May 28, 2008

These rebel train drivers need a short, sharp shunt

Posted in Ireland · 29 comments ·

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 €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 €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 €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.

  1. Marcus

    I am from Cork and for a long time this has been a local and national farce. I am sure that the people involved are limited in numbers and are acting in their own interests rather than their colleagues nationwide. Unfortunately we live in a society that fosters greed and so people don’t realize how good they have it until it’s taken away. I am not one for drastic measures but the government needs to act very strongly in this case. These workers are criminals just taking the piss and should be isolated and removed via any means. If this were china they would be taken out and shot. As a representative of the peoples republic I condemn the action of my fellow Corkonians and apologize to the nation(except the people that missed the Celin Dion concert,the drivers were doing you a favour there). In our defense, the culprits who will be caught and reprimanded are from outside the city walls (mallow)and are a bit slow and not familiar with our modern ways. Viva le Peoples Republic.

  2. B

    I used three train services today. I was not going near Cork but was rather uneasy. Its far more convenient and less stressful than the car but the possibility of being stranded by some of our bearded brethern at the drop of a hat or if you look at them the wrong way is always on my mind.

    Even in France the trains run. I know they strike but at least they have rules. Here we do not and holding the public to ransom is the name of the game.

    The driver should be fired but if that happens its all out and then we have no trains. THE TRAINS WE ALL PAID FOR!

  3. VincentH

    I buy you a new shovel and tell you that your terms and conditions have improved. Then I tell you that I have new holes to dig so you will have new opportunities.
    We have had no rail disasters here for the longest time, due in large part to the dedication of these people. So to my mind they can be as bloodyminded as they want. And if you call anyone who moves one of those things a driver while at the same time calling those cretins attempting to mount roundabouts drivers. Well I think that a better word would be managers/directors, and payed as such. For that is what they are doing. And anyway are the Dort people qualified to mouth off.

  4. Fergus

    As a regular commuter between cork and dublin my travel plans were disrupted on Friday and again on monay, when I was forced to take the bus (5 hrs) and the plane(4 hrs door to door). So I am annoyed with the drivers. However, this is not an “open and shut” case David, and all we are getting is well paid corporate spin from Irish Rail versus a sincere but amateurish defence by the drivers’ unions.

    First, the number of services has indeed increased, but the number of drivers hired has not kept pace with those increases. Therefore, they have been asked to perform more tasks. Big deal, they have a safe job and it’s not like they work their socks off anyway. However, they did roster drivers to work on agreed rest days, so are effectively asking them to forgo their holidays.

    The drivers are have insurance concerns about training the new drivers, but management refuse to deal with these and other practical concerns.

    Finally, the drivers insist they want to return to work. In fact, they showed up for work but were not allowed on to the trains until they signed a document, essentially the management rubbing the drivers’ faces in the dirt. Anybody who thinks the management didn’t know this would be a provocation needs to put ideology to one side and have their heads examined. The drivers will work, but the management are enforcing a lock-out.

    In case anybody thinks I’m a bolshie class warrior, far from it. The drivers probably issued two weeks notice and given themselves time for a PR war, and they also have to accept that their conditions aren’t bad in the current climate. However, there is a long-running campaign in the press to denigrate public service unions as luddites blocking any sort of progress, which conveniently ignores the serious incompetence of public service management. In Cork, the local management seem to take their cues from the Frank Murhpy/Cork County Board school of bullying hostility, and we all know how far that nonsense goes……..

    And the manifest incompetence of our public service managerial class, especially that of Irish Rail, is first and foremost the fault of our FF Government.

  5. Fergus

    I should have said:

    However, they did roster drivers to work on agreed rest days, so are effectively asking them to forgo some of their holidays.

    The drivers should probably have issued two weeks notice and given themselves time for a PR war, nd they also have to accept that their conditions aren’t bad in the current climate.

    apologies for the mistakes

  6. Stephen Kenny

    You must admit that there’s a certain nostalgia to it all (I’m old): Grim faced picket lines, huge queues, righteous indignation on all sides, the sparring of socialist and capitalist dialectic, and those dustbins with fires in them. The good old days, or something. (reaches for cloth cap and shuffles off, all misty eyed).

  7. Stephen Kenny

    What I’ve never understood is why some forms of wage negotiation are deemed so much worse than others. All employment is about tension between the various parties. It’s the tension that holds it together – take it away, and you end up with a Soviet style organisation, all size 3 left boots and no steering wheels.
    If an investment banker can stroll up to his boss and threaten, in one way or another, to leave with all his mega-corp clients, you can be sure he’ll get his new Bentley and enough money to buy a small Caribbean island. No one says to him “if you don’t like it, get a new job”. He has leverage, and he’s using it.
    When a train driver says “Pay me more or I won’t drive the trains for a bit” isn’t he just using the leverage available to him?
    You might argue that the investment banker won’t affect the public by demanding a new island with a Bentley on it, but what proportion of our shrinking pension pot and ever increasing debts, are courtesy of their shenanigans? I don’t know what the Irish figures are, but pay and bonuses in the City of London account for about 2.5% of UK GDP last year. Now that’s what I call an effect.
    Teachers have the childcare aspect of their work as leverage (there were no teachers strikes before women entered the workforce in large numbers).
    Interestingly, politicians do the opposite, they say “Pay me more and we’ll take longer holidays” meaning, of course, that the little ne’r-do-wells will pass fewer laws.

