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The Bus Eireann dispute

11 April 2017

The workers at Bus Eireann have been forced to go on strike by an aggressive and intransigent management.  Behind this intransigence lies a government which is driving a cuts agenda alongside carefully laid plans to privatise the public transport service.

Bus workers have not had a pay raise for the duration of the economic crisis caused by the banking collapse and are now facing cuts in their pay, of up to a quarter in some cases, with casual labour being introduced and pensions being eroded. Without any pay increase and the increasing cost of living, especially where mortgage costs and rents have rocketed, bus workers have relied on overtime payments to close the gap. Those payments have now also came under attack as part of the management's plan to drive down costs at the workers' expense which will also see driver redundancies and closures of garages.


The current crisis is no accident, it has been deliberately created by systematic underfunding.
This has been accompanied by the parallel creation of the National Transport Authority founded in 2009 with the purpose of "bus market regulation and the procurement of public transport services". This body oversees and co-ordinates the transfer of lucrative bus routes to private companies. At present 10% of Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann routes have been opened up by the NTA to the low wage private sector, but that is set to expand. The aim is to remove the cost of maintaining a national transport service from the Irish State's books and to replace the public bus service with private firms, under the NTA's umbrella, that pay their drivers less, don't pay holidays, provide a decent pension or sick pay and quite often don't pay any overtime premium at all, just a basic rate.
In the same manner as the private debt of the banks became the public debt of the taxpayer while the banks walked off with the profitable core of their businesses the provision of public transport on the most lucrative routes will become a way of lining the pockets of large private transport companies at the expense of public sector workers and rural communities dependent upon a public transport service.

The government's removal of funding is for the specific purpose of attacking wages and conditions. But the state is only too willing to provide funding that presents Bus Eireann's core operations as a more saleable commodity. The proposal to spend more on 'modernising' the company while cutting workers’ pay is revealing of the real agenda at play. Management's demands for increased performance from their workers by the installation of a driver monitoring system, ostensibly with the long term objective of saving costs, in fact immediately vastly increases costs by its installation and with the plans in place to shut down maintenance depots the contract to maintain what is a very expensive system will be farmed out to specialist private companies, again lining more private pockets and adding to a 'recovery' that the bus drivers will not benefit from.

“Uncontainable anger”

Negotiations followed a familiar pattern as the union leaders desperately sought a way out of a confrontation. As the strike approached the leadership wilted and prepared for the usual collapse with Willie Noone of Siptu accepting that "a number of inefficiencies" at the company were "acknowledged and accepted" by all sides. This laid the ground for a compromise with the state's completely uncompromising thrust to make the workers pay. He went on to add in desperation that; "Siptu is committed to eradicating inefficiencies as this is a mechanism to secure good employment terms for our members into the future." But the entire drive is to replace good terms and conditions with increased exploitation and less employees.

But flashes of what is possible appeared. The key words in the statement released by the union negotiators was “uncontainable anger”.  Firstly this description of the workers and shop stewards mood betrays the union bureaucrats' own role as one of “anger containment”. Secondly and most importantly it shows that the usual waltz between the union bureaucrats and the employers will only be disrupted from below. With slice after slice having been taken from the working class to pay for a crisis not of their own making upsurges like this can be expected but unless it is organised and can show the potential to spread the old pattern of betrayal and defeat will reassert its self very quickly.

No business as usual for the working class

This can't be business as usual for the working class. The state is determined to drive wages to the bottom and keep them there but no one is quite sure where the bottom is. The government trumpets the arrival of a 'recovery' but that recovery exists at the expense of the workers that is why we cannot benefit from it. Bitter class conflict is inevitable between workers and a capitalist system that is in the throes of a fundamental crisis of profitability and which is struggling to maintain itself by constantly ratcheting up the level of exploitation of workers to unbearable levels.

