With any industrial dispute and the threat of a strike, the general public will be polarised about which side they are on. We are presented with a simple choice: either we side with the management who are trying to impose pay cuts and harsher working conditions, or we side with the workers who are using their collective power to retain their pay and conditions. The action by the National Rail and Bus Union (NBRU), in response to proposed pay cuts at Bus Éireann, is likely to once again divide public opinion.
As with many strikes, the employers (in this case with the backing of the government) have abundant resources to put their side of the story across through the media. It is a fairly standard tactic of any austerity government to portray services earmarked for privatisation as a burden on public finances. To this end, the National Transport Authority (NTA) have released numerous scare-stories about how “loss-making” Bus Éireann services are. The Bus Éireann management have threatened to let the company become insolvent by May if the NBRU doesn’t back down – the latest effort to create a public appetite for cutting wages and bus services at the semi-state body.
The government line of attack is that Bus Éireann does not generate a profit and therefore cost-cutting changes must be made. The crucial point that is left out of the debate is that public transport services don’t exist to generate profit – they exist to transport the public. Most countries subsidise public transport to a significant extent, and Ireland is no different. Indeed, this entire debacle could be solved easily by increasing the subsidy to Bus Éireann. However the Minister for Transport, Shane Ross, is staunchly refusing to increase the subsidy, which has been on the decline for years. Ross appears far less concerned, for example, about the millions in government subsidies paid out annually to top up the profits of private motorway road toll operators. Welcome to the world of those who call themselves the centre-right: subsidy handouts to boost profits at private companies are deemed acceptable, but spending money on public bus drivers’ wages is seen as unsustainable and wasteful.
A clear political path has led to this situation. Fine Gael’s policy aims to ultimately introduce competitive tendering (privatisation) on public bus routes. For Bus Éireann to compete with the private sector in the future, management wish to cut pay in a race to the bottom. We should be under no illusions about such policies: they are inherently flawed. Privatised rail transport has ended up costing the UK state more in subsidies than nationalised rail services did. The lesson from this has been that workers and customers will always lose out from a policy that favours letting the market influence how public services are run.
Irish bus transport has already been subject to a creeping privatisation. Private operators – licenced by the NTA – play a significant role on many express intercity routes in the country, flooding the market and undercutting Bus Éireann services (whose fares and routes are set by the NTA). The NTA has undermined the ability of Bus Éireann to compete on many routes, and now they claim that the public subsidy can no longer be provided to Bus Éireann as this would violate EU competition rules.
Essentially, the government has created an entirely predictable crisis within Bus Éireann, and is now using this as a justification for punishing staff. What is clear is that there is a concerted effort underway to break the unions and roll back workers’ rights. New bus drivers, for example, may be hired on casual zero-hour contracts under the proposed terms from management.
Anti-union rhetoric is rife and the public figure who peddles it at its most extreme is Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary. That businessmen such as O’Leary are anti-union should not surprise us: as part of Ryanair’s efforts to generate enormous profits (€1.24bn in 2016), workers’ conditions are kept at bay by a refusal to recognise unions. For the rest of us, it is not in our long-term interest to take a stance against unions. All societies need unions to preserve or improve the rights of workers. After all, if employers offered workers’ rights off their own bat, there would historically have been no need for the trade union movement.
Bus workers deserve the support of the public. The NBRU have stated that they are fighting to protect the future workers at Bus Éireann. This is a watershed moment in industrial disputes – a government defeat against bus workers will likely lead to the plan being used repeatedly as a blueprint for attacks on workers’ rights in other areas of the Irish economy.
The battle being fought by the NBRU represents a stand against the harshest aspects of modern Irish capitalism. If the government wins, then included in the list of losers will be the general public. We will lose public services which are vital to many. The Irish right-wing parties will continue with the disastrous practice of privatising public services. Tax monies will be spent on subsidising private companies rather than on funding public services. The overwhelming majority will not benefit from these policies. Individuals who wish to increase their personal wealth by running privatised bus services will no doubt support the government on this one. For the rest of us, supporting the bus workers is crucial.