Bus Eireann - privatisation and resistance
2 November 2018
Following on from the successful privatisation of 10% of Dublin Bus routes and the livery change which conceals the number of private operators on the roads the National Transport Authority (NTA) has now set its sights on another 10% of bus routes. In its latest consultation paper the NTA announces its intention to reduce the “direct award contract” with Bus Éireann in 2019 and to start the process of privatising another eight routes and putting the removed services through as “a separate contract following an open tender process.”
The latest stage in the privatisation process is well considered. It will remove a key part of the transport system from public provision by homing in on eight of the best serviced most lucrative routes which largely serve outlying towns in the Dublin commuter belt.
These are selected to form a system of routes connecting the Capital to key commuter destinations. An alternative national transport network is patiently being constructed which will eventually push the State provider aside and, as in Britain, still enjoy State subsidies.
This clear announcement of a further tranche of routes to go private is accompanied by not so clear mutterings about the already privatised 10% of routes at Dublin Bus needing to be further expanded. The NTA has now found that due to the planned reorganisation of bus routes in the city it “may be necessary to privatise new routes under the Bus Connects plan.” This is no accident of course, the clue lies in the fact that the routes are 'planned' and the plan's intentions are becoming increasingly clear.
The objective is to privatise the public transport system, the most lucrative routes, and pass control to private operators. The mechanism for doing this has been put in place starting with the establishment of the NTA and continues steadily with the gradual awarding of increasing amounts of business to the multi-national corporations who keep up a constant refrain for expansion of the tendering process.
Now with the public transport provider, Bus Eireann and Dublin Bus, as just another operator submitting bids to run services, and driving down wages and conditions to compete, this process of opening up new swathes of routes for tendering and extending already privatised ones can continue ad infinitum until all the plum routes are gone, turning up in the private accounts as profits and registering as economic 'growth' while the tax payer continues to pay for the buses and bus workers’ pay and conditions have been driven down to poverty levels.
The leaders of Siptu and the NBRU have immediately criticised this proposal, denouncing it angrily. They have been angry, shocked and surprised at the privatisation of public transport now for quite a while.
They were angry at the systematic cuts made to the subvention to public transport which laid the groundwork for plans to tender out routes. But following reassurances that it was as far as the cuts would go they sapped the workers resistance and demobilised the opposition in the workplaces, with a great deal of difficulty, and repeated votes.
No sooner was the dispute about the cuts to the subvention demobilised than the plans were announced that 10% of routes were to go out to tender.
They got “angry” all over again and announced that the plans would be “strongly opposed”, but felt so reassured by the “talks which took place at the Labour Relations Commission with the NTA that they cancelled “a planned 90-minute work stoppage and protest walk.” As if a 90 minute stoppage and protest “walk” was going to do anything.
Again in 2017 after eight years without a raise and a continuous development of plans for privatisation they were faced with “uncontainable anger” from their members which led to an impressive strike, including wildcat action and flying pickets, at Bus Eireann, Dublin Bus and Iarnrod Eireann.
But, according to the established pattern they were once again suitably reassured following the talks which demobilised it, just in time, “co-incidentally”, for the announcement that the notorious operator Go-Ahead had been awarded the 10% of routes previously advertised.
Talk quickly moved on to the next pay talks and an urgent renegotiation of the appalling deal they had agreed the last time!
Their shock and outrage began in 2008 and they have continued to remain shocked, outraged, surprised and in turn reassured ever since. We can expect their latest apparent bout of high blood pressure to be quelled by reassurances from the NTA, or should the “uncontainable anger” of their own membership push them towards industrial action, the LRC, as usual. Meanwhile, we witness before our eyes the restructuring of the workforce and the constant opening up of public transport to the same public operators which have discredited themselves so thoroughly in the UK.
Side stepping responsibility
Now, once again, we find them shocked and outraged at this latest, entirely predictable, announcement.
Siptu continued unabashed with their policy of feigning surprise at every renewed phase of privatisation but are betrayed by their own apparently gullible ambivalence towards the NTA's motivation. “The NTA has accepted that some of the routes which it intends to put out for private tender enjoy the highest rates of customer satisfaction which raises further and serious questions about the motivation for this exercise in privatisation.” The motivation is profit for private companies and a reduction in the States fiscal responsibilities of course! Not modernisation, efficiency, improved service or anything else!
