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Luas dispute: No recovery for the workers. A new Dublin lockout by Transdev

15 April 2016

One hundred and three years after the 1913 lockout, in the midst of official commemorations of the rising organised by a government of counter-revolution, a new lockout is progressing against Luas drivers in Dublin, aimed at smashing basic trade unionism.

That’s the meaning of the protective notice letters and the humiliating pay offer set out by Transdev.

The workers rejected an offer that would have seen them pay for their own pay increase with open -ended productivity and speedup.  Above all it would have “pulled up the ladder” and installed a lower pay scale for all new drivers.

Transdev have now withdrawn this offer and replaced it with a 3-year offer which will, when inflation is taken into account, means a cut in real pay. They threaten mass sackings and fines to recoup the costs of strikes.  Acceptance would mean the abolition of the right to strike and of any effective trade unionism.

This is class war on a grand scale

A bewildered SIPTU executive ask why the hard line and stress their willingness to compromise, but there are many hard-headed reasons for the Transdev assault.

Firstly, this is how privatisation works. Private companies, when they run public services, have to make a profit within existing budgets. The way to do this is to speed up the work rate and lose jobs if possible, cut pay and lower the quality of the service. The decision to establish Luas as a private company is an indication of the future direction of public transport generally.

On a broader scale it is a signal that all the smoke blown out in the run-up to the election about the return of the Celtic Tiger is so much hot air.  To the extent that there is a recovery it is based largely on the sharp reductions in jobs, wages, pensions and services introduced in the austerity drive.  An economic upturn will not see a return to prosperity for the majority of workers. Rather there will be a drive now to make the gains of the capitalists permanent and ensure an on-going low wage economy for all but the highest skilled workers.

It was Jack’s Deal

Transdev and Irish capital in general have many reasons for launching this assault. They also have enormous confidence in the inability of the trade union bureaucracy, after 3 decades of social partnership and no-strike deals, to mount a serious opposition or to last long without capitulation.

The fact is that the proposed settlement did not come from Transdev alone. It was a joint proposal from the company, the SIPTU leadership and the workplace relations commission (WRC).

The massive rejection of the deal by the workers has split the social partners, with SIPTU leader Jack O'Connor rushing to the left and demanding a better offer. On the other hand Kieran Mulvey, the supposedly independent WRC chair, has lauded the deal as a major victory for the unions and criticized O'Connor for his about turn. He is supported by the reactionary David Begg, former ICTU secretary and recently appointed as pension’s overseer by the government without the necessity of a selection process. Begg blamed the driver's rejection on "Trotskyism" and called for a return to the old fashioned trade unionism that had stitched up the workers in the first place. The nature of that old fashioned unionism is shown by the right wing campaign amplifying Begg.

Return of the good times?

The reasons for the division are easily understood. Throughout the bailout the unions and the then LRC (now WRC) have implemented the austerity programme set out by government and bosses. Workers had to sacrifice themselves to save capitalism so that the good times would return, ran the argument.

Yet government statistics claim that the good times have returned, that Ireland is a boom economy, and workers, naturally, expect a recovery of living standards.

The problem for the union leaders and the social partnership industry is that a malformed economy is dependent on low wages and high productivity – a case made by employer’s representative Mark Fielding who says that there is no going back to the wage rates before the crisis in order to sustain competitiveness. That reality is underlined by Tesco's unilateral "streamlining" of wages so that everyone is paid the austerity rate. The 99% vote by workers affected is a powerful call to action and a silent criticism of Mandate, who negotiated the two-tier structure.

The way out of this catch 22 is for workers to pay for their own wage rises through mechanisms such as work speedup and "pulling up the ladder." In fact the Tesco move shows that the end result of the ladder mechanism is simply that all workers pay falls.

The division between O'Connor and the social partners on the Luas issue is quite simple. He leads the largest union in Ireland and is to a limited extent answerable to his members.  Begg and Mulvey have no such concerns and can operate openly as agents of Irish capitalism.  

Good cop, bad cop

However only an imbecile, or a member of the reformist left currents, could suggest that the task now is to support O'Connor. Jack and Kieran Mulvey have been playing "good cop, bad cop'' for almost 3 decades. Mulvey has already signalled the grounds for reconciliation, wryly accepting that public sector wage rates may too low for recruitment and suggesting that the social partners revisit and tweak the reactionary Haddington Road agreement.

SIPTU are so committed to partnership that they often telegraph the sellout publicly before negotiation - "resolving" the Cadbury's dispute by immediately offering job cuts and speedup to head off outsourcing, cutting the wage claim in half before negotiations with Transdev got fully underway and signing off on the rotten deal Jack O'Connor is now running away from.

