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Aaron McKenna: Essential utilities like the ESB should be protected from strikes

Without power, our modern society cannot function normally – which is why workers at the ESB ought to be banned from striking and causing a total or partial power failure, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

THERE IS NEVER a good time for a power failure, be it during the cold of winter or the heat of summer. Usually a good storm will fell electricity cables and a town or area of a city will be cut off, leading to massive but localised disruption to homes, businesses and other essential services.

Without power, our modern society cannot function normally. There are the obvious problems that arise when places like hospitals are forced onto backup power generation and limiting their activities to the bare minimum. There is also the effect on particularly vulnerable individuals, such as the elderly, sick and infirm at home; who can rely on power for things like heat and a sense of security from something as basic as a functioning lightbulb.

Power outages have knock-on effects well beyond these immediate considerations and the inconvenience to everyone in having to live by candlelight. The Northeast blackout of 2003 in the United States and Canada, which saw a software bug knock out power to some 55 million people for up to two days, is a good case study of an albeit unexpected power cut.

Blackout shutdown

Some areas lost water pressure and others were forced onto water boil advisories because of contamination when critical parts of the water infrastructure lost power. Airports had to shut down or restrict activity because their emergency power generation could not sustain a full load of passengers being processed and screened. Many petrol station pumps ceased to work.

As the blackout lasted longer than many emergency power sources are designed to function, things like mobile phone towers began to shut down. Obviously most other communications were disrupted, in particular the internet.

Electricity-dependent public transport networks, similar to Dublin’s DART and Luas networks, shut down. Factories and businesses were forced to close, including most shops and restaurants. The emergency services in the area reported double the usual rate of call outs to fires, attributed to the increased use of candles in homes.

The Anderson Economic Group produced a study on the two-day blackout, estimating the cost to the economy at about $6.4 billion. Perhaps entirely apples and oranges, but (just for fun) translated into an Irish population context that would be about a €192 million per day cost of a nationwide blackout, or about €42 per person per day.

Even the threat of blackouts causes economic pain. After the 2003 blackout, many US companies reported shifting capital expenditure away from potentially job-creating efforts, such as expanding manufacturing facilities, into less efficient blackout mitigation efforts, like expanding their emergency power generation capacity.

A serious threat of widespread disruption

We are facing the serious threat of widespread disruption to the power supply in Ireland for the first time in over two decades as the row over the ESB pension fund trundles on.

The details of the dispute are well covered, and the colouring by both the company and unions much discussed. Yes, it’s true that we have some very highly paid electricity workers on average; and the head of their union was caught on tape in the past stating that they are a spoiled lot too used to gravy being poured from on high.

It’s also true that defined benefit pension schemes, such as the one under contention here, have run into a lot of trouble in recent times. It’s one of the reasons why they have been largely abandoned by all but the public sector for their ponzi-like unaffordable nature. ESB workers, however you may feel about their pay and conditions, are entitled to receive as much of what they have been promised in their working lives as is practicable. The ESB, unlike other companies where DB pension schemes have failed, is not in liquidation or likely to go to the wall thanks to its place as a state-owned partial monopoly.

This latter point, however, is also why workers at the ESB ought to be banned from striking and causing such disruption as a total or partial power failure would deliver the country. The ESB runs our power distribution network, and as such its few thousand workers have the ability to cripple the ability of the near 4.6 million of us to go about our daily lives.

There is no doubting that the company is a highly strategically important part of the national infrastructure. We bar the Gardai and the other security services from striking because, without them, the country would be in serious peril. We limit the ability of critical healthcare workers to strike, and by agreement there is always minimal cover provided when industrial action takes place in the sector to ensure that lives are not put at risk.

ESB workers are insulated

As they work for a semi-state company, workers at the ESB are also well insulated from nasty things like mandatory redundancies. The near monopoly nature of many of the critical functions the ESB Group still carries out both provides the workers with unparalleled security as well as the power to cripple the nation.

Barring workers at the ESB and other vital strategic organisations in the country is not unprecedented. Special arrangements can be made for such workers to have arbitration and protection beyond the norm in compensation for a limit or total bar on their ability to withdraw their labour. The simple position of being well-paid and insulated is also something of recompense for any limitations.

The ultimate solution is, of course, to end the monopolistic nature of the company and its ability to be a singular point of disruption to the entire economy. If our power infrastructure was spread out a little better, we wouldn’t have to limit the ability of workers to strike at all. It’s just that we’d see less disruption if they did.

In the meantime, or failing that, it is simply not viable to allow such a threat to our national well-being to sit in the hands of a few thousand people; no matter how justified their grievance over a pension pot.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

We’re interested in your ideas and opinions – do you have a story you would like to see featured in Opinion & Insight? Email opinions@thejournal.ie

Read: No resolution in sight as ESB workers serve strike notice

Read: ‘You have brought this industrial relations crisis’ – ESB unions blame bosses

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