They already know this, but their bluster reveals the extent to which they have accepted and used, either naively or cynically, the official narrative of “improving efficiency” to gain their members' grudging acceptance of the introduction of “competition” and privatisation of “inefficient” routes. Now the NTA has blown their cover. The sacrifices made by their members during the last phase of privatisation have not been enough and now that the NTA are farming out “efficient” routes they stand to be exposed, so as usual they find themselves shocked and surprised.
The NBRU general secretary Dermot O'Leary, also apparently gobsmacked for the umpteenth time, promises the latest stage in the longstanding plans to privatise transport will be "vigorously opposed" and adds that such an “attack (on) semi-state jobs cannot be allowed to go unchallenged”.
This sounds like a promising start to a campaign of resistance to privatisation, but how, after ten years of accumulated “anger”, will he and his vastly experienced fellow bureaucrats oppose it?
The logical conclusion would be that as a leader of an industrial trade union he would prioritise organising a concerted campaign of industrial action and seek to broaden that by organising support from the multi-layered aggrieved sections of the wider working class and their leadership with the objective of forcing the State to backtrack on plans?
But no! O'Leary goes on to deftly side step any responsibility for mounting a fightback by passing the buck. It is up to others, and must be mounted “by those from across the political spectrum that profess to oppose the privatisation of state services.”
His strategy for success, as before, involves lobbying the politicians! The same strategy as during the Bus Eireann and Dublin Bus strikes when they called continuously on Minister Shane Ross to intervene. There is not a majority of Left TD's in the Dail to stop it so O'Leary's rhetorical call to step forward and stop privatisation goes out to the same politicians, the majority of which are in a confidence and supply relationship with Fine Gael, and who have consistently supported government preparations for privatisation over the last ten years!
This is worse than useless, it is deliberately misleading. Unless there is a surge of opposition from below, another example of the “uncontrollable anger” the bureaucracy experienced in 2017, no action is planned.
The NBRU and Siptu leadership are experienced professionals and know very well what they are doing, it is a deliberate strategy to avoid a confrontation with the Troika's and the Irish State's strategy for economic 'recovery', a policy they fully submit to.
To avoid taking what they describe as a “political” decision and mobilising against privatisation the bureaucracy hands control to the TD's and distracts their members with this manoeuvre. In order to achieve the broadest possible unity anyone can be included in this distraction if they “profess” they are opposed to tendering out the routes, but no action will be taken apart from the usual parliamentary “cretinism” that we are accustomed to.
Meanwhile the focus is redirected away from the bureaucrats in the hope that the bus workers will remain passive, defer all responsibility for deciding their own destiny to the Dail and will passively await the outcome. Most importantly they hope that the workers will not take things into their own hands, something the bureaucracy is genuinely worried about.
A degree of political alignment exists between the major Left groups and the union bureaucracy which is expressed in the prominent claims by all of them that the privatisation drive is merely “ideological”.
This consensus helps to keep on board all those in the bureaucracy that do not want to attack capitalism per-se, but only what appears in their eyes as an extreme and “discredited” variant of it; “Thatcherite” or “neo liberal ideology”. It implies that austerity, privatisation and the general assault on the working class is simply a 'choice' by dogmatic ideologues and that the mainstream of bourgeois political representatives are somewhere to the left of that ideology.
This assault undoubtedly does have its ideology but it has a material base in the objective contradictions of the current capitalist fall in profitability, the huge cost of the bank bailout and the effects of the long depression. Their “choice” is to attempt to resolve this by attacking the working class, the next bourgeois ideologue will be compelled to make the same “choice” because of these same objective conditions driving them.
The left must painstakingly draw the attention of the working class to the real cause of the assault, the fundamental flaw which lies at the heart of capitalism itself, rather than to blame it on some assumed subjective decision by this or that leader.
This is not an abstract matter of little importance, it has real practical consequences for the workers movement.
The consensus that the assault is “ideological” allows for an opportunist relationship to exist with the union bureaucracy who hold that these inflexible “Thatcherite” idealists are “politically” motivated zealots and that the State can be talked out of relying on what they see as their ultra-right strategy. They argue that they can free the State from the embrace of these zealots and can weaken its dependence on the conditions imposed by the Troika or on the diktats of US imperialist capital to produce an idealised moderate capitalism.
