Coalition can avoid winter of discontent
Ó Caoláin supports teachers wage claim
BY ROBBIE MacGABHANN
Nearly 50,000 rail passengers and up to 350,000 secondary school students had one day of work and study disrupted this week. Added to this is the disruption of travel plans for thousands of Aer Lingus passengers who will have to cope with a strike by 400 caterers at the airline this week.
The shutdown of the 26-County rail system was caused by the industrial action of 138 signalers, who went on strike in protest at changes in work practices that could leave them earning less money. In Galway, none of the local bus or Bus Éireann drivers would pass the signalers' pickets, so there was no public transport service at all in Galway for Tuesday, the day of industrial action.
If the Dublin Government think that by playing tough with teachers and signalers they will win other disputes, they have massively underestimated the anger felt throughout the labour force
Members of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) also took a day of industrial action, which shut down 620 schools across the 26 Counties. The ASTI is seeking a 30% wage rise. 90% of the 10,000 teachers who voted on the wage claim supported the industrial action taken.
In both of these disputes, the employer is effectively the Dublin Government and in both cases the government has sidestepped its responsibilities to negotiate fairly with its work force.
In the case of the teachers, the government has attempted to undermine the teachers' case, claiming in one example that they could not negotiate with the ASTI until ``the union assembles some kind of coherent case''. The ASTI had put off their day of strike action, giving the Department of Education until 10 November to begin negotiations on their claim. The department let the deadline pass, even though the gap between the two sides is not as great as would seem at first glance.
Teachers have already been offered a 19% wage increase as part of the Partnership for Prosperity and Fairness. The government had set up a benchmarking body chaired by High Court judge, Justice Quirke, to investigate the claims by all three teachers' unions for increases that reflect the rapid changes in the labour market in recent years. Teachers' wages now lag behind comparable work in the private sector.
The benchmarking body has yet to actually meet and the coalition government has hinted broadly that its work could be speeded up but still refuses to negotiate directly with the teachers.
Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin has backed the teachers' wage claim. He said this week that the Dublin Government should ``commence immediate discussions with the teachers on the pay claim''. According to the TD, ``the issue here is the quality of the education system, the most important element of which are well trained, highly motivated and properly paid teachers. This is an investment in our children and our future.''
Railroading the workers
If the issue in the teachers strike is one of acknowledging the skills and educational talent of teachers, the rail strike is one of basic social justice. Signalers have been putting in working weeks that regularly involve 60 hours of work and no rest days.
Iarnród Éireann must, as part of the EU's length of maximum working week legislation, reduce the number of hours worked by the signalers to 48 hours a week, still much longer than many other workers in the labour force today.
By working 60 hours a week, the signalers could boost their low salaries. They want under the new system to be paid a decent wage and have made a claim for wage rates of between £25,000 to £27,800.
There seems to be no recognition on the part of Iarnród Éireann management on their social responsibilities to these workers. Instead, their concern, articulated by human resources manager John Keenan, is the extra £1.4 million the claim would add to the company's £124 million annual wage bill.
Like the Department of Education, Iarnród Éireann let the clock run out and refused to negotiate with their workers. Now, in both cases, further industrial action is planned. The teachers are planning more one-day stoppages and a work to rule on yard supervision and extra curricular work. The signalers are planning two stoppages next week and there still seems to be no real sign of engagement on behalf of the Dublin Government.
One reason for this could be that there is a recognition in government circles that the PPF is in shreds and the industrial action taken by teachers, signalers, Aer Lingus staff and other public sector workers is symptomatic of a greater unease in the work force.
Throughout the public sector, especially in the less well paid categories, there are tens of thousands of workers who have been forced to work longer hours in difficult conditions with wage freezes and other constraints. Now there is an urgent need to make sure they have a fair wage today.
If the Dublin Government think that by playing tough with teachers and signalers they will win other disputes, they have massively underestimated the anger felt throughout the labour force. We don't need a winter of discontent. It is up to Bertie Ahern and his cabinet colleagues to ensure it doesn't happen.