May 28, 2008
Yesterday, I asked a Dart driver and a ticket master what they thought of the action of their colleagues in Cork, expecting an element of workers’ solidarity. They both rolled their eyes to the heavens and in rather colourful language suggested that the ‘strike’ and the ‘strikers’ were a disgraceful joke.
The problem is the joke is on us, the people who use the trains and pay taxes to pay the salaries of the striking drivers and the cost of the shiny new trains they are driving — or not driving. If these drivers were in the private sector they would be dismissed; they may have a right to air grievances, but this action is outrageous and unwarranted. No company can operate on the terms these Cork train drivers are demanding.
The national rail network is a strategic state asset. It is a piece of crucial infrastructure that should not be hijacked by a small bunch of malcontents in Cork’s Kent Station. It is about time the consumer came first, rather than the present nonsense of our railway company pussyfooting around a few workers who have decided to hold the place to ransom.
Let’s deal with the issue here. These train drivers get paid â‚¬52,000 a year. This is just over 30pc above the average industrial wage. They are working in an expanding business and their terms and conditions of work — as measured by the â‚¬177m spent on new trains for the Dublin to Cork line alone — have improved. Passenger numbers are up on the line by 15pc this year and, with a new Cork to Midleton service due to start next year, opportunities for drivers are increasing.
Given the improvement in the rail network, and the fact that now there are trains from Dublin to Cork every hour, there is a demand for new drivers.
In fact, the number of train drivers on the network has increased by 50pc in the past decade. For many workers on the railways who might have lived and worked through decades when there was no investment in the network, these past few years have been a golden age of opening lines, new fleets and increased business.
None of this seems to matter to some of the lads in Cork. For example, the train drivers in Cork apparently responded to the introduction of the new trains by suggesting they should get a productivity-related pay increase because (a) the trains were new and (b) as they went a bit faster the drivers were achieving more miles per hour.
In contrast, drivers on the Sligo, Westport and Limerick lines welcomed the new investment unreservedly. This raises the question about whether there is a specific problem in Cork? Whether there is or not, the past few days reveals a picture of industrial anarchy.
On Thursday, one of the drivers was asked to drive an empty train while trainee drivers watched how he manned the controls from the cab. He refused to do so and walked off the job. He was taken off the payroll. On hearing this, another driver, with a train full of passengers in Heuston bound for Cork, walked out of the cab, leaving the passengers stranded. (Unfazed, he caught the next train home!) This is the behaviour of a poor man’s Arthur Scargill! I though the Partnership apparatus was supposed to have eradicated all 1970s tripe. The lesson from recent economic history is that the management has to run the company, not the drivers.
And no matter when this sorts itself out, this must be the upshot — otherwise we have a recipe for chaos.
The lukewarm response from the main unions suggests that they are not enamoured by the action of the Cork comrades. It’s now time for the mainstream unions — those who can see the big picture and the national interest — to lean on their members in Cork.
There is already a Labour Court recommendation that the unions have signed up to that allows the company to ask drivers to drive any train during work hours. So the Cork drivers are in direct breach of this. Open and shut case.
Presumably, we are close to the endgame on this saga. The company does not want to face an escalated problem when they are trying to expand the national service. The mainstream unions have no interest in supporting an insupportable cause.
However, while the small cabal of drivers in Cork has disproportionate power, it’s possible they might be indulged so that everyone can back down, yet save face. It’s a sort of a Saipan meets Thomas the Tank Engine farce where we, the passengers, suffer while both sides tip-toe around each other. The standoff will be solved, but some major peculiarities have been exposed.
The most baffling issue in this whole saga is why a driver would not train other drivers — particularly if his job is secure and the new drivers are needed to roll out a new service?
For many people, passing on knowledge and experience to others is normal human instinct. It’s what we do. It’s a sign of status and competence — something to feel proud of and what most of us value. It takes a very odd view of the world and a most narrow interpretation of work to behave like this.
Do these rebel drivers hate their jobs so much or bear such grievances against the company and their co-workers to carry on so childishly? They clearly have contempt for the passengers — the people who pay their wages — if they are happy to strike over something so inconsequential and leave thousands stranded. What sort of “us-and- them” distorted class war is playing out in their heads? These are men whose jobs are secure and who earn â‚¬1,000 a week or more! They are hardly the victimised proletariat of old.
One thing is sure: they and their mindset is not what this country needs right now. If you take a stroll around Cork and digest just how much the city has changed, you will appreciate that the type of closed, proprietorial mentality that is threatened by passing on its knowledge to others is a thing of the past.
We now live in a flexible world, where work practices have to change and where the service industry demands that people behave in a reasonable fashion. If your job is not under threat, and your wage is decent, what is the problem?
Given the downturn and the rapid rise in unemployment, there are plenty of people who would happily swap places with the “‘put-upon’ drivers of Kent Station. Maybe someone at the Labour Relations Commission should remind them of the big picture.