The union leadership are treating it as business as usual however! The conduct of the strike is such that the leadership's major demand is not for victory and the rolling back of the cuts but for a new round of talks. The NBRU's call on Shane Ross to “provide leadership” by setting up more talks is either extremely naive or outright cynical. Ross represents the government's push towards slimming the company down and preparing it for sale and this call can only mark a willingness to return to a negotiating table on which sits the state's agenda of cuts and privatisation.

It has been different this time and it can continue to be.  The level of anger and determination among the drivers and employees mark this as an important struggle. Bus employees see this for what it is, a deliberate attempt to crush the working conditions of the state employees and to transfer the wealthiest routes into the private sector.

Faced with a concerted effort to break the strike by the state a compliant union leadership can only call for more negotiations. Their weakness is apparent. ICTU sit on the advisory body to the NTA, the very authority they now find themselves confronting on the picket line. They cannot be on both sides of that line and must be forced to withdraw from that body immediately. They have tied themselves in to a deal that accepts the logic of the capitalist market, and that logic dictates that the workers must pay for the crisis in profitability that has led to the economic collapse and must continue to indefinitely pay that price in the interests of returning profitability to the system.

The strike must spread

There can be no negotiation on that basis. The union membership have already scored a victory by preventing the leadership's collapse when the management issued notice of wage and route cuts on the 24th. They must take the course of their own destiny into their own hands. The strike must spread, and is showing signs that it will, with the balloting of Dublin bus workers for strike action. But it must not wait for ballots. Strike committees need to be formed which act to take the fight to the management. The faster and wider the strike spreads the better. What the state and employers fear most is what they call 'contagion', what we call solidarity, and there is huge potential for it. If the strike shows signs of spreading to other sectors and by-passing the hurdles that are put in front of industrial action they will think again. It must first of all spread to all transport provision, where solidarity is already strong, trains, Dublin bus and Translink cross border services. All wheels must stop.

This freeze up can and must spread internationally. The conditions faced by Irish workers are common across Europe and a call must go out for solidarity to transport providers on the continent that are already on strike or are about to go out, and for a consciously planned strategy of co-ordinated industrial action. Air traffic controllers have been on strike in France only recently and the connection must be made. In Germany ground staff have walked out at Tegel and Schoenefeld airports in Berlin with Frankfurt, Cologne, Dusseldorf, Leipzig, Dresden and Stuttgart likely to follow.  These airports have been increasingly successful in recent years while wages are falling. Giving an idea of how low wages are to be pushed, this action is for a pay increase to just €12ph.  This last month transport strikes have also taken place in Finland at Helsinki airport, and in Italy by air traffic controllers. The Italian workers are refusing to be made scapegoats for the falling profits and management 'mistakes' and in February ground staff also went on strike against 2000 job losses and pay cuts being imposed by the 'loss making' Alitalia airline. In Greece tram workers and urban railway workers also went on strike recently against the vicious attack on their conditions by the Greek government and the turning over of public property to the private sector. British transport workers are regularly defending themselves against attacks on jobs pay and conditions, in February British airways cabin crew have restarted a long running struggle against 'poverty pay' and in the month to come railway workers are coming out for a four day strike in France. These are only the transport related strikes, leaving out the health and education sectors and industrial strikes, which are also increasing.

This is the basis for huge solidarity and co-ordinated action but the compromising leadership in charge of running our unions will not organise it. It can only be done by the workers themselves who in order to coordinate their strike activities with other groups of workers need to build a rank and file organisation willing and fit to perform these tasks and to issue calls for solidarity and action from transport workers throughout Europe.  The anger of the workers must remain genuinely 'uncontainable' by casting aside the compromising leadership that has 'contained' that anger for so long and inspired by the vigour of the Bus Eireann workers begin to self-organise for the kind of solidarity in action that will break the cycle of negotiation and defeat that marks the 'business as usual' attitude of the union bureaucracy and begin to rebuild the only thing that can confront the global capitalist assault on the working class; Working class internationalism and solidarity in action.

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