closely on an hourly basis. It is very important to us that we are not seen to be a soft touch or that we are going to produce the state’s cheque book. It wouldn’t be right to do that.
“It is a matter for the management and the unions to settle this between them and maybe with the help of the apparatus of the State as well... They have got to do this on their own.”
Mr Ross has been criticised by some TDs for his hands-off approach. Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty told RTÉ that Mr Ross should intervene and that State subvention to the company should increase as it is currently very low compared to European counterparts.
A number of TDs staged a protest outside the Department of Transport yesterday afternoon in protest at the position taken by Mr Ross. They criticised his “astonishing silence and indifference” over the impasse.
Richard Boyd Barrett of People Before Profit said the Mr Ross’s claim that he would not use the Government’s chequebook to solve the dispute “rang hollow” in light of the Apple tax scandal as well as the fact that his department had consistently cut funding to Dublin Bus over recent years.
“Whatever about taking the chequebook out, if he simply pledged to restore funding to its previous levels this dispute would be over,” said Mr Boyd Barrett.
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