THERE’S AN OLD observation about how baggage handlers in airports never go on strike while the kids are in school. This week, in the height of the August season with tall ships and concerts in town, the DAA and taxi unions somehow created a royal mess at Dublin Airport. Service was withdrawn for several days and people trying to exit the airport were held up by go-slow drive-around protests.
Some trade unions have a particularly blunt and outdated approach to getting what they want, which usually boils down to thrashing around like a five year old who isn’t allowed get sweets until somebody relents.
That the airport should become the scene of such protests is highly regrettable, given that the first impression many visitors to Ireland had during the week was of French-style industrial dispute and inconvenience added to their travel plans. The dispute has also done little to add love to the struggles of taxi drivers in today’s overcrowded market, coming on heel of previous go-slow protests and given the particulars of the dispute in question.
The DAA withdrew some of the taxi overflow capacity at the airport, maintaining that the capacity that was originally put in at the opening of Terminal 2 was temporary and that there is less passenger traffic (something the DAA doesn’t usually like to admit) and fewer taxi permit holders for working the airport today than then. Of course, being the shining beacon of efficiency and care that the DAA is, one can well believe taxi drivers who claim that the move was made in a cack-handed manner.
Toys from the pram
Nevertheless, the reasoning for reducing the capacity was sound. Anecdotal stories from taxi unions and others about wait times of up to two hours to get a fare in Dublin Airport would suggest that there is too much waiting capacity out there.
In the end, the escalation of the dispute seems to have been more about poor communication and the various parties throwing their toys from the pram than anything else. The resolution to the dispute, from what we’ve been told, is that the spaces will be returned to service for a period of two weeks and then phased out again. In other words, after several days of major disruptions and posturing we will end up precisely where we began.
Taxi union members are no better or worse off working the airport today than this time last week, but they did lose out on several days of fares and plenty of face. This is symptomatic of the problem in a lot of unions in Ireland, which do not act in accordance with the best interests of their members while pursuing poorly thought out strategies for industrial relations.
The leadership of the union didn’t think their game plan through. It’s a problem in many unions, where leaders have signed up to deals in the past that deliver plenty of gravy and minimise the results expected; and deals in the present day that work against the desires of their members on the ground.
Bought and paid for
Any nursing union for example that is signed up to the Croke Park Agreement has to content itself with watching their own staff members worked harder and harder under more distressing conditions because no nurses can be replaced in the recruitment freeze.
Meanwhile, we have other unions joined in that agreement that are working hard to protect jobs in unnecessary quangos and state bureaucracies. That’s natural for them, but for nurses on the ground who can’t provide sufficient levels of care to their patients there is a real frustration at the silence of their union leadership – a silence bought and paid for by Croke Park.
The trade union movement in Ireland has auspicious roots linking it back to the struggle, essentially, for a fair deal for Irish people, be it in work or nationhood. Unions formed in an age when workers really did need protection from many employers and they played a strong role in humanising our society and creating a proper balance between work and life.
Fast forward however and today many unions are as conservative in their ways as gentrified country club members are in theirs. More often than protecting workers from unscrupulous employers, the unions exist to protect the status quo and demand a pay increase any time anything changes. It doesn’t fit with the dynamic world we live in, where we have strong laws to protect workers, but job descriptions grow and change just as quickly as business models for companies do.
Many unions don’t protect the weak, but shelter the weak willed and the lazy. Some of the most ardent union heads are the useless workers who if there were two people to move three boxes would make sure you picked up the first and they the second.
Out in the cold
From the horse’s mouth itself came the words of Brendan Ogle, chief shop steward at the ESB. The best paid electricity workers in the world are “spoiled” with so much “gravy” he told a gathering of left-wing republicans one day. “You wouldn’t know it listening to them some of the time but they are very privileged and lucky,” said a man on whom the Gods also smile kindly: €80,000 a year paid by the ESB, plus his office and expenses, to be their in-house union agitator (and chief salary negotiator on behalf of the workers) on secondment from Unite.
He isn’t the only man among the bastions of the left that are unions who aren’t all that adverse to their bit of gravy. For all the talk of the common worker, our top union heads take plenty multiples of the average industrial wage for themselves. We’re still trying to figure out where all the money we sent one union for training went, though what we can account for we know went on taxis to and from pubs and hotels.
Workers with real challenges rarely see them addressed properly, lost in the political gamesmanship of union leaders more interested in the next big negotiation. Meanwhile, our unions – when they do kick up – simply leave workers out in the cold struggling for causes they don’t always believe in, so that the men in their high towers can have their esoteric arguments and save face between the beginning and the end of a dispute.
Workers, who pay for what the golden geese grant themselves through their union subs and taxes, would be better off dumping the incompetent leaders and rotten structure of today’s unions in favour of new organisations that eschew the pseudo-socialists who have brought us to this situation where the vast majority of industrial disputes are about gravy and politics, not living and working.