October 2016        

The Dublin bus dispute: Defending workers’ rights

By a Dublin Bus worker

Over the course of September, Dublin Bus workers carried out six days of strike action, and had planned a further eleven days in October.
     Towards the end of September, after three full days and one thirty-hour continuous negotiation, the five trade unions representing all seven grades of workers managed to secure an offer of an 11¼ per cent pay increase. This is a significant achievement for the workers and their unions, who had to battle the management and, more importantly, their political paymasters in the Department of Transport for every penny gained.
     The agreement concluded between the unions representing the workers and Dublin Bus will have to be voted on by the workers in Dublin Bus. It will secure the following: a pay increase in Dublin Bus of 3¾ per cent, backdated to 1 January 2016, and 3¾ per cent on 1 January 2017 and 2018, totalling more than 11¼ per cent (as it is a compound increase).
     So Dublin Bus workers will be earning an extra 7½ per cent in the new year, and they have nine months’ back money to make up the losses that accrued during the dispute.
     We need to recap what gave rise to the strikes in the first place. They came after the Labour Court’s recommendation of a pay increase of 8¼ per cent over three years was overwhelmingly rejected by the employees. Six grades out of seven voted for industrial action, and five grades supported action up to and including an all-out strike. The action taken had the support of drivers, clerical staff, inspectors, craft workers, engineering operatives, and supervisors; the only grade not supporting the action were the company executives, which speaks for itself. The supervisors narrowly rejected an all-out strike but are committed to the present form of industrial action.
     From a worker’s point of view, it is unprecedented in the history of Dublin Bus to have a unified action by workers of all grades except executives and an alliance of their five unions on the claim and a joint strategy of action agreed.
     If we examine the background to the dispute it becomes abundantly clear why this is so—proving the point that unity in action is essential if workers are to advance their position.
     It all began in 2008 with the financial crash. Dublin Bus claimed inability to pay, and postponed paying, the final phase of the “Towards 2016” pay agreement, which amounted to 6 per cent. In the following years Dublin Bus and the unions negotiated two cost-reduction restructuring plans, which had extensive effects on workers’ terms and conditions of employment and their earnings.
     The workers were told that the company was in dire financial straits and that if they accepted these agreements, when the company returned to profit their sacrifices would be recognised and they would get their just reward for enduring the cuts.
     Dublin Bus’s losses reached a peak in 2010 at over €22 million. The restructuring that had been agreed and implemented began to have an effect on the finances, and the company returned a small profit in 2013 and over the next two years made a substantial profit of well over €20 million. Once the company was back on a solid financial footing the workers lodged their pay claim in the Workplace Relations Commission. After a long discussion process, all unions agreed a compromise claim of 15 per cent over three years.
     The Labour Court recommended 8¼ per cent, as the management had continually argued that a pay increase would have to be self-financing through an increase in productivity—conveniently forgetting that the cost-cutting plan—a.k.a. productivity deal—saved the company €65 million, for which the workers received not one penny.
     Dublin Bus workers saved the company $65 million over this period by enduring the cuts that allowed the company to get back into profit; but the Department of Transport was not satisfied with these sacrifices. It wanted more; so it cut the subvention by €27 million. To rub salt in the wound, the National Transport Authority took a further €2 million off Dublin Bus in 2015, because it considered its profits excessive for a company receiving a state subsidy.
     No point in wasting a good recession!
     Needless to say, this outraged the workers, who had suffered huge losses as a result of all the cuts, leading to the ridiculous situation where the workers are now the ones who are subsidising the cost of public transport in Dublin, through the cuts to their earnings and conditions.
     So much for their sacrifices being recognised when the company returned to profit! Quite the opposite happened: they would get the 6 per cent pay increase that they are owed since 2008, but not until January 2018 in accordance with the Labour Court agreement that was rejected.
     This is why, in the true tradition of transport workers, dating back to the 1913 lock-out, led by the tram workers, Dublin Bus workers have said “Enough is enough” and have struck for a modest pay increase of 15 per cent, which surely they have earned over the last eight years without a pay increase, coupled with the slashing of their earnings and conditions of employment under the various cost-cutting measures imposed on them by the management.
     Something else that was clearly obvious was the level of support the strikers received from the public. Despite the inconvenience it caused them, the vast majority of the working class were solidly behind the men and women of Dublin Bus. The reason for this is that bus workers, like them, are the ordinary people of Dublin. They are not part of the Golden Circle: they are the ones who have suffered the cuts over the last eight years of austerity, put on the backs of ordinary people firstly by Fianna Fáil, then by the Labour Party and Fine Gael, and more recently by Fine Gael and the lowest form of gombeen politicians, led by the former stockbroker Shane Ross.
     When he did say something about the dispute, Ross referred to the “Government chequebook,” as if the public were going to have to pony up the money for a pay increase to bus workers. What he didn’t say—and this is crucial—is that the €27 million he cut from the funding would pay for the increase; and where did that €27 million go? The same place where most of the other revenue raised by austerity went: to pay off private banking debt.
     The public are not stupid. They’ve endured austerity; and hunger is a great educator.
     This message must be got across to everyone in the wider trade union movement. The old Larkinite phrase of yesteryear still has a lot of relevance: “An injury to one is an injury to all,” or in the Dublin Bus dispute it will be more like “A victory for one is a victory for all.”
     For too long now workers’ share of the wealth that they create in the first place has been shrinking. It’s time for organised labour to rediscover its mojo and do what it was started for—defending workers’ rights—and fight back for labour’s share.
     Organised labour has been asleep, firstly under “social partnership” and then through the austerity years and the “It’s the best we can do at this time” attitude.
     Well, we can do much better. Unions have to go all out, firstly to educate members who are in unionised jobs. By doing this the benefit of being in a union will spread through friendships and socially to non-union members.
     There has to be a national recruitment strategy and making unions part of the community as they were in the past. There must be an end to inter-union bickering and a national strategy of increasing labour’s share.
     The dispute in Dublin Bus can be the foundation stone for rebuilding the trade union movement. The time will never be more right as people get their confidence back after the austerity years. When there are billions for banks and nothing for the health service or the homeless they will not be long about working out which side the ruling class are on.
     Once again it goes to prove that in order to achieve maximum return workers must be members of a trade union, whether in the private sector, as shown by the gains made by Luas workers, or in the public sector, as with Dublin Bus.
     It is essential now that a forum of union, management and Department of Transport establishes a proper funding model for public transport for the people of Ireland.
     So a big “Well done!” from the CPI to Dublin Bus workers and unions for leading the struggle for better pay for all workers.

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