The problems for the union leaders run deeper than transport. Public sector workers are waking up to the fact that "temporary" job speedups are permanent, as are wage cuts for new entrants. Teachers unions ASTI and TUI have declared for strike action.   Psychiatric nurses have called a strike ballot based on the near collapse of the service – a collapse that applies to many elements of the health sector.  If the public sector unions proceed with strike action their members will have their pay cut under FEMPI emergency legislation associated with the Haddington Road agreement. Workers will then wake up to the fact that O'Connor, Begg et al agreed to a gigantic scabbing clause aimed at union members.

The Luas struggle represents the interface between a pressure from Irish workers – an expectation of a recovery in wages and living standards.  Opposing that pressure is a transnational company, coldly calculating, with a carefully thought out game plan it will apply to achieve victory.

Behind that company stands Irish capital, the Troika and the European institutions.  Local capital has garnered a greater share of national wealth. A centrepoint of economic policy is to develop further our status as a tax haven. The last budget contained a proposal to reduce corporation tax to 6%, disguised as a “knowledge tax”. If the transnationals and local capital pay less then clearly the workers must pay more. The fruits of an economic upturn have flowed mainly to the rich and that is the way they want to keep it. Workers need to put together a countervailing force that can command a retreat by capital.

Open new campaigns – broaden the struggle

In addition to leaning on the bureaucracy and demanding they give way, the employers and their supporters will try to isolate Luas drivers and starve them out. What is required is constantly struggling to expand the struggle: From single strike to all-out strike, from one element to the whole transport sector, flying pickets to draw in other groups of workers, constantly broadening and intensifying to the point where it is the unity of the capitalists that begins to fracture. 
That requires an intense political message. No-one will give up a day’s pay out of goodwill. Luas drivers will have to convince other transport workers that they are fighting on their behalf. They will need to show that the low-pay strategy applies to workers as a whole rather than to one section.  They will need to win the support of the public by arguing for a sustainable transport policy that meets everyone’s needs rather than a privatised carve-up that turns Dublin into a car park and leaves workers isolated in the suburbs.

The workers need to organise independently. They need fighting campaigns inside the unions and across the unions. They need to combine with the tens of thousands in the communities who mobilised against water charges and austerity. They need to call on the bureaucracy to earn their salaries but be crystal clear about their role.  

The union leaders accepted trade union laws that make effective strike action impossible. They agreed to (and staffed) the LRC/WRC which has been such an effective weapon in the hands of the bosses. O’Connor and Begg were present when the bank bail-out was agreed and have never explained their role. The union leaders enforced agreement after agreement that ensured that they workers paid for the banks. They transferred their members to Irish water as part of a privatisation process. They accepted emergency laws that would see the pay of public sector workers cut if they tried to break out of austerity. Now they agree deals that involve workers paying for their own wage increases and pull the ladder up on new workers to establish a permanent low wage economy.

We must never forget for a moment that the Transdev deal was Jack O’Connor’s deal. Jack will look for some minor concession so that he can offer the same deal again. That won’t work this time.  His standard plan B is to call a do-nothing strike and wait for workers to get tired and demoralised. The shape of things to come is shown by the suggestion that Transdev itself may run into trouble with the state if it is unable to fulfil its contract.  The expectation by union leaders that the state will intervene on the side of the workers is a tale that never loses its charm. The role of the WRC should tell everyone what a fairy tale that is.


Self-organisation of the workers is a fundamental first step in fighting this battle.

Another element that will come to the fore right away is the implementation of the anti-strike laws O’Connor and his ilk agreed. If the workers try to do more than stand in the corner with a placard the Guards and the Courts will immediately swing into action in defence of the bosses.

The pressure of members needs is eating away at O'Connor's authority and at the authority of union executives generally. The implementation of the austerity made him so unpopular that he rarely appears at demonstrations. He openly admitted to negotiating the setup of Irish Water (a step towards privatisation) and fought tooth and nail to demobilise Right2Water demonstrations. His last false step before Transdev was to demand that workers vote for a return of the outgoing austerity government.  

The enormous majorities in favour of strike action are an act of defiance aimed at the bosses and a determined claim for the return of decent living standards.  They are also a critique of the union executives who negotiated the cuts in the first place. This fight is not one that will go away. The workers expect a recovery for themselves. The bosses are determined that that will not happen.

If we take steps to build an effective strike it will quickly become clear that we need our own working class party and that we need our own state - the state advanced by Connolly in 1916 - the Workers Republic.

The first step is to say: Workers First! We are tired of endless sacrifice for capital. Our homes, wages, futures come first and we will take any steps necessary to protect them.

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