Dublin Bus workers reject union backed deal on pay and conditions
Union leaders' plan puts all workers inside the privatisation rules
22 September 2021
It barely more than made the news but yesterday's front-line heroes, the transport workers, have been thanked for their efforts by being forced into a corner by both the aggressive tactics of Dublin Bus management and the pay deal negotiated by SIPTU and the NBRU. The bus workers were justifiably angry, not least at the sheer hypocrisy surrounding their pay claim, and rejected the deal by an overwhelming majority.
The ballot rejecting the offer was as much directed at the SIPTU and NBRU leadership, famous for decades of collaboration with transport bosses, as it was at the management, leaving the professional bureaucrats facing the task of straddling the transport workers' resentment at their mistreatment and their own strong desire for class peace.
The way that traditionally works out is that the union leaders talk tough for a week or two, though increasingly that hasn't even happened, and then the workers, in the absence of any perspective that points the way towards united working-class action, are indignantly ushered back to work by the bureaucracy.
This pattern has existed in Irish Labour relations for decades, accelerating with the banking crisis and the long history of formal partnership with government and bosses, but something is changing.
Workers internationally are increasingly taking action without the disadvantage of a union bureaucracy. The US teachers' strike some years ago seemed like an outlier because it was mainly non-unionised workers, the McDonalds strike was for recognition of a union, so was the Ryanair strike, the latter exemplary group of workers were successful but haven't been heard of since the bureaucracy moved in!
Strikes at Volvo in the US were carried out in spite of the union leaders and still rumble on with a rank-and-file committee having been formed and the campaign for recognition of the RWDSU at Amazon, despite the commitment of the activists on the ground, proved so uninspiring that a two thirds majority of workers didn't have the confidence to support the involvement of what is a hugely discredited bureaucracy in their workplace.
These struggles so far reflect a changing mood among the masses as tens of thousands of workers tentatively feel their way towards self-organisation and confrontation with the class enemy. While they have produced some advances the main benefit, marginal as it might be, has been one of an increase in working class confidence and combativity. The existence of this independent action by members and prospective members both inside and outside the trade unions has exposed the bureaucracy much more thoroughly than they would like and the willingness among rank-and-file trade unionists to confront the bosses in relatively protracted disputes is also being reflected in victories for candidates coming forward from the bureaucracy posturing as 'left' in elections - in Unison and Unite for example.
In Irish unions the 'left' bureaucracy is silent. In the main the unions have become hollowed out by decades of posturing as opposition to the government while simultaneously and unfailingly agreeing to partnership type deals. Even the most 'left' of these bureaucracies have failed to defend their members in any effective way when capitalism has dictated its needs, as in the Debenhams dispute.
This morbidity is maintained by a top leadership who jealously guard their control, derived largely from their own members' non participation in union activity, participation in elections reflect this passivity. What is left is an apparatus that is largely a lifeless husk. The bureaucracy appears to be ruling with an apparently unassailable confidence but increasingly as the capitalist crisis deepens, and exacerbated by the covid 19 crisis, those bureaucracies reveal their advanced level of decadence and workers are increasingly restless.
In the case of the bus workers, the bureaucrats' cynicism is plainly apparent, the leadership of the NBRU and SIPTU have shamelessly used their previous retreats to argue for further surrenders. Their retreat on the introduction of 'competition’ into the provision of public transport is now being used to argue that any defensive action by the drivers is undermining the state company's ability to compete. The majority of workers who don't want their conditions undermined must accept those conditions in order that Dublin Bus can compete in a market that the bureaucracy, ever the market realists, allowed to be introduced in collusion with the National Transport Authority.
They now arrogantly threaten the drivers that time spent with their families or even resting, must be sacrificed if the company's ability to compete is not to be “severely diminished, if not holed below the water line”. It is an abject surrender to the disaster capitalist tactics of the bosses and indeed in this case it is very much a disaster at least partially of their own making.
But more than 90 % of workers defied them and voted against the retrogressive deal recommended to them! The union leaders talked of money being “bandied about” but the figure of 15% offered is only a headline grabber, it is spread over three years and comes at the cost of the introduction of huge changes to the drivers’ contracts.
