Public suffers while train drivers hold the country to ransom

THINKING of the behaviour of the Cork train drivers this week brought Rudyard Kipling to mind. It was he who first coined the term “power without responsibility”.

The latest dispute makes one hark back to Ronald Reagan. The US president invoked the national interest in 1981 when he ordered striking air traffic controllers back to work. The strikers clearly thought they were above the law. Reagan warned that anyone who did not return to work would not only be dismissed but also blocked for life from employment by a federal agency.

Reagan carried through with his threat and it was one of the most popular things he ever did. The striking air traffic controllers had no more public sympathy than the Cork train drivers.

The same thing happened in Britain when Maggie Thatcher took on Arthur Scargill and the National Union of Mineworkers. They had helped bring down the government of Edward Heath in 1974. Militant union officials had been allowed to hold the country to ransom for years but, in 1984 and 1985, Thatcher confronted them. What ensued is generally seen as a major defeat for the trade union movement in Britain. Where is Scargill or his union now? Nobody seems to give a damn.

That is a great pity because unions have been necessary — but some union leaders have allowed power to go to their heads and they have placed their own and their unions’ interests above the national interest. The unofficial action by the train drivers has undermined the position of their unions, and it appears as if the drivers got that message on Thursday evening.

The economy is in a precarious position and the action of the drivers was reckless.

This is a time when people should be pulling together but, instead, we have had this dispute, like a throwback to the 1960s, when the old CIÉ was in persistent trouble.

Back then, it was depicted as a confrontation between Todd Andrews, the chairman of CIÉ, and the unions, which rejected Labour Court proposals.

“I looked on CIÉ as the property of the whole nation,” Andrews later recalled. “I felt that the trade unions should recognise that the board and management of CIÉ and other semi-state companies were of the same social origin as themselves and had nothing to gain by treating their employees unfairly.”

Andrews confronted the union with a lockout that began on Monday, March 13, 1961. Involving some 6,000 workers, it evoked memories of the infamous 1913 lockout involving union leader James Larkin and William Martin Murphy of Dublin United Tramways.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) and the three unions involved in CIÉ got behind the workers. James Larkin Jr, the general secretary of the Workers’ Union of Ireland, charged that Andrews was essentially challenging the workers’ right to strike.

“The bus stoppage went on for a month, with the political pressure on the government mounting all the time until finally the Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, decided the lockout should be lifted,” Andrews noted in his memoirs. Maybe it felt like a month to him, but the lockout actually lasted only four days.

“Jack Lynch telephoned me to say that ‘the Boss’ (ie, Lemass) wanted me to take the men back,” Andrews recalled. “I told him I would refuse to do so unless I got a directive either from the Taoiseach or from himself as Minister for Industry and Commerce.

“At Lynch’s suggestion, I decided to discuss the position personally with the Taoiseach and reiterated my demand for a formal public directive. I said to Lemass that in every man’s life there comes a time when he must make a stand. There would be no compromising on the question of the lockout unless it was made clear that the decision had been taken out of the hands of CIÉ.”

Lemass instructed Lynch to issue the directive. The government capitulated, but it was paying the price for earlier high-handed behaviour.

After Ted Heath was brought down in 1974, Harold Wilson funked the issue with the miners in Britain, and the Labour Party ultimately suffered. Will our new government have the guts to do something about the latest strike? This is not about workers’ rights or working conditions. The train drivers are earning 52,000 a year, more than 30% above the average industrial wage. The strike was not about union power either. It was about whether one train driver can determine his own conditions of work, contrary to agreed procedures. He and his colleagues tried to hold the country to ransom.

More than 75,000 passengers were inconvenienced by this strike. If Iarnród Éireann was a private company, people who have lost out as a result of the strike might sue. Those who lost out because they were unable to get to the Bruce Springsteen concert, or because they missed connections to Cardiff for the Heineken Cup final, or to other events, should have their money refunded. Why should innocent fans suffer? They paid their money in good faith.

Some who bought tickets were unable to make the concert, and they may even have lost a deposit on a room. If they did not lose it, then the person renting the room will have lost out. Yet it is all these people who have been subsidising Iarnród Éireann so that it can stay in business.

ANYONE with any sense of justice would not suggest that the innocent public should pay. It is about time Government members did their job and protected the innocent by ensuring that the guilty are held responsible for their behaviour.

After the train drivers’ meeting on Thursday evening, the union organiser complained that they were “portrayed as a load of mavericks”.

Well, that was the nicest thing they were called all week.

The train drivers deserve no more consideration than they showed for the travelling public.

The Oireachtas could demonstrate its concern by introducing legislation according Government the right to invoke a cooling-off period, with the understanding that anyone who defies the legislation could be automatically dismissed.

The dispute was supposedly over a demand that drivers should sign a document declaring that they will uphold their terms of employment. We all take that as normal. Why did management think this was necessary? The whole thing was childish on both sides.

Each side made mistakes, but that does not justify the drivers’ behaviour.

There is a procedure for grievances and that should have been used.

The drivers are going to lose a week’s pay, but who is going to pay the 2m the company estimates it lost over this irresponsible action? At the least, this should be docked from the wages of both company management and employees.

Iarnród Éireann should be run like a proper business, for the customers, not for management or the employees. Both sides must realise that the travelling public should come before their own internal squabbles.

Instead of being served, the customers and the public are being screwed.

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