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Bus Eireann pay talks and the spectre of privatisation

8 June 2018

In a text book example of pre-negotiation 'poor mouth' Bus Eireann management have announced that it's “ very difficult to see how it could afford” to pay the increase in wages that the workers have asked for as “the company is still technically insolvent”. What was presented last year as an acute crisis for the company has resurfaced in the run-up to this pay round as a chronic condition. The management went on to say their financial position is giving “grave cause for concern”, citing the loss of the Dublin Bus routes and complaining that “revenue on a number of services is down” they asserted the company is under threat on “a number of fronts”.

This chronic condition has been consciously constructed however, with a carefully structured 'crisis' put in place to squeeze the provision of plumb public transport routes into the private sector, lower the state's costs and raise the “growth” level in the economy. The most  essentially important aspect of the push towards privatisation is the setting up of the National Transport Authority, (NTA), as an ostensible arbiter in a tendering process which so enthused the private transport operators professional body that they welcomed it as “a step in the right direction” because it “introduced competition into the marketplace”.

The competition this process imposes coupled to the starvation of funding is the structural foundations that the ongoing assault on pay and conditions is based upon and which is delivering the “critical efficiencies” that was deemed necessary by the Labour Court's findings last year.

The method

Underfunding is the method by which competition is justified. It is inextricably linked to the privatisation agenda having two immediate benefits to the state. It cuts immediate government spending and provides in the mid term the ostensible excuse for the granting of routes to private sector operators with low wage regimes. With the NTA in place, and as the process develops, the once national transport  provider has become just another company competing with more 'efficient' private operators, efficient meaning more exploitative of their workforce, which in turn is providing the competitive benchmark for wages and conditions in the industry. The constant reduction in funding, the setting up of the NTA and the tendering process has successfully introduced the market into the state owned transport system and that competition is based on labour costs and 'efficiencies'.

The new competitive structures have gained results at Bus Eireann, 240 people were let go last year cutting staffing levels to the bone, at first glance apparently overreaching the target. But these pay-offs are being used to both slim down and restructure the workforce. Although 190 new drivers' jobs have been announced this year any that are recruited are to be used mainly for Public Service Obligation routes, a shift of people from the plumb most profitable routes towards those less attractive to private operators and more likely to be retained by the state operator.

At every opportunity the difficulties presented by the starvation of funding, the slashing of staffing levels and the contradictions inherent in forcing workers to work longer more difficult shifts is advanced  as a justification for the introduction of private operators.The lack of staff to cover for absent workers last year was used by management to accelerate privatisation by hiring in private operators to avoid 'letting down' key services.

Pay had not been increased in ten years in public transport and the slight increase last year did nothing to compensate for that. Bus workers wages have fallen behind, while the costs of housing have rocketed in the major towns and cities and working hours and rostering has seen big changes to the workers' terms and conditions. What is certain is that the management strategy will not change without determined resistance as they gear up for another bout of concession bargaining, where a pittance of a wage increase is traded for changes to productivity and conditions are squeezed again.

Union response

This government strategy has been around for years and can hardly be described as a shocking new departure. But the union bureaucrats act as if they are oblivious to the reasons for this state of affairs, even though it was they who helped create it when they conceded to government demands that it was necessary that these structures be put in place. They complied with the setting up of the NTA on the promise of a few union seats on a regulatory body that hasn't materialised.  Now, each time the pay negotiations come around the union bureaucrats appear shocked and indignant and vacuously demand more funding from the NTA.

Siptu has pronounced its insistence that  “the National Transport Authority would have to step up to the mark and provide adequate funding, recognising the sacrifices made by staff to secure the continued viability of the company.” The bureaucrats that lead Siptu have neither forgotten that the NTA is a body that was actually set up to undermine the “continued viability of the company” by increasing competition and decreasing state funding, nor have they forgotten their own culpability in allowing it. They are ignoring it, and they hope everyone else will too!

They pretend instead that their role as negotiators and lobbyists will produce different results this time and that a body set up with the purpose of driving down transport costs by attacking wages and conditions can be appealed to to substantially increase wages by providing funding that everyone knows they have been put in place to cut! It's absurd!

The problem is that the management can see straight through their cant at negotiation time. Now with their strategy firmly unchallenged by the union bureaucracy the employers use the same tactics over and over; We can't afford it! Profits are down! Competition is stiff! We are still inefficient! We need concessions from the workers! They are approaching these particular talks with a great deal of confidence because, with the exception of a few worrying weeks last year when the usual theatrics were disrupted by class struggle, their tactics have worked every time to date but also because this year the union bureaucrats have signalled their intentions.

Declaration of intent

In what appears as a declaration of intent that will define the coming negotiations SIPTU has said that they “had no wish to engage in a lengthy process regarding members' pay, which could ultimately prove unsuccessful, and result in further disruption to services.”

The NBRU leadership have stated that failure to pay an increase will “result in an inevitable spiral towards unnecessary industrial action.” In both cases a call for class peace in the context of an employers assault. This exhibits a desire to hastily rush through this years negotiations and spare them the pain of having to demobilise another strike. Utterly defeatist on the part of the leadership but the transport workers are far from defeated. The lessons of last year are still fresh and  a mood of resistance still prevails. A push from below can expose the bureaucrats once again.

The management are approaching this with the impression that they can win the game quickly and easily because they know that the union bureaucrats are as afraid of the working class as they are and cannot play the Aces they hold.  Aces that presented themselves spontaneously last year with the outbreak of wildcat strikes triggered by flying pickets. These actions were highly effective and resulted in instant, generalised industrial action in the transport system! While French transport and Postal workers engage in a bitter and protracted struggle with the state employers against the erosion of their pay, terms and conditions and against cutbacks and privatisation it's business as usual for the leaders of Ireland's transport unions.

Unless the rank and file workers take the initiative, this year will be another step towards the ultimate privatisation of the most profitable transport corridors and meaner working conditions for state employees. It can be done and as the proverb says, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

That step is the linking of struggles and the linking of opposition groups within the various unions, they are small but do exist, and an organised united front campaign of agitation to expose the true nature of the labour bureaucracy, seeking to “ turn the trade unions into the organs of the broad exploited masses and not the organs of a labor aristocracy.” Our ultimate objective is the; “complete and unconditional independence of the trade unions in relation to the capitalist state.”(10)

Calling things by their real name is politically essential and this applies to the left groups. They must forget their petty positions in the lower bureaucracy, or their relationship with 'left' bureaucrat 'A' or 'left' bureaucrat 'B'. They must not remain silent but must call the bureaucracy as a whole by their true name – class traitors – no ifs, no buts. That would be a beginning.


(1) Leon Trotsky. Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay

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