Dublin bus strikers represent a trade union culture that has lost its way, and is a shadow of the great struggle of 1913   Image

Saturday Essay in today’s Irish Daily Mail

In many ways, the striking Dublin bus workers, whose case is now at the Labour Court, but whose strike could soon resume, are a cause that should naturally draw our sympathy. Which was clearly their hope, particularly in this, the centenary month of the 1913 Dublin Lock Out, a ground-breaking trade union action, and a national event to which we can all relate.

In 1913, the unskilled workers and dockers of Dublin demanded the right to organise and join trade unions to better their conditions in what was often a brutal and unpredictable working environment. The employers refused and a stand-off ensued, with the workers ‘locked out’ and replaced temporarily by imported scab labour. There were riots and widespread hunger ensued and eventually the workers conceded on their protest and went back to work. But they had won, under the leadership of the likes of James Larkin, a very important right, which was to organise and be represented by trade unions in the future.

And this was not just a struggle for labour rights, either. It was also very much tied up with the national struggle which was then underway. ‘Labour’s cause is Ireland’s cause’ was the war cry, and three years later, Dublin rose up again in 1916, with strong participation in the rising from the workers’ militia, the Irish Citizens Army, led by the charismatic socialist James Connolly.

So the revolt against the ruling British was bound up with the rebellion against the ruthless bosses and, if the republican ideals were not always lived up to thereafter, the combined aims created a sense of respect for trade unions and for supporting the underdog which has long remained part and parcel of the Irish character. In general, our sense of fair play means that we  are prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to the struggling worker.

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The Dublin bus workers dispute should be a perfect example of this. They are not, for example, just a bunch of workers in an anonymous institution  They are part of our everyday lives and always have been, just as the Bus Eireann workers are also part of the life of the nation. They are the hardworking people who got us to school on time when we were children and who took us home safely after many a great night out when we were older. They are the life blood of our capital city, criss-crossing its streets and suburbs and connecting our communities in a valuable and necessary way.

They should, indeed, be the lightning-rod for the national mood and for a public that’s reluctant to take any more economic pain, sick and tired as we all are of the cuts and the taxes and the additional financial pain that we have had to endure for three years now.  It is often remarked how patient the Irish are, unlike the striking Greeks or the volatile Spaniards who have taken to the streets, defiantly saying they will ‘take no more austerity’. So, here was a chance then, you’d imagine, to show that a small group of us, at least, would take no more. Three cheers for the bus workers?

Well, no, actually, because the reality is that the striking bus workers received no such support. Far from it: most people were utterly impatient with their antics and with their resorting to industrial action on such unjustifiable grounds. And precisely because we have all taken so much pain in terms of cuts and taxes – and in many cases redundancies and emigration – we can’t have sympathy for people who are striking over what is, in effect, a reasonable change to their working conditions. They are not, after all, having their core pay touched, nor are they facing a single redundancy. So sorry, but the rest of us have faced much greater hardships, and would envy those who have secure jobs, who get triple time – triple time! –  for working on Sundays and who can take three days ‘self-certified’ sick leave a year.  Especially since it is the rest of us who are paying for it.

For this is the crucial aspect of the Dublin bus dispute.  This is not a lucrative commercial company, with a swanky HQ in Dallas or Tokyo, squeezing its workers for more profits. This is a loss-making State service that we, the tax payers, have to fork out for, along with all the other things we are already signed up to. The Dublin bus unions will not take any responsibility for losses at their company or acknowledge that work habits have changed – and yet they expect that we, the already hard pressed public, should have to pay for this. And if we don’t? They go on strike, causing more hardship and lost income to employees and employers alike.

So, far from the Dublin bus strikers being an emblem of our protest, and being a shining trade union light in the midst of economic darkness, they are actually part of the problem. Indeed, in many ways, they embody our problem and what has gone wrong with our country. After all, the reason we all are in an economic crisis and are all suffering cuts and paying higher taxes, is not just because of the property bubble and the banking crisis. It is because of the swelling of unsustainable public spending during the so-called boom years, not least on overmanned, and inefficient public services. This is how we lost our competitive edge that had attracted foreign investment.