They seek a compromise which is not forthcoming, not due to the intransigence of Thatcherite ideologues, but due to the real existing crisis of capitalism itself, but they do not countenance the failure of the economic system which they act as mediators for and are committed to saving from itself, and the massed ranks of their membership are “stood down” to facilitate their illusions in a Keynesian solution or a “fair” capitalism.
The opportunism at the heart of Left strategy then leads to a muted response to repeated bureaucratic sell-outs of industrial action and prohibits any confrontation with the union bureaucracy in the name of maintaining unity, so “civil disobedience” or “people power” is advocated instead of the mobilisation of almost a million trade union members.
Street demonstrations thousands strong coupled to an electoralist campaign aimed at an increased presence in the Dail takes the place of class struggle methods and a self-organised working class as the Left groups slide inexorably rightwards following the trade union bureaucracy in its pursuit of their imagined Keynesian solution.
Consensus under strain?
This consensus is a political adaptation to the Right which fits perfectly with and facilitates the unspoken 'broad front' with the Left bureaucracy, in essence no different from the Right bureaucracy, who then in turn insist on including the discredited Labour Party in everything they do.
But this strategy is becoming more difficult to sustain as new layers of youth become active who are less than impressed by the results so far. Unease is also growing among trade unionists at rank and file level unhappy with their leaders' utter ineffectiveness especially in the health and transport sectors. As State attacks continue and the end result of this fruitless 'broad front' strategy reveals itself as unremitting wage suppression, privatisation and homelessness the Left reformists are left with the option of rethinking their theory, requiring a move to the left, or acceptance of the bureaucracy's line that the absence of any reform is “the optimum that can be achieved”, requiring a move further to the right. But things will not remain static.
Incidences of resistance are beginning to well up, as happened energetically in Bus Eireann in 2017, but the union bureaucracy “manages” and controls them, steering them towards compliance with the State's overall economic plan. The present mode of opposition has plainly failed. Those plans must be confronted directly with concerted and general industrial action. It can be done!
To begin to build towards that objective workers have to begin to self-organise at rank and file level against the cuts and privatisations, among all tactics wildcat strikes and flying pickets have shown their effectiveness in Dublin, and again in Glasgow more recently in the cleaners' and care workers' strike!
The bureaucracy that has sapped the life out of all important struggles and demobilised them on the basis of vague reassurances from the NTA the State or the LRC must be exposed. They must no longer be allowed to get away with feigning surprise at the usual predictable outcomes of such “assurances”.
No more excuses that the fight against privatisation or the starvation of funds from health and education are, in the NBRU leader's words from last year, “at the optimum that can be achieved at this time” because the present time is set to be extended far into the foreseeable future. There are no plans for a real recovery in wages or service funding because the reduction of these bills are an essential part of the capitalists’ economic plan.
The Irish State is attempting to resolve its fiscal crisis and cut the national debt by slashing spending on health, education and the public service generally and have put in place privatisation plans which are fast developing in public transport. They have facilitated the sale of the banks’ non- performing loans to vulture funds putting struggling mortgagees, householders and small farmers, in danger of eviction while they use NAMA funds to facilitate real estate investment trusts (REITs) investment in high end projects that suit only global real estate investors. The days of the absentee landlord are back and the working class are paying the price.
The figures they quote for the “recovery” have been achieved at the expense of workers falling living standards. That is the basis of the “recovery”. It is not simply the “ideology” of a few zealots, it is imperialist economics.
Their system is failing and they intend to suppress working class living conditions and keep them suppressed, health care will be for those that can either afford it or can put themselves into debt, as will be education and retirement, a recent attempt was made to raise the retirement age to Seventy, everything will be a matter of whether you can pay for it yourself or not.
All the capitalists' efforts
are for little gain, despite their transfer of wealth from the poorest
to the richest economic growth is bumping along the bottom. Globally we
face a future of crisis, environmental catastrophe, and ultimately war.
Their crisis ridden economic system drives them inexorably towards it.
That is why the solution is revolutionary, not reformist. We need to look
the world square in the face and dispense with the methods that have failed
the working class if we are to build an opposition that firstly confronts
the relentless attacks of global capitalism, fights to mobilise the organised
working class to do so and can begin to attract workers to a revolutionary
programme of action.