“It was out of left field, even his officials were looking panicked when he said it.”
This was the reaction when Transport Minister Shane Ross departed from his script in a meeting with the transport unions, and suggested a share scheme for workers in the CIE companies.
Ross is not your conventional minister and holds officials with a weary and wary contempt.
A long-time critic of State bureaucracy, Ross has found himself politically responsible for some of the companies he used to attack most.
CIE, and particularly Irish Rail, were constant targets for Ross in his Seanad and Sunday Independent days.
He bemoaned their monopoly positions, their drain on the taxpayer, their wasteful practices, their treatment of whistleblowers. So, in proposing a share option scheme for CIE employees, Ross has thrown a large and feisty cat among the pigeons.
“I think there is potential in saying to them, those in all three companies, ‘Look, you have the base subvention which will continue and increase, but if over and above that you have a synthetic profit, you start making money, there is no reason why you shouldn’t share in that’,” he told me.
Why this proposal and why now?
“Because morale was very bad in the companies a year ago, during the strikes. We have got to increase it,” he explained.
In essence, he is looking at a way of increasing the pay of workers in those companies without dramatically increasing the burden on the State’s coffers.
Flat pay increases are expensive as they have to factor in requisite and comparable pension increases.
So bonus payments and allowances have often been the solution in the past to addressing such issues in sectors like the gardaí, in teaching, and in the HSE.
Ross said his motivation is to improve morale in CIE, but in particularly Bus Éireann, where the existence of staff over the past decade has not been a cheery one.
He is also conscious that were he not to move, in an expanding economy, he, as minister, could find himself having to tackle another bout of strikes, which cause chaos to hundreds of thousands of commuters and travellers.
The reality is that Ross will need the backing of Paschal Donohoe, the finance minister, if he hopes for this proposal to become a reality — my information so far is that Donohoe and his officials are less than impressed.
Not only does Donohoe not like to cede control of such major financial decisions to anyone, he and his officials are naturally cautious about approving any likely future drains on the public purse.
But by getting New Era, the Government’s inner economic group, to examine the possibilities of it, it is clear this is more than just a ‘kite flyer’ off the top of the head The initial reaction of unions has been one of cautious welcome, insofar as to say they think the spirit of the proposal has merit and should be worked towards.
While some of the unions and many others have sought to paint Ross as the pantomime villain, his proposal is worthy of some consideration.
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