In the summer of 1913, James Larkin called a general strike of the employees of the Dublin Tramway Company. It escalated to this point after William Martin Murphy owner of The Irish Independent, The Evening Herald, and of course the trams, banned workers from joining or being a member of Larkin’s union, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. History would remember Larkin’s decision to go on strike as an impressive and tactical bit of timing on his part, as it coincided with the opening day of the Dublin Horse Show; one of the busiest days for Dublin’s public transport. This led to an agreement between the majority of large business owners in Dublin locking out their workforce, causing riots, civil unrest, and very poor conditions, and lasted nearly six months.
One Hundred years later, three days before the Dublin Horse Show opens, the management of Dublin Bus introduce new cost cutting measures, which – after long debates with representatives from the unions representing the drivers, the inspectors, the cleaners, hospitality staff, the mechanics, and the clerical staff – were not agreed upon by the majority of their workforce.
The recommendations, made by the Labour Court, came into effect at midnight on the 4th of August, with a prescript that any driver working at that time would be counted to have agreed to the cuts. With this in mind any route that would lead to a driver finishing after twelve was cancelled, including the Nightlink services which are busiest on a Saturday night. A strike is now in effect with all services stopped for the foreseeable future.
Since 2009 representatives for the workers at the company have been involved in talks with the government, the directors, and the labour courts, and have so far made a saving of 25 million euro in overall annual expenditure. This saving has taken the form of a reduction of 20% of staff in areas such as maintenance and clerical staff, as well as drivers, and a reduction in the number of people working per day, as well the reduction in the number of routes and merging of others. And of course; in the raising of prices.
The triplets that are Dublin Bus, Iarnrod Eireann, and Bus Eireann receive 10% of their annual funding from government sources, the rest it must make themselves in the form of revenue from their services. This is also to be reduced by a further 4% in the next annual budget. Bigger European countries, such as Germany, provide near 70% towards their public transport, but in Ireland, their simply isn’t the money. So the company must cut back further. This has taken the form of a range of benefit cuts mostly in relation to wages on Bank Holidays, Sundays, and other public holidays, and a reduction in the number of rest days. While this may seem like a small sacrifice for the greater cause that is austerity; the workers Dublin Bus feel like they can’t be pushed any further.
It is very important to note that the people most affected by these cuts are not the drivers, but the maintenance and clerical staff. On average a member of the maintenance crew would earn nearly 28,000 a year, before tax. And the majority of them must support families, in a slowly inflating economy. They make up a great deal for this low wage by working overtime, bank holidays and Sundays, as well as doing arduous night shifts. These cuts mean that their basic wage will lower even further, without a cut to the wages themselves. Though the cuts are coupled with a new lower wage packet for new employees.
This strike isn’t about skimping over a few extra numbers at the end of a week, for some families it can mean the difference between rent or mortgage payments. But also it goes even further, coupled with this is an overall reduction in the number of sick days from 7 a year to 4. Within a mandatory limit of two within 6 months of a calendar year. In relative terms, if I was sick in August, then again in September, anytime I was sick for the rest of that year would have to be explained by a doctor’s note, which has to be paid for. So you are given 4 sick days, but after June you will only be able to use two of them until the following January. As well as longer working hours, increase in the number of working days, the list goes on. Essentially work more, for less, which, they have been doing since 2009.
These are all facts which the everyday person doesn’t know, thanks to clever misrepresentation by the government and media, never publishing exactly what the dispute is about, and the under-representation by the unions and their supporters in the political left wing, who get the truth out in dribs and drabs, barely explaining themselves to anyone, or at least to anyone who is listening.
And so, a city has ground to a halt. With management blaming drivers, newspapers blaming drivers, and inevitably ordinary people – who rarely have good words to say anyway – blaming drivers. Like 1913 this is a complicated issue, this isn’t simply a tyrannical company, forcing its workers into poor conditions; this is a company who are being pressed, and pressed and pressed to make more and more savings, stuck between a government who are looking for a good enough reason to privatise them, and work force who simply cannot take anymore. But striking rarely wins you any favours with the populace, and with support, what hope do they have. Personally, I would call it a dumb move, if they didn’t have any other choice.
1913 was the first instance of blanket industrial action that this country had ever seen, and initially it was a failure. Months and months went by as the people got poorer and poorer, until eventually one by one they drifted back to work, defeated. But it enabled new systems to be brought in; unions no longer were illegal and eventually became protected under law, as a necessary thing to represent workers’ rights. But what will this strike achieve? With the Bank Holiday weekend, the disruption is likely to continue until at least Tuesday, and then we will begin to see which side the dice will land. The company, and the government won’t roll back on doing what it feels is necessary, really they know that the longer the strike continues the more public opinion will sway against the workers, and even if they do concede on some points, what will that mean for other sectors? Ireland’s, economy is in recession and their simply isn’t enough money, and even less money that is being spent wisely.
But what if they don’t concede, what if the workers don’t lose their nerve, how long could this go on? How far could it spread? During protests in 1913 there were riots on the streets, people living off scraps. Who will come out in sympathy, or even in defence of their own jobs? I’m sure there are people in the opposition, particularly the SWP and PBP that are waiting – even hoping – for this, but none of this really helps the everyday person, they trudge along complaining, but content to put up with it. What happens when they get pushed too far, what happens when they can’t take anymore?
But sure this is Ireland, it’ll all be grand, we just have to knuckle down, and we’ll make it through.