Lockout at the Botanic Gardens

Craft gardeners in the Botanic Gardens have been locked out since 19 October, after management suspended them for refusing to co-operate with significant increases in their workload. The gardeners (who are members of SIPTU's State and Related Agencies Branch) have been negotiating with management about a proposal to extend their teaching responsibilities in TEAGASC courses which are run in the Botanic Gardens.

These are modular courses for horticultural students and TEAGASC and the Botanic Gardens management want the gardeners to agree to wide-ranging changes, which would include carrying on assessment of the students and issuing written reports on their progress. This work is currently the responsibility of other grades of staff, who are paid accordingly.

The State and Related Agencies Branch is a relatively new one, which was created out of some sections of the Non-Commercial Semi-States Branch. The members in the Botanic Gardens had eight temporary branch secretaries in a four-year period until Mike Jennings was appointed earlier this year.

Most of the negotiations in terms of the re-structuring were conducted by Brendan Hayes, Dublin's Public Sector Regional Secretary, who also has responsibility for the members of the TEAGASC section who found themselves on the other side of the table in the discussions.

The issue of training and education in relation to the gardeners was first raised in 1994. They appealed to the Labour Court on the basis of their relativity with the craft workers analogues, but the recommendation was against them on the basis that the modular system was a completely separate matter from the analogues.

The workers were unhappy with the narrow terms of the claim and felt that it did not allow them to challenge management's claim that the modular teaching was simply an extension of the previous system. This was another case where local members, familiar with the particular conditions of their own workplace, were ignored by the union "professionals", ending up in defeat for the workers.

The locked-out gardeners explained that management tried to impose the additional responsibilities on them, although they have already been co- operating with an expansion of their duties for the past twelve months. This was done while Tom McGrath, the independent assessor appointed by the Labour Court following appeal of the earlier ruling, looked at their work.

The co-operation was also recommended by Brendan Hayes. One picketer pointed out ironically that the union was "very generous to give what they did, especially as we're doing the work."

Management speeded up their agenda a few weeks ago, and an offer was made and rejected. Although the workers came back with a counter-proposal to the management offer, which they believe would actually cost less to implement, they were suspended when they refused to agree to the imposition of the new duties without discussion.

In addition to the adequate pay package, management re-structuring proposals were based on a staff of sixteen, which would mean that two current vacancies would remain unfilled. The arbitrary decision to suspend the workers completely ignored the fact that between them the sixteen gardeners have 320 years continuous service with the Botanic Gardens, including several workers who have given more than 30 years each.

General operatives working in the Botanic Gardens, who are members of the Local Authorities Branch and usually work alongside the gardeners, have been instructed by SIPTU to pass the pickets. However, the picketers say that members of the public have been very supportive and they are particularly grateful to the three women canteen workers who have been bringing them tea and coffee on the picket line. As one of the picketers said: "A dispute is a wound to the trade union movement and you would expect that every effort would be made by the union to heal the wound."

So far, SIPTU's efforts have not exactly pulled out all the stops but given the rising anger of workers who have had the ground pulled out from under them, it looked as if Brendan Hayes would finally have to call for effective action. No sign of this so far, and an Emergency Resolution passed by the Dublin Public Sector Conference, stated that the workers were ready to enter talks without pre-conditions, providing only that their suspension should be lifted.

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