From Socialist Voice, July 2009

Electricians need the full solidarity of all workers

The strike by 10,500 electricians, members of the Technical, Engineering and Electrical Union, needs the active support of all workers throughout the country. The battle lines have been drawn by the bosses and their Government.
     We cannot separate this strike from the general assault on workers’ pay and conditions that the Government and the bosses have launched since the present economic crisis blew up. Under the guise of this crisis many employers have embarked on a frontal assault, with some workers being forced to take wage cuts of 20 to 30 per cent.
     Not only wages have come under pressure but also working conditions, such as overtime payments and shift allowance.
     While it is obvious that we are in a deep recession, it is also clear that a significant number of profitable companies and employers have been using the opportunity to claw back the terms and conditions of their employees. Under the various “social partnership” agreements there has always been the “inability to pay” clause, under which employers could take their case to the Labour Court to have it ruled on.
     The spin now in the media, which has been carefully orchestrated by the employers’ organisations, is that a group of greedy, overpaid electricians are demanding a pay rise of 11½ per cent. The facts are as follows:
  • Employers have refused to pay the increase due under previous agreements, which should have been paid in April 2008 (before the economic crisis began).
  • The last pay increase applied to the contracting electricians was on the 1st of April 2007, of €21.49, based on the rates of pay of sixteen companies employing maintenance electricians. This was calculated using the period from the 1st of September 2005 to the 1st of September 2006.
  • Current rates of pay for electricians are four years behind other workers.
  • The TEEU wanted an agreed rate of €22.54 (a 4.9 per cent increase) applied from the 1st of April 2008.
  • Employers took their case to the law courts and lost.
  • Since then the bosses’ organisations, the Electrical Contractors’ Association and the Association of Electrical Contractors (Ireland), have refused to apply the agreed pay terms.
  • The increase due under the agreement from the 1st of April 2009 is €1.44 per hour, giving a new hourly rate of €23.98 (a 6.37 per cent increase), but the employers have again refused to implement the terms of the agreement.

What do the bosses want?

  • A 10 per cent cut in wages on the April 2007 rate of €21.49. (If they were to succeed this would reduce the rate to €19.34 and would equate to a pay reduction of 21 per cent in real terms.)
  • Refusal to pay previously agreed increases.
  • Cutting the pay of apprentices.
  • Bringing in unqualified workers to replace qualified electricians.
  • The three signatories of the current agreement―the TEEU and the two employers’ organisations―would have their names removed, and each electrician would be required to sign an individual contract of employment.
  • Flexible hours, with no overtime to be paid until after thirty-nine hours have been worked in a week.
  • A major reduction in shift pay.
     What the employers are attempting to do is to break the registered employment agreements that set the pay and conditions that all electrical contractors have to meet. These are agreements that both employers and unions have agreed and worked for many decades. They ensure a minimum standard of pay and conditions and also uniform conditions and training for apprentices. They ensure that the minimum wage for electricians is set by the industry and is applied across the board, including the same pay for migrant electrical workers. This has prevented a lot of abuse on building sites during the “boom” years.
     In 2008 a breakaway organisation of electrical contractors (some believe they were flying the flag for the main employers’ organisations) took its case to a full hearing of the Labour Court to have the registered employment agreements overturned, using the Laval judgement of the European Court of Justice.
     Firstly, they want to break the registered agreements and to tear up all legally enforceable collective agreements, thereby opening up the way for the application and full implementation of the Laval and Luxembourg judgements handed down by the European Court of Justice.
     Secondly, they wish to see the national minimum wage as the benchmark for the employment of electricians.
     Thirdly, they want to break the link between the pay rates of apprentices and of qualified electricians.
     Fourthly, they want to employ under-skilled or semi-skilled workers, with a small number of qualified electricians to comply with health and safety standards as well as electrical industry standards.
     Fifthly, they want to de-skill the work force and lower industry standards.
     Sixthly, they want to break the craft unions and in particular the TEEU.
     If the employers get their way and break the registered employment agreements it will open up the door to a full assault in all industries, and not just the building industry. And this is at a time when the Government is about to cut social welfare payments and reduce the national minimum wage.
     The CPI has been pointing out all along that the drive by the European Union has been to “restructure” the market in the interests of monopoly corporations and to lead an assault in member-states on the hard-won gains of workers over many generations. The chickens are now coming home to roost.
     We could not agree more with the President of SIPTU, Jack O’Connor, when he stated: “Ultimately, the electricians must be supported by all workers, because the employers’ objective of cutting pay and tearing up agreements reflects the primary aim of the wealthy elite in our society, which is, above all else, to preserve their own assets and privileged position.”
     All the talk about how we must all “carry the burden” and “share the pain” is nothing but a class attack by the rich and powerful to make workers and their families pay for the crisis. They want workers to make sacrifices and to see their jobs, wages, terms and conditions destroyed, their communities starved of resources, not for some better future or “better Ireland” but for a return to the same old Ireland, with the elite and the nouveau riche well looked after and the rest living off the scraps from their table. This is a sacrifice not worth making.

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