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Holding Luas strikes on such important days will cost other workers dearly

Unions need to realise it’s not 1913 anymore. There are laws and institutions to protect workers now, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

THIS WEEK AN au pair who was paid €100 a week plus room and board for her long hours of service was awarded €9,229 by the Workplace Relations Commission. The ruling has thrown an old casual type of employment into turmoil by raising the spectre of paying au pairs the minimum wage at least for the work.

The result, for better or for worse, did not take a mass walk out of all the au pairs in the country to achieve. The front doors of houses in leafy suburbs were not locked by feckless employers, no privileged children had to go unwashed to reach a satisfactory outcome.

The ongoing Luas debacle shows equally eloquently how modern unions have turned more into protection rackets than a genuine safety net for employees.

It’s not 1913 

Trade union heads like to believe that we still live in 1913.

There are some unions who are always itching for an “action”, viewing the world as a zero sum game of screwing the big barons of industry.

As the case of this au pair so eloquently illustrates however, we live in an era where the rule of law and institutions exist to protect workers in a way that Jim Larkin could only dream of.

Trade unions today are mostly active in the public sector. The Luas is operated by a private sector company, but on a public contract; and SIPTU was given the exclusive right to organise workers as part of the deal that stopped other transport workers striking over the inception of the Luas in the first place.

10/2/2016. Luas Tram Strikes Source: Leah Farrell

When one looks at the pay and conditions of many workers that the unions look after, it is difficult to disagree with Brendan Ogle’s famous utterance about the ESB workers he represented at the time as head of their union: They’re spoilt.

They certainly live in a different world to the rest of us, when asking for a 50% pay increase to drive a tram is considered reasonable. That the claim has been dropped to 30% shows that these are not workers on the breadline; they’re negotiators who believe in tough brinkmanship.

Pay increase demands

Start by asking for an extortionately high number, hold a few all out strikes on particularly important days and then hope that the poor punter will give in and think the slightly less extortionate number is a good deal.

Other unions, such as those representing rail and bus workers, are watching the Luas proceedings with interest. They’ll watch drivers get a few quid from Transdev and then use it as casus belli to feather their nests some more in CIE or elsewhere.

“Look,” unions will say, “the time of pay increases has returned.” They’ll ignore the fact that the consumer price index is flat. Cause and effect have no place in union thinking.

Unions tend to strike nowadays in order to get big increases, or to stop change. We’ve seen other transport workers strike over government plans to outsource more than just the Luas. An Post workers have received payments for changes to their working practices that actually make their jobs easier, like the introduction of sorting machines. This is not the work of protecting the downtrodden from feckless robber barons, it is the gamekeeper turned poacher.

18/02/2016. Luas Strike. Pictured Luas trams lined Source: Sam Boal

A role for unions 

There are still groups of workers who need a union, given their line of work. Unions still have a role to play as constructive partners, as we see done so successfully in Germany and elsewhere; where unions tend to be invested in the success of enterprise as a means for employment, rather than as a cash cow to be whipped to death.

I’m not sure that they would go looking for a multimillion pay increase at a time of price stagnation, while the company is – almost incidentally we might mention – losing money even before the €100,000 a day fines levied when the Luas can’t run due to strikes.

Luas workers have been poorly advised, it would seem. If Siptu and other unions think that a return to economic growth means they can all start putting in for their 30%, rather than working constructively to help spread the recovery in a sustainable fashion, then maybe we need to take a look at clipping their wings.

Allowing them to bring the capital city to great disruption, at a cost of millions in economic activity that will cost other workers dearly, for a claim that is not sustainable; particularly if they get their way on the Luas and other classes of union pile in to see if they can get the same cash on their own patches.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can follow him on Twitter here.    

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