  8. Luke

    Great article David, €52,000 that’s more than many teachers and nurses throughout Ireland are paid, both of which require a third level qualification. What does a train driver need to do, or what qualification (leaving-cert or inter-cert does not count) do they require to drive a train. Why don’t we reward education in this country, we have thousands of highly qualified undergraduate and masters graduates from science, technology and engineering disciplines who could only dream of earning that level of money.

    We need to take control and throughout the failed socialist agenda of pandering to union monopolies on our public service.

  9. GOM

    I rarely get to the point that I see black and white but sometimes it is too irrestible. Not for the right to refuse to carry out a task that he felt was outside some or other agreement should this person be sanctioned, but for the crass, ignorant, disrespectful and disregarding manner in which he chose to make his protest. I wonder did he pay for his train ride back to Cork or did he avail of the “perk” of free/subsidised travel also a benefit if his employment.

    I agree people have to leverage their “industrial muscle” but this does not mean the action is so disproportionate to the reaction or effect. Inept management in the public service does exist but making that point also deflects from what this thuggery has caused in terms of stress and tension in hundreds of people’s lives. It is a criminal act, it should be legally sanctioned and the person should be held accountable personally for the disruption he has caused.

  10. Ger Kennedy

    “Saipan meets Thomas the Tank Engine” An interesting concept…

    You gotta love Irish industrial relations and, of course, the socialiast union “beards”. What do nearly all the top Irish union guys have beards? I have often wondered that.

    Anway I think they should be thinking about subcontracting out this Train Driving stuff (hardly rocket science) to an operating company Like the Luas and get rid of these eejits. I thought you said last week that we had run out of eegits? So much for that.

    I agree with Luke. 52K is good in Ireland. Particularly Cork. A graduate engineer would take 3-5 years to get there and probably have a lot more responsibility, managing big chunks of money and one or more people, working for a Multinational. No “job for life” gig either like these eegits. (Thinking about it, maybe theyre not eegits after all…)

    Fire them. Sub it out to a “multinational” operating company who knows how to run railways. Then those “eegits”, if they chose to work for the operating company, will know what a real job is like working for little more than half of what they currently make and driving whatever pile of railway “rust” the company puts them in today. Welcome to the real world boys and girls.


  11. Johnny Waldron

    I have no sympathy for the Cork drivers but understand their behaviour. They can strike with no fear of punishment and do so whenever it suits them. Sadly, their behaviour is entirely rational if entirely selfish.

    It strikes me that there is no effective sanction available to management when dealing with public sector staff. Without the threat of dismissal management are powerless to manage.

    Public outrage would appear to be the only reason the drivers went back to work. It is sickening to be held hostage to such banditry when the private sector workforce is currently struggling so hard to generate the profits to pay the taxes to pay for the public service

    It begs the question: Why negotiate with a union if it can not enforce the compliance of its members with agreed working practices?

  12. [...] is a good discussion going on here about the Rail Strike, These rebel train drivers need a short, sharp shunt David McWilliams Archive Personally I think it’s ridiculous that they can get away with pulling such a stunt. I never know [...]

  13. MK

    Hi David,

    You are right to be vexed, but many of us are.

    Its not the first time nor is it the last time that a public service has been and will be held to ransom. The proof positive of this is that these drivers are already getting 52k a year(!), so they have already coerced their position over the years with threats to get a wage which is well beyond what they are worth. If this government had any backbone, they could ship in a few hundred poles overnight and have them on 25k and they would NEVER stike and probably work harder as well.

    The people in our country do not have enough backbone alas. Too many are on cushy numbers and get too much for what they do. The drivers will NOT in their own community be villified, nor will any other workers that have gone on strike unnecessarily over the last 30 years or so. Too many people turn a blind eye when they see a problem in their own backyard. Too many do not try to rectify the behaviour of people. Then, it manifests like this Cork train case. That is a mere symptom.

    > The problem is the joke is on us,

    [b]Wake up, and smell the coffee[/b]! This problem is occuring in many places on a daily basis with effects that are not so visible. Just look at the Health Service for an example of where actual lives are lost! The public service is ‘the killing fields’.

    Someone mentioned the China government solution, lining up and ….. . Whilst perhaps extreme, we should have been doing something a lot stonger than the status quo a long long time ago. The root problem is endemic and accepted by our politicians as well.


  14. Paul

    When will people realise, that in Ireland these services (HSE, CIE, the list is endless) are not setup to actually provide a service, they are setup to provide people with nice incomes and a job for life, with pension. Providing an actual service does not come into the equation at all, it is merely a scam, a legal scam being played out before our eyes, a scam encouraged by the Government, because what do they care, they will have retired and left someone else to clean up the mess before anyone cops on.

  15. Paul

    Fire them. Just fire them. Will anyone in that public sector pinko newsroom in RTE have the bottle to suggest this obvious remedy? This Donnybrook ‘brotherhood’ who featherbed themselves with our license fee to masquerade as a ‘public service broadcaster’ ………. you must be kidding!

  16. Philip

    1000s of people were impacted by this nonsