SIPTU members at Shanganagh Waste Water Treatment Plant, Co.
What lies behind the Bord na Mona strike?
At first sight the Bord Na Mona dispute looks like a normal industrial relations conflict. 1,500 union members have taken strike action because their company is refusing to pay out awards they are entitled to.
Workers should have received a 3.5 percent pay rise in 2008 under the terms of the ‘Towards 2016’ agreement. Other semi-state workers such as those in Bord Gais and ESB got these increases even as the wider public sector was facing pay cuts. At the time, the FF-Green government calculated that they could be met with serious industrial action if they broadened out their attacks. So in a tactical move, they granted semi-state workers their pay rises – knowing that they would come back for them later.
The Bord na Mona workers were an exception. They have been back and forth at the Labour Relations Commission and the Labour Court for the past few years looking for their agreed rise. Then eventually, the company came back with a novel proposal.
The workers could receive a 1.75 percent increase and maximum back pay of €1.00. But the rest of the 1.75 percent, which was due, would appear as a ‘change and reward’ rise. It would not be included in calculations for pensions or overtime and, it later transpired, could be withdrawn if workers did not make sufficient changes.
Despite the recommendations of the union leaders, the workers rejected this shabby offer and voted for strike action.
Pickets are a comparatively rare sight in Ireland today. But the reaction of passers-by at the Newbridge head-office was overwhelmingly positive. ‘Good on you for standing up for yourselves – we should all be doing this and taking on the government’ was the most common response. But there are exceptions. An avid consumer of the establishment propaganda worked himself up into a froth of anger. ‘You should be ashamed of yourselves – you are privileged to even have a job’ he shouted.
Behind the immediate dispute there are much deeper issues at stake. Bord na Mona workers have put up with a Thatcherite management in recent years and they have had enough. A new CEO, Gabriel D’Arcy, took over the reins in 2008 and began a peculiar business speak about ‘leadership.’ D’Arcy , a former captain in the Irish army, thinks that ‘vested interests’ like trade union should not have a right to nominate people to state boards but that this should be left to ‘competent’ people who have commercial success.
A consultancy company was introduced into Bord na Mona called Proudfoot Consultancy. They in turn echoed back the usual business speak about ‘effective change management’ and ‘leadership from the front’ to engage staff. Yet, strangely, after providing their expensive advice, some of the ‘consultants’ stayed on as managers in Bord Na Mona.
It led to a deliberate strategy to weaken and marginalise unions. Basic standards of decency that workers have come to expect are being undermined.
‘I am striking today’ one worker explained, ‘not just over money. But it galls me how young people who are highly skilled have been taken on at lower pay rates and are expected to grovel to senior management’.
The aggressive style of management has produced its own informal speak. The word from on high is that there is a certain dissatisfaction with ‘lifers’. This little piece of jargon refers to older workers who have served twenty, or thirty years in the firm. Some have even been told that their effectiveness lasts only five years.
Over the longer term, the company has been trying to move to individual pay rates. They want to abolish salary scales and replace them with individual negotiation of contracts. Linked to this will be an attempt to shift to performance related pay. The trick here is that one’s ‘performance’ is defined by your line manager – so it encourages a grovelling to get the right report.
Like many workers who have experienced a rhetoric about ‘change management’ and ‘effective leadership’, Bord Na Mona staff are left wondering about why it has not delivered results. Before the new era, the company was a solid semi-state that gave reasonable employment. But now huge investments have been made into products that are not delivering great results. Fire-magic , for example, was hailed as the great ‘innovative’ product but, sadly, appears to be something of a flop.
The new aggressive style of management at Bord na Mona is a harbinger of things to come. In Dublin Bus, Bus Eireann and Irish Rail a similar style of attack is emerging. Having softened up and demoralise many public sector unions, the agenda is shifting to the semi states.
The good news is that workers will not take it lying down. The resistance of Bord No Mona workers is a sign that life is returning to the unions. It needs to grow and expand.
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