A national transport strike which would leave tens of thousands of commuters stranded is rapidly becoming a distinct possibility as relations between management and staff at the CIE group of companies rapidly deteriorate.
Union sources are indicating that the battle over pay at Dublin Bus, Bus Éireann, and Irish Rail looks set to be compounded by pension issues at all three companies and that the composite unrest may lead to stoppages across the workforces.
Yesterday, Siptu and the National Bus and Rail Union (NBRU) confirmed they would be balloting their members in Dublin Bus for industrial action over a Labour Court pay rise recommendation of 8.25% over three years. That fell well short of what the drivers wanted — there had been demands for increases in the region of anywhere between 18%-30% in some quarters, not least in light of the fact that Luas drivers succeeded, albeit after a long campaign of strikes, in securing increases of approximately 18% over four years.
NBRU said the industrial action which would be presented to is members for consideration would include industrial action up to and including all-out strike, 24hr/48hr work stoppages, and no-fare days.
Siptu claims that Dublin Bus made significant profits for the last two years and is on target to be profitable again this year, yet workers have not had a pay increase since 2008.
The relationship between management and staff in the other two CIE companies, Bus Éireann and Irish Rail, could not be described as harmonious either.
At Bus Éireann, drivers and unions are due to meet again at the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) in September. The expectation is that those talks will be strongly shaped by how the talks at Dublin Bus have been going.
Other issues, in addition to pay, are also at play in Bus Éireann. Drivers are particularly concerned about their colleagues working on the Expressway routes. One union source said that there is grave concern at the number of licenses being issued by the National Transport Authority to private operators who are competing for the main national routes, not least because of the improvements to the road networks. The annual report for 2015 showed that Expressway lost €5.3m in 2015.
Last February, NBRU members voted overwhelmingly in favour of industrial action if any attempt was made to change the working conditions of drivers on the Expressway routes.
At Irish Rail, it is again pay and conditions which are the source of the disharmony.
Negotiations between management and unions at the WRC broke down amid recriminations over the training of new drivers. The company wanted the current drivers to resume mentoring of new employees before it would engage on other substantive issues around productivity and a reduction in the working week. The unions wanted the training issue to be discussed in tandem with the other issues. But again, in the background is a large pay claim — in the region of 25%. A ballot for industrial action is in the offing.
Common to the three companies is the spectre of unrest over pensions. In 2013, the CIE group agreed a funding plan with the Pensions Authority which meant no increases in pensionable pay for 10 years. However, the unions said that such a position was “untenable” and that is becoming even more the case now that increases are finally in the offing — albeit after whatever industrial action it takes to get them.
A union source said that the CIE group have had one session with the WRC on the issue of pensions and how to address any deficit. The source said that issue has the potential to cause a CIE Group wide dispute.
Dermot O’Leary, general secretary of the NRBU, summarised his union’s position on the industrial relations scenery.
“The issues at the CIE group of companies require far more than the normal industrial relations remedies,” he said.
“Successive governments have stripped out much-needed funding to the tune of €140m since 2008. This has directly impacted on workers to the extent that they have had to contribute, under duress, to a plethora of cost-cutting measures across all companies, inclusive of pay cuts.
“The ability of the companies to respond to long overdue pay improvements is linked to Government under funding and Government policy, like the tendering of bus routes and the NTA’s predilection to issuing licences akin to snuff at a wake. Whilst we have long campaigned for a debate on transport provision and funding, transport workers’ frustration will inevitably spill over into industrial action across all companies.”
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