Peter Bunting's charismatic and articulate leadership of the National Bus and Railworkers Union (NBRU), especially during this year's CIÉ workers' strike for better wages, has brought him to prominence him as one of the most competent trade union activists in Ireland today. Here, Bunting speaks to An Phoblacht's Michael Pierse about transport, trade unionism and the Irish Locomotive Drivers Association (ILDA).
Peter Bunting is a native of Andersonstown in West Belfast who once trained as a Christian Brother and came to Dublin in the early 1970s. He has a degree in politics and business from Trinity College Dublin and is studying by correspondence for a Master's in industrial relations at Keele University. His involvement with the civil rights movement, along with his republican views, were widely publicised during the March/April NBRU strike this year, as was his fierce independence from the wider trade union fraternity. However, the 49-year-old has long been active as a trade unionist, since 1975 in fact. He became President of the NBRU in 1980 and General Secretary of the organisation in 1992.
The NBRU has traditionally been characterised by its `cultural difference' from other trade unions, though ``this has blurred in recent years'', Bunting says. ``It was certainly evident in the `60s, `70s and `80s after we split with the ITGWU. We entered a period of isolation.''
Bunting's organisation now numbers about 2,800 members among CIÉ's 9,700 employees. It represents the majority of drivers in Bus Éireann, Dublin Bus and Iarnród Éireann. ``We are actually different when it comes to the quality of our representation,'' says Bunting. ``Our reps are all employees or ex-employees of CIÉ. That means that bus workers are the ones making decisions and negotiating on behalf of bus workers and so on.''
You will never receive media friendly coverage if you're attached to CIÉ. But the ILDA have a very poor leadership, they read the situation wrongly
Bunting seems eager to downplay the tensions that arose between the NBRU and other unions during this year's strike. He and Noel Dowling of SIPTU are said to be as different as chalk and cheese. Bunting also castigated the ICTU General Secretary, Peter Cassells, and SIPTU President Des Geraghty during the year for attempting to ``demonise'' his members. ``Obviously there were certain statements made by the likes of those in ICTU, which were understandable,'' he says. ``They had just negotiated the PPF and wanted to stand by it. SIPTU, particularly in the bus industry, were quite good. The future of the CIÉ is most important. The bigger picture is the protection of the job security of everyone in CIÉ.''
Bunting is adamant that privatisation of the transport system is not an option in mapping out the future course of Irish transport. ``Even for the consumer,'' he says, ``it's well known. Of course, it depends on what side of the economic fence you're from, but empirical evidence shows privatisation brings a net loss for the consumer.''
It may not be the best transport system, but it is also the least funded transport system in the so-called `First World'
On the recent strike by the Irish Locomotive Drivers' Association (ILDA), Bunting shows little sympathy. ``A little strange that. This is a very open trade union; anyone with a grievance can have it dealt with. The membership of the NBRU has increased by three or four hundred in recent months, and I find it a paradox that 50 train drivers should find that the union is not meeting their demands.''
The ILDA had been accused of a lack of solidarity with other rank-and-file CIÉ workers, when they decided to represent only the interests of drivers. While Bunting does show some empathy with the striking ILDA members over the caustic media coverage they received , he also believes that the union itself must bear some of the blame. ``You will never receive media friendly coverage if you're attached to CIÉ. But the ILDA have a very poor leadership; they read the situation wrongly.
``When we took action, we had a series of rolling industrial actions that didn't impact in the same way on the consumer. This allows space for negotiation and less actual hardship for the membership themselves. The only time you'll win is when you receive public support. My opinion is very subjective, but what we were looking for was benefits for every CIÉ worker.
``A deal was done which was obviously acceptable to a great number of drivers. But I would also have some empathy with the ILDA strikers. They have been through a long difficult strike. Having been through one, you don't want to see anyone else suffer the same thing.''
Rumours abounded recently that Bunting has been pushing for the NBRU to become involved in the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), from which it has so far strategically exempted itself. Like the ILDA, the NBRU originally emerged as an ``illegal'' breakaway union in the 1960s, when it separated from the ITGWU. Claims printed in last month's Phoenix alleged that Bunting has his eye on a job with the ICTU, but Bunting told An Phoblacht that these decisions would be made by the NBRU membership and pointed to the difficulties, as well as the advantages, that a possible alignment would pose. ``You need a balanced approach. By balanced I mean that you balance your militancy with a research-based strategy. We need some kind of back up in terms of our research.
``For a long time we were excluded from a broad trade union movement and some of our members did not get the chance to explore other issues - like racism, public transport issues, the marginalisation in our society.
``When a forum was set up by the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness (PPF) on public transport, I was nominated by the ICTU. A benefit to being involved is that it gives you an opportunity to have a say. What we have to remember is that we rebelled against the social partnerships of 1979 and 2000, but in all the intervening years we accepted the laid-down wage increases. It came from the split and then being told that you would not be allowed into the ICTU. There is an independent streak there.''
