Bus strike and the fight for public services

The support shown for striking Dublin Bus and Bus Eireann drivers over the May Bank holiday weekend illustrates the growing awareness within the working class of the threat privatisation presents to the common good. This new reality resulted in a media, less confident in rolling out its usual anti-public service worker rhetoric, being reduced to quoting employers groups complaining of decreases in foot fall in city centre shops in an attempt to attack the strike.

The campaigns to prevent the establishment of Irish Water, as a first stage in the privatisation of this utility, as well as the 2014 Greyhound Refuse dispute has educated many to the dangers of the privatisation agenda. In the lead up to the 48 hour strike, bus workers also effectively outlined to service users what will be the real impacts of privatisation; among them the eventual removal of free travel passes, the cutting back of services and realignment of bus routes to serve profit generation rather that community needs.

These wider social factors have reinforced the militancy of SIPTU and NBRU members who after accepting two rounds of cuts to their terms and conditions of employment in recent years, now face the prospect of being forced into working for private contractors. This threat resulted in over 90% of members of both unions voting for strike action in ballots during April.

At the core of the dispute is an attempt to privatise 10% of bus routes during 2016. If implemented this plan, drawn up by the National Transport Authority with the connivance of senior management in the bus companies, will see 10% of all Dublin Bus and Bus Eireann routes placed out to tender. This initial wave of privatisation in intended to involve 10% of bus routes in Dublin and the effective total privatisation of the service in Waterford City.

Despite attempts by the NTA to claiming it is forced into privatising a proportion of routes by EU directives, it is accepted that the agenda is being driven by the Government along with a cohort of neoliberal influenced senior managers in the bus companies and NTA.

Their claim is that the publicly owned companies can also ‘compete’ to for the routes being tendered. However, the tender terms are yet to be published but the NTA is refusing to remove workers’ wages from consideration, meaning that the agenda of driving down terms and conditions of workers while also defunding services through the cutting of the state subvention to bus transport till it is now one of the lowest in Europe, reveals the real aim is one of opening yet more public services to private capital.

Despite both unions stating publically their opposition to privatisation they did agree to engage in talks with the NTA, management and Department of Transport officials on the implementation of the tendering of 10% of routes. These talks, facilitated by the Labour Relations Commission, began last July. With no progress reported and the companies stating they intended to transfer drivers as well as buses to private contractors who successfully win the tenders, the talks broke down in April.

Prior to embarking on strike action, SIPTU outlined a six point agenda which would protect workers terms of employment and, its members hope, safeguard against a further privatisation of services. The NBRU has instigated legal proceedings challenging the NTA’s authority to undertake the tendering process.

In response the management of the bus companies have stated they intend to sue the unions claiming that they have breached the 1990 Industrial Relation Act by conducting a dispute which has gone beyond industrial relations issues and has the political aim of ending the Government endorsed policy of bus privatisation.

In the days leading up to the 48 hour bus strike over 1st and 2nd May, Fine Gael TD and Minister for Transport Paschal Donohue verbally stated that no bus drivers would be forcibly transferred to private contractors. This unspecified reassure is only a partial response to one of the drivers’ concerns. With further strike action set to commence on Friday, 15th May, the supporters of the neo-liberal agenda in Government and the State bureaucracy will have the choice of whether to curtail their privatisation push, for now, or attempt force it through in the face of growing union and public militancy.

As we publish this short overview of the strike SIPTU has confirmed that the planned strike tomorrow has been called off on the basis of an agreement reached in talks which deals with their 6 point plan. In their statement this evening they said:

Under the agreement, private operators will also have to comply with proposed legislation protecting public service provision  and the terms and conditions of transport workers or face sanctions, including possible loss of contract.  It was also agreed that public transport companies will not have to carry any legacy costs arising from the tendering of routes to private companies.

The protection of public services remains an ongoing struggle for workers, communities and unions.