Industrial action inevitable as more and more sectors recover

With more than 65,000 days already lost to work stoppages this year, there are several potential flashpoint areas ahead, writes Stephen Rogers

Industrial action inevitable as more and more sectors recover

SHOULD the seven days of strike action by Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus drivers go ahead as planned later this week, it will bring to more than 65,000 the number of days lost this year to work stoppages in just three disputes in the transport, education, and retail sectors.

To put that into perspective, 33,748 had been the total figure of days lost in all strikes from 2010-13, according to the CSO.

The office calculates the number of days lost by multiplying the number of people involved by the number of normal working days during which they were involved in the dispute.

Admittedly, therefore, the size of the workforces in the three aforementioned strikes this year are large — 5,000 bus drivers, 5,000 Dunnes Stores workers, and 27,000 teachers — and that consequently makes the number of days lost high.

But the fact is that, with just four months gone in 2015, the chances are this year could see one of the highest levels of workplace stoppages since pre-recession times.

Over the course of the year to date, unions representing tens of thousands of workers in sectors across education, manufacturing, retail, engineering, and health have announced ballots for industrial action, up to strike. As well as the bus drivers, teachers, and retail staff, there have been ballots of 6,000 special needs assistants, 40,000 electricians, and numerous large private-sector entities such as Bord Na Móna.

Labour Relations Commission chief Kieran Mulvey has said: “In recent years we have enjoyed significant periods of industrial peace with record low levels of actual strike activity. This is despite one of the most intense recessionary events to occur in both the Irish and global economies.”

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However, the reality is that, as yesterday’s ‘spring statement’ yet again re- affirmed, the country is no longer in the economic doldrums of the latter part of the last decade.

At the height of the recession, as the numbers joining the dole seemed to be rising by cricket scores weekly, many workers found themselves in a position where they were simply happy to have a job — where possible — to maintain the terms and conditions they had until the worst effects of the downturn moved on.

Now though, even employers’ bodies admit there is a genuine expectation in many sectors that as firms feel the benefits of the recovery, their staff should be rewarded for the sacrifices they made.

Workers are now less fearful for the future of their jobs. As more and more sectors begin to recover, employees will feel more and more empowered to demand the best terms and conditions from their employers.

It is now almost 14 months since Ibec chief executive Danny McCoy and Siptu president Jack O’Connor vehemently disagreed over the need for an “incomes policy”. The boss of the employers’ body said in an interview in the Sunday Business Post that such a policy “made sense” and that “anchoring wage expectations was important”. He was quoted as saying workers needed to realise that “here is what’s happening out there, the norm is 2%, its not 7%”.

In response, Mr O’Connor said employers were looking down the barrel of a wage claim explosion and were trying to control how much would be paid out and that unionised workers would not be restricted by “some kind of one-size-fits-all” approach to wage bargaining.

Fast forward 12 months and the Siptu leader was telling a Jim Larkin commemoration event that his union was preparing to embark on a major campaign for pay increases of 5% across the economy and also to engage “in a new battle to establish a minimum living wage of €11.45 an hour across all those sectors of the economy where the gross exploitation of vulnerable workers is the order of the day”.

There are several potential flashpoint areas which could lead to industrial action in the coming months.

The upcoming talks on public sector remuneration are, at this stage, being framed in a positive light.

However, unions are adamant that terms and conditions of employment must be maintained as part of any restoration of the pay they lost through the Government’s emergency legislation.

Public Service Executive Union general secretary Tom Geraghty warned: “If there is any attempt to change conditions of employment, I think we are in trouble.”

Furthermore, there could be a reaction from some parts of the public service if there is any impression that the unwinding of the Fempi Acts (Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) is not done from “the bottom up” and that low- and middle- income public servants do not benefit most.

The other significant flashpoint area is around the Government’s continued failure to replace Registered Employment agreements, which were struck down by the Supreme Court in May 2013.

In the absence of such agreements there are whole sectors where wage negotiation has been rendered almost impossible. As can be seen from the current threat of industrial action by electricians, the absence of a meaningful negotiating platform can lead to high levels of disaffection.

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