The drivers know what changes to these work practices will mean. They will have to work different routes, increasing the time spent driving during their working week. This is not merely an unfounded fear. Similar changes have been introduced in the North, especially on the cross-border routes, that mean the drivers rate of work has gone through the roof with no pay increase except the annual pay anniversary which at best shadows, usually falling slightly below, inflation.
Changes to work patterns have resulted in drivers on the Dublin Express barely having time for a toilet break, let alone a break for refreshments, before turn-around and the departure of the express. Break times are arranged to suit company schedules with some drivers’ 'duties' covering a 12-hour period including breaks that are either away from their home depot or are too short to allow a visit home for lunch or a suitable environment to rest and de-stress. Similar patterns are on the cards for the Dublin Bus workers, and they know it!
No resistance was offered by either UNITE or the GMB in the North where changes were introduced with a nod and a wink from the bureaucracy and their de facto full-time convenors who shrug their shoulders at drivers' concerns, protest letters, and the resignations of dispirited rank and file members.
Unfortunately, so far, instead of self-organisation we are seeing the depletion of union density in public transport and a decline in combativity in the North. That will change. Like all apparently pacific periods tensions are mounting and when change comes it is likely to be explosive.
In the meantime, political opportunism on the left towards the bureaucracy results in the dissipation of the anger that does arise from the bureaucracy's sell outs. This is a diversion from organising workers' opposition on the ground. In Britain, Manchester in particular, where protracted and determined struggles have taken place, they have still resulted in the most blatant sell-outs by UNITE leaders due to the lack of workers power on the ground within the union. All power lies in the hands of the bureaucracy which has the power to demobilise or limit direct action. This must change and unavoidably that fight takes place within the unions. No amount of 'revolutionary' posturing can avoid that.
The bureaucracy are the agents of capitalist 'realism' within the working class, this is the logic behind every deal they make, even more so in the Irish context. Breaking the control of the bureaucracy means ultimately breaking the fiscal parameters, agreed by the IMF, the ECB and the European Commission, within which the bureaucrats invariably agree to operate and which is the source of the economic attacks on workers.
The various rank and file actions are out there as examples of self-organisation, the lessons will eventually be learned and resistance will surge. But the thing about strike waves is that they are precisely that ….waves! When they start, they can overwhelm, when they recede, they can suck all that are unprepared to the ocean's depths.
What is really absent and what would change resentment and protest into organised and ongoing resistance is an alternative programme for the workers. The bureaucracy succeeds because saying no on its own is not a strategy. Even ferocious opposition can be worn down by constantly presenting the same proposals in new wrapping paper.
We should call for:
A fighting rank and file
One which is independent of the full-time union apparatus; is committed to publicly campaigning against all attacks on workers, from pay to housing costs to health and safety during a pandemic. And most importantly, one which is committed to taking direct action in support of that campaign and to confronting the bureaucracy's betrayals.
No to privatisation!
A central demand of such a movement must be immediate direct action against plans for privatisation. Behind all the jabber about costs and efficiency, privatisation, which is happening across all services, is a transfer of resources from public into private hands. Public transport workers and users both suffer. (The same is particularly true of healthcare). All must be mobilised, both within and without the workplace.
Disband the NTA!
The NTA's central purpose is to transfer revenue from public transport provision into private bank accounts and ultimately to bring about full-blown privatisation. Costs will increase, as will waste, and services decline for users.
A free public transport
system open to all!
Facing the burgeoning climate catastrophe allows for no half measures. We demand the provision of an environmentally clean and free public transport to break our dependence on cars as part of a campaign by workers to sequester and distribute both clean power and the means of clean power generation. We must demand that our environment is saved from the destructive capitalist profit system.
Waiting for the trade union leadership to arrive at the position where they are willing to act on similar demands is not an option, it will never happen, these demands among many others, must be raised and acted upon independently!
This programmatic sketch can serve as a framework for independent rank and file organisation in each union, cooperation across unions, links with service users, climate activists, housing campaigners and communities that would meet many of the service needs and climate targets facing Ireland.
A fighting programme,
unity of rank-and-file workers across all unions and in the community -
this the basis on which a fightback will be built.