There is something chilling about the response by Brendan Ogle, head of the ESB Group of Unions, to proposals that customers switch suppliers if a threatened strike goes ahead next month and leads to power cuts.
“It won’t make a blind bit of difference,” he said.
His comment followed warnings by Retail Excellence Ireland that its members would move to rival suppliers unless the strike is called off.
He is correct in that it will make no difference who supplies the power if it is interrupted. ESB Networks, a subsidiary within the ESB Group, is the operator of the electricity distribution system.
However, Mr Ogle has missed the point. If a strike galvanises enough customers to switch, ESB workers will not be immune from the fallout. If, for instance, the company were to lose, say, 100,000 customers, that would devastate it. Fewer customers means less work and — ultimately — fewer workers.
Both the tone and content of his response harks back to the 1970s and 1980s when strikes affecting essential services were commonplace.
Back in the bad old days, consumers had no choice. Monopolies were the norm and if your local council bin collectors went on strike, there was no alternative and rubbish piled up.
It was the same when it came to most forms of public transport. A bus strike meant that half the country had to walk, as there were fewer private cars on the roads. Occasionally, the army would be called upon to ferry people to work and to the shops. A strike by Aer Lingus meant you would be hard pushed to leave the country. Irish Rail is now the only real public service monopoly left.
Yet, there is a renewed taste for strikes and mass demonstrations. After decades in which the number of days lost due to stoppages declined dramatically from the high points of the 1970s and 1980s, we are now experiencing general strikes throughout Europe, protesting against austerity, cuts to public services and job losses resulting from the financial crisis.
The ESB unions’ gripe concerns their defined benefit pension scheme which, they argue, is underfunded to the tune of €1.6bn. The ESB is preparing to shore it up this year by almost €600m, arguing that growth in investments means that it will, by 2018, recover lost ground. There is merit to both arguments but, even if the unions are correct in their assessment, it does not constitute a moral mandate to strike. A blackout on Dec 16 would — in every sense of the word — be a pre-emptive strike.
ESB workers are not facing any immediate threat to their livelihoods or their pensions. Unlike the private sector, there is no question of an ESB staff member suddenly having their pension substantially cut. There is no threat of redundancies and there has been no unilateral change to work practices.
What legitimises a strike? Under civil law, a strike may only be contemplated in pursuance of an industrial dispute. So, where is the dispute?
This is a row — not a dispute.
ESB workers are among the best paid nationwide, so there will be little sympathy for them from the public. A strike would be hugely damaging to foreign investment, just as unemployment figures have turned for the better. While the unions’ concerns are legitimate and should be addressed by ESB management, taking the ‘nuclear’ option is not the way.
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