Under successive Fianna Fail governments, we continued to throw more and more money at public services, and at our commercial State companies, without reforming them.  This mentality had its nadir in the bench-marking system where public servants were given continuous wage rises, even though they were unrequested and, on the face of it, unmerited.

This was the famous Social Partnership process, in which the unions and the Government colluded in a deal to keep everyone happy and buy industrial peace by avoiding the big questions about efficiency and cost – the questions that face every other business every day of the week. It became a decadent way, embraced by Bertie Ahern, to sort out problems by throwing money at it in the belief that the property boom and the bloated exchequer could take care of everything. But it couldn’t. And eventually things went bust and the IMF arrived and now you and I are paying for those years and that policy of profligacy.

And yet the curent-day trade union movement doesn’t see it like that. Not the bus unions this week, nor, indeed many of the other unions in this country. Just think of the nurses for a moment. How many times has Liam Doran threatened to bring his members out on strike?  Almost 30 times in 15 years.

The trade unions have lost their way, blinded by indulgence and by the sense of unreasonable entitlement that that has created. Minister Leo Varadkar is right when he says that in the old days, this week’s bus strike would likely have been sorted by the Government intervening and throwing money at it. That was the Bertie way, of course: a bit of fixing, a bit of deal making, a nod tand a wink that there’s money in the kitty to sort out the working lads. And everyone goes away happy. Except that nothing is really fixed and the monstrous, cummulative bill coming down the tracks later on still has to be paid for – by us.

But the reality is that all public servants in Ireland did well during the boom and are still doing relatively okay compared to private sector employees and also compared to public sector workers in other European countries. Pay rates for most public sector workers in Ireland are above the EU average. Indeed, as this newspaper revealed this week, the Dublin bus workers are actually the second best paid bus workers in Europe.

So this is not the breadline stuff that the unions have portrayed as they stand at the pickets. And the general public knows this. They aren’t mugs. They see the connection between cost and efficiency and what is fair. In the old days, these things were played out behind closed doors and unions used their silent muscle to secure gains. Now, the details of economic costs and public spending are all there in the media and discussed on radio and TV. People understand things better. They see the link-ups.

And this is where the trade union movement just doesn’t get it. It’s not like the old days with that clichéd image of cloth-capped workers and the bosses portrayed as cold, faraway people imposing rules and pushing people to work harder. The unions played their part in the past. Often a very important part. But there has been a sea change in how people understand commerce and industry.

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We are all ‘workers’ now, and we all appreciate the need for efficiency and cutting costs. Many people I know have taken huge pay cuts, sometimes up to 50 per cent, just to keep a small company alive. They work into the night, and into the weekend, gratis, just to save their jobs. Unlike the bus workers’ unions who still want their workers to get triple time – and an hour’s mandatory lunchtime – even though their company is carrying huge losses and could be eaten alive by private competition.

In which case, the union bosses are not just being blind and unreasonable, they are also being reckless. They should be proposing acceptance of the change in overtime pay and work practices that modern life now requires – and that their old fashioned, loss-making company also requires – so as to actually safeguard their members’ jobs. They should be trying to secure the long-term employment of their members rather than going for outrageous demands that have no place in the current climate.

But the sad tragedy is that the trade union movement has now moved a long way from the high ideals engendered by the legitimate grievances of 1913. Back then, they established and held a respected position in Irish society. That’s just not the case anymore. Often hijacked by doctrinaire leftists, and suffering from poor leadership, the modern trade unions have too often ended up picking needless fights and clinging to inflexible work practices. What has been frittered away in this process is genuine concern of union members, many of whom have now deserted the movement in huge numbers. Young people, meanwhile, hardly ever consider joining a union now.

So what a grim irony it would be then if, in the very month of the centenary of the 1913 Lock Out, the reckless attitude of the bus unions should actually pave the way for the abolition of long term jobs and the further erosion, indeed, of trade unionism itself.  You’d have to wonder what big Jim Larkin would think of that.

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