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Opinion: 'Taxpayers who earn significantly less than Bus Éireann drivers are being asked to foot the bill'

If the Minister concedes to the unions’ demands, it will set a dangerous precedent, writes Paddy Smyth.

Paddy Smyth

LAST DECEMBER BUS Éireann announced that, due to the losses being incurred by their commercial arm, the somewhat misleadingly named “Expressway” service, they would need to implement cost saving measures to save the company from insolvency.

Emblematic of the fantasy-land in which the transport unions inhabit, their immediate response to this was to demand a 21% pay increase for their members.

It seemed to escape the media’s attention that only a few months earlier the same unions were demanding a pay increase for their members in Dublin Bus on the grounds that that company was now back in profit and the drivers deserved their share. Somehow this logic had been conveniently reversed.

Both pay demands by the bus unions were triggered by the fact that as the Luas drivers had recently been given a pay rise by the private company that employs them, and as their jobs are vaguely similar, they deserved one too.

In the subsequent months, even without the help of a pay increase for the drivers, the company’s financial woes have accelerated. This culminated in a letter to staff this week outlining the necessary efficiency measures which will need to be implemented to save the company and the thousands of jobs therein.

Efficiencies 

Chief among these measures is the re-organisation of working practices which will negate the need for drivers to do overtime. This will obviously decrease the take-home pay of the drivers, but also it begs the question; if it is possible to provide a national bus service with the current headcount without the need for overtime, why wasn’t this done years ago?

In any organisation a systemic reliance on overtime is a sign of very poor management. See the HSE.

An all-out strike from next Monday has been called by the drivers (which may well spread to railway services and Dublin Bus) ostensibly because of this “unilateral” decision by the company’s management to introduce a long list of complex efficiency measures. But the reality is simpler.

The unions are essentially demanding that the Minister for Transport come in, and write a big fat cheque so that these demonstrably inefficient work practices can continue.

An inequitable deal for the taxpayer

It is understandable that many people will have sympathy for this position. The drivers work hard, have a lot of responsibility and provide an essential service. However, it is worth remembering that the average take-home pay of a Bus Éireann driver is well in excess of the average industrial wage.

Therefore taxpayers, the majority of whom earn significantly less than the drivers in question, are being asked to foot the bill for the maintenance of terms and conditions which are indisputably generous by industry standards.

A right to strike?

16/9/2016. European Day Without Road Deaths Transport Minister Shane Ross has faced repeated calls to intervene personally to help resolve the dispute. Source: Sam Boal

It is a common assertion that the drivers are perfectly entitled to defend their livelihoods and withdraw their labour should they choose, even if that course of action makes the likelihood of the company’s insolvency even more immediate.

I would wholeheartedly agree that every citizen has the right to advocate on their own behalf or, in the case of union leaders, on behalf of their members. But when the defence of archaic work practices, however lucrative for the workers, means using the resources of the state (buses, rolling stock, depots) to disrupt the lives and livelihoods of the wider society, this “right” must be called into question.

If a widespread transportation strike goes ahead next week it will cause a great deal of distress and inconvenience for the travelling public, but will also cause very real damage to a fragile economy.

For the many businesses out there that are operating at the margin, who depend on Bus Éireann to deliver footfall, it will cause some to go out of business altogether and the loss of many jobs. I would argue that nobody has the “right” to do that.

Red Herrings

The transport unions are masters at conflating issues of no relevance to suit their agenda and this dispute has been no exception.

For months the unions have been organising public meetings to highlight the “fact” that the proposed reforms in Bus Éireann are a threat to rural Ireland’s public transport network.

In reality, the National Transport Authority has been at pains to point out that any service that is withdrawn or rationalised by the semi-state company, will be assessed for required capacity and a replacement service licence will be put out to tender immediately.

Another is the unions’ contention that the company’s finances are not in the red because of inefficient and outdated work practices but because of an inadequate subvention. This completely ignores that fact that the “Expressway” service which operates on commercial routes is not eligible for a single cent of state subvention due to competition law.

Private operators

But the greatest red herring of all has been that the financial losses at Bus Éireann have been caused by the Government’s policy of deregulation of small parts of the bus network and the introduction of competition from private operators.

The introduction of these commercial routes has in fact increased capacity significantly, led to a dramatic increase in passenger numbers using buses, and the creation of many jobs in the sector that would otherwise not exist. A phenomenal achievement given much of this took place during the economic crash.

If you need a perfect example of why deregulation benefits wider society, take note of the fact that the only people in rural Ireland with a functioning bus service come Monday, will be those that are served by private operators.

The great irony of industrial disputes which seek to protect a small group of vested interests at the expense of the greater public, is that they only hasten the inevitable deregulation of the protected sectors and the break-up of monopolies and oligopolies.

The Bigger Picture

The next few days will have long lasting consequences for our society. If the Minister concedes to the unions’ demands and pumps taxpayers’ funds into a company with a proven inability to manage its own finances when faced with any sort of competition, it will set a very dangerous precedent.

It will send a clear message to the entire semi-state sector: management can drive their finances off a cliff, workers can engage in naked rent seeking activity and the taxpayer will be ever-ready to pick up the tab.

Paddy is a Fine Gael councillor representing Rathgar-Rathmines on Dublin City Council. He is a member of the council’s Transport Committee and is the proposer of a number of sustainable transport initiatives currently being developed by the council. He is also a practicing GP.

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Paddy Smyth

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