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The strike action at Dublin Bus is more significant and more serious than most commentators seem to imagine. This is because it calls into question the quasi-constitutional understanding of industrial relations and the central role of trade unions within that.

Leaving aside the layers of rules and institutions developed over decades so that industrial relations can be orderly and manageable, there is a base and it is this: a trade union involved in strike action cannot be sued by the company for the recovery of strike-related losses. It’s old (It was formative in the birth of the Labour Party.) it’s been effective and it’s generally supported. There are two groups who dislike it. Firstly, there are free marketeers who argue that it is restrictive. Secondly, there are leftists who see that it institutionalises unions within a capitalist economy. They are both right.

In short, the state has privileged most strike actions so that strikes can be resolved while causing relatively little disruption to the wider social system. The privileged or legitimate strike action is one directed by workers and unions against their employers. If the action extends beyond that, the union no longer enjoys state protection. If there is a strike in support of something over which the employer has no control, the Union is no longer protected by statute and could be held liable for losses.

This is where the bus strike gets very serious. It is clearly a political strike and it has been made so by government policy in giving the Transport Authority control over bus routes. The bus workers want to maintain their conditions and pay, and have struck against their employer to prevent the privatisation of routes. Their employer of course is subject to the Transport Authority and certainly cannot control the pay of workers in private bus companies.

It’s not at all clear what the privatisation is meant to achieve. The Minister says that the tendering plan is aimed at creating “competitive tension in the market” and that this will in some unexplained way deliver “greater value” and “more choice for passengers”. Clearly this is a fine example of complete bollocks, no more than the mumbled prayer of a dogmatic advocate of markets. Journalism however shares the dogma; media interviews, in failing to make any challenge, are cementing a baseless belief into the wall of common sense.

What we have is the potential to place at risk a developed and trusted system of industrial relations so that there will be “competitive tension” in public transport. The risk is real because according to reports the bus company is seriously considering suing the unions for losses. Now, those who want no connection between the state and unions would rejoice in awarding damages to the company but the rest of us who rely on good industrial relations practice do not want to lose a century of progress.

This confrontation must be avoided. This means refusing to listen to clichés about returning to negotiations. The workers and management within the company cannot negotiate a solution. The solution lies elsewhere in a public discussion of “competitive tension” and in the event that the term is not only meaningful but demonstrably and greatly advantageous, then the state must move to institute pay rates and conditions (a registered employment agreement) across the public transport industry. Again, a confrontation which jeopardises the very basis of industrial relations must be avoided.

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