On the buses

As we go to print, the report is still awaited from the three man commission appointed as part of the interim resolution of the Dublin Bus strike, although it was supposed to be available by 1st May. Whatever they come up with, and whether an acceptable offer is made to the workers, one of the abiding memories of the dispute is the dramatic contrast between the role played by SIPTU leaders and the attitudes of the workers in the recent transport strike. The permanent way workers in Iarnrod Eireann proved to be even more militant than their fellow SIPTU members in Dublin Bus. Both groups of workers showed that when the leadership is faced with determined industrial action, their priority is settlement of the dispute, not necessarily getting the best terms for the people they represent.

Unlike the NBRU, who were seeking a "no strings" settlement with Dublin Bus, the SIPTU leadership was quite prepared to negotiate on productivity, despite the insistence of the majority of bus workers that huge amounts of productivity have been given over the last few years for virtually no return. The SIPTU permanent way workers were in negotiations with Iarnrod Eireann to increase their pay but the breaking point was the company's demand that they work alongside non-union contract workers who were, in some cases, being paid as much as three to five times the direct employees' wages. While the Dublin Bus SIPTU members were supporting the pickets of their co-workers in the NBRU but were waiting to ballot on official strike action, the permanent way workers took matters into their own hands and closed the railways.

National Industrial Secretary, Noel Dowling is widely credited with coming up with the formula that ended the permanent way workers' strike. His main concern was clearly not to put pressure on the PPF, on which the ink was barely dry. Des Geraghty and Peter Cassells made it clear in various media that they were not happy with the militant mood among the transport workers and they would be arguing for a settlement within the guidelines of the PPF percentages, considerably less than the demands lodged by the NBRU.

In the event, the Dublin Bus strike forced an interim settlement to be reached and both SIPTU and the NBRU leaders rushed to ballot their members. The hurry was so great that more than 600 bus workers never got the chance to vote. While the NBRU members accepted the deal by 527 to 340 votes, in SIPTU the margin was much narrower, 315 to 290 for acceptance. The long-term situation is contingent on the report and recommendation by the three-man commission appointed by the Labour Court, which will be balloted on by both unions. Some bus workers are less than happy with the membership of the commission, especially the inclusion of Paul O'Sullivan, whose role in the sell-out of the Ryanair baggage handlers is notorious.

It is difficult to see how a deal can be worked out that is acceptable to the workers. Management are still insisting that contracting out of some routes is a core item on their agenda. SIPTU leaders were to the forefront in negotiating the PPF, in which the section on public transport includes the aim to "enhance competitiveness and sustain economic progress". Lack of competition is not the problem for the transport workers in CIE, it is the low pay which is endemic throughout the group. The 8.5% secured in the interim deal for the bus workers is unlikely to make much of a difference, particularly in light of rising inflation.

DART workers have seen how "efficiencies" will be implemented if management is not resisted by strong union action, with the creation of a two-tier workforce and the gradual phasing out of hard-won terms and conditions. Despite the determination of ICTU and other union negotiators not to admit that the 8.5% was contingent on productivity, it is a key aspect of the deal that was worked out to overturn the bus strike. The savings for the company in the draft plan are significant and most of them are contingent on the introduction of privatisation. It is surely no coincidence that Mary O'Rourke, Minister for Public Enterprise, announced a new "institutional framework for public transport" last month, which is based on the "enhancement of competitiveness" through "the introduction of market forces". This has nasty echoes of the calls from various right wing politicians and businessmen for Dublin Bus to be privatised to end the industrial relations problems.

So far, SIPTU leaders have been ominously silent on this misplacing of blame for our under-funded public transport system. The low wages earned by workers in the C.I.E. group have actually subsidised public transport for years and the wage restraint which the ICTU is so good at advocating has been used as an excuse for successive governments to cut back the levels of state subsidy, which are already among the lowest in the world.

The current situation in Dublin Bus is unlikely to be resolved by any report from the three-man commission, all of whom are well-known advocates of the benefits of partnership (for the faceless "national economy", of course, not the workers on low pay). The big question that remains to be answered is whether the SIPTU leadership (and by extension the ICTU) will have succeeded in using the intervening period to diffuse the militant mood that was so obvious in April. The Iarnród Eireann permanent way workers learned well the lesson that all the sell-out partnership deals in the world aren't worth the paper they're written on when union members get back to first principles.

Mary Muldowney

To the SIPTU Fightback page