Gerard Howlin. 


Dublin Bus dispute will lead to a general strike in public transport

IF YOU live in Cork, Limerick, or Galway and think the Dublin Bus strike doesn’t affect you; fear not, it will, writes Gerard Howlin

Dublin Bus dispute will lead to a general strike in public transport

This strike began in LUAS and the pay award garnered there is being reversed into Dublin Bus. Irish Rail is already in-play in terms of industrial relations.

Bus Éireann will be next. Assuming it’s settled, which I do not, before industrial action spreads to the other CIÉ companies, all you will notice is more for less.

More subvention and higher fares will subvent a less extensive service than could have been provided if the same revenue were available for increased frequency or new routes.

If industrial action spreads, first to Irish Rail and then to Bus Éireann, we will have the first general strike in public transport since 2000.

The cost of running public transport comes down to two items: wages and oil. For years, both bills have been reduced.

Now they are set to increase, to some degree. Oil is beyond our control; wages shouldn’t be.

There is no issue in fact about a pay rise; a substantial pay increase is recommended by the Labour Court.

The issue is whether a powerful group in a State company, can use the State’s industrial relations apparatus to secure a pay increase of 8.25% over three years, and then say ‘no! that’s not enough’.

Their particular concept of being a State company and near monopoly provider of an essential service is that the Labour Court’s recommendation is treated as a floor for future negotiations in which the essential service they have a virtual monopoly on, is put into play, via strike action.

The call for an intervention by the minister Shane Ross is code for two things. Firstly, that more public money is provided, above the pay increase already recommended by the Labour Court for public servants, and at a cost to public services.

Secondly, that the minister by taking centre stage should effectively revert to the previously unmediated relationship that existed between the Department of Transport and the then monopoly CIÉ group, prior to the establishment of the National Transport Authority.

A ministerial intervention could only be a precursor to an increased subsidy paid out of taxes at a cost to public services generally and public transport services in particular to one select group of public servants who use strike action to crowbar that money out of the system.

The increased cost base in Dublin Bus would then be treated as a floor for negotiations in Irish Rail, which have always taken a view that train drivers should be paid more than bus drivers.

Bus Éireann won’t be far behind. This is game-on and you need to know how to play it.

All of this was clearly foreseen during the LUAS dispute. The smallest part of the public transport system, it was the fording point in the river.

This is also a critical moment, as receipt of tenders to operate 10% of Dublin Bus routes as a public service under licence, is due in November.

This is about making that process as troublesome and as unsustainable as possible. Unquestionably, in LUAS, politics — and especially the politics of the ‘Socialist Party’ whose currently preferred moniker is the Anti-Austerity Alliance — was at play, and in the driving seat.

The Socialist Party if small, is formidable and worthy of respect from those who might foolishly dismiss them as a fringe element only.

On water charges, they flummoxed Sinn Féin in the Dublin South West by-election; forced them to play catch-up in demanding abolition; and that combined momentum is now evidenced by Fianna Fáil’s ditching of a principle which it initially proposed.

Within public transport, underlying these closely interlinked disputes is a vicious battle for positioning and succession in internal union politics.

There is the perennial tension between SIPTU and the NBRU as a base line.

That is exacerbated as Socialists and Sinn Féin proxies fight and position for influence.

All the while a diminished, traditionally Labour-orientated group of officials, including Jack O’Connor, simply seek to survive.

They do that by trying to get to the barricade first. If there must be a strike, better to be in charge of it, than not.

The incessant demand for ministerial intervention is based on two urgent needs from the unions, especially when those leading them are not also always effectively driving them.

Firstly, tactically if they can’t powwow publically, their relevance is diminished.

Secondly, strategically any engagement by Ross undermines the National Transport Authority and more importantly its agenda of delivering more public transport services, more effectively, for every euro of public subsidy invested.

This agenda, critically involves allowing other companies, beside the near-monopoly public sector incumbent, tender to run public bus routes.

That is not privatisation of course, as the routes and route frequency are all licensed, for a period only.

By operating LUAS, as a separate company, it is now no longer possible to bring Dublin to a total standstill.

Putting 10% of bus routes out to tender deepens that diversity. Metro North, when it comes, must clearly from a security of service supply perspective, go elsewhere as well.

All of this is a continuation by other means of literally decades of bureaucratic delay and backstabbing over getting a LEAP card and real-time passenger information (RTPI) up and running.

By giving responsibility to the National Transport Authority for both, and the essential underlying data that informs them, the foundation was laid for eventual competition under licence for parts of, as distinct from within, the public transport market.

There would be no realistic possibility of tendering for services from other companies if there wasn’t an independent seamless electronic system for passengers paying on different services, and using them in an integrated way.

The fight against both — at times a dirty one — was the mother of all rear-guard actions.

The Dublin Bus strike, and the real possibility of an all-out public transport strike is the continuation by other means of the same status quo, seeking to maintain near monopoly status.

Shane Ross got a lot of publicity in Rio. The shenanigans were entertaining, but of no great importance.

Ultimately it was only a game. Assuming he enjoys office for about two years, this strike and the strategic issues underpinning it, will be his defining moment.

Regrettably he inherited an anaemic capital plan for public transport investment. He has, however, inherited a robust architecture in terms of planning for and managing delivery of public transport services.

Implementation at every step, from LUAS, to LEAP to RTPI has taken longer than necessary. But it is never easy, nor indeed always possible, to align the public service with the public interest. And this is what this strike is really about.

As you travel north out of Connolly Station there is a gate near Fairview Park where the train drivers arrive for work.

The minister should keep a close eye on it because the day they don’t, the gloves are off and he really is in the ring.

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