He points to the wall, heavy with pictures of past union leaders who maintained their independence from other unions. ``The Chinese generals are there. Who would have rebuffed them? But things have changed. The membership have changed, and so the old animosities have died through time.''
But what of the wider trade union movement, and the philosophy behind it? Is it not so relevant in our `Tiger Economy'? ``You can be very subjective,'' says Bunting. ``Possibly, it's like the life cycle. Sometimes solidarity is more easily garnered than in other times. In this time of boom, there are difficulties. When you talk about a trade union beaureaucracy, an elite, one has to realise that they are all democratic organisations. All of us at some stage become removed from the membership.
``It is very difficult for the working class person to accept, especially when they heard the likes of Haughey and his `tighten your belts', now knowing what they know about the skulduggery that was going on, that we should all be very happy with the trade union movement. They have soured the view of the whole political process. Political corruption creates allegations of the cosy cartel or a trade union elite.
``There is a movement afoot - the bus workers, the Gardaí, the nurses - to redress the balance. This is nothing new. The boom in the sixties also brought forth a decade of upheaval.''
One of the main problems facing the trade unions now is globalisation, Peter believes. ``In the old manufacturing industry you, the worker, had all the control. Now they're not totally reliant on the workers. Even the trade union movement itself has evolved. We have to change and review ourselves.
``You must communicate on a very regular basis with the membership. It's a fundamental requirement for a successful trade union, communication. You must bring people along with you. Nobody has a monopoly about what's right and what's wrong; there needs to be more inclusion.''
Bunting finds the spread of funding on transport inequitable, claiming that rural areas are the ``Cinderellas'' of the public transport service. ``Areas which have been denuded of their population are worst hit. You have a scenario where old people are provided with free public transport passes, with no transport system to use them on. There are huge rations of funding for Dublin, as compared to Cork, Galway, Athlone, Dundalk and Kildare. Money is instead being allocated to the building of roads - so that we can have more cars.
``The difficulty I find with a lot of people - the likes of Jim Mitchell calling CIÉ workers a `millstone around the necks of the taxpayer' - is that it may not be the best transport system, but it is also the least funded transport system in the so-called `First World'. In Chicago, where they have a privately owned transport system, they still receive more from the public purse.
``Funding the bus system is the medium-term solution. Increased financing is probably insufficient; the infrastructure is incapable of sustaining the public transport system. By 1998 there were supposed to be 10 quality bus corridors completed in Dublin; to date there are only two.
``The private car lobby and others see public transport in competition. There are a number of Dublin traders who don't want a quality bus corridor. In Manor Street they put up signs in the windows saying they don't want it.''
Bunting is supportive of plans to place a toll on motorists driving between the two canals in Dublin. ``The Consultants Report commissioned by the Department of the Environment recommended road-pricing between the two canals, but there has been very little comment publicly. This again is evidence of the power of the private car lobby. Road pricing will become a fact of life and the sooner it's introduced the better.''
Statistics from the OECD estimate that 6% of Ireland's Gross Domestic Product is wasted on traffic gridlock, while Dublin pays $1 billion through external costs for the same. ``This is increasing,'' says Bunting. ``There has to be a huge change in the mindset.''
The NBRU leader accepts that CIÉ workers must also be open to change. He gives public transport franchising initiatives a cautious welcome, but is suspicious of the tendering system. ``Everyone accepts, and it is part of our recent deal, that there will be some sub-contracting. But what we have agreed is that every one bus sub-contracted will be accompanied by the purchase of another two buses for CIÉ - in effect we will be growing in tandem with the franchise.
``But there is a need for a regulating committee for the whole tendering system. There has long been a culture of greed and brown envelopes, where those in control of the tendering system manipulate it for their own ends,'' he says. ``I'm not so sure we should be going down that road immediately. We need to debate the whole process of who's in charge of awarding these licenses to people. In my opinion, CIÉ are the only people who can do that.''
So, in the unlikely event that Peter Bunting is appointed as the next Minister for Public Enterprise, what will he do? ``Well, those measures that I've mentioned already - tolls, more investment, a regulating committee for the tendering system. I would also reccommend a regulatory body for public transport, with a range of people charged with different aspects - CIÉ, trade unions, the Gardaí, business representatives, and the Corporation and County Councils. There was actually a transportation task force set up in 1976/'77, but it never got going. A new regulating committee should have all-embracing powers to overrule any bureaucracies that are inhibiting transportation needs. Having set up that committee, I would also secure more equitable funding for public transport in this country.
``One thing that annoys me about the current minister is the lack of confidence she inspires. She tells workers that there is is not a job for life, and this has a devastating impact on morale. Why should people then adapt to change? If you don't have a committed, dedicated workforce, then how can you meet the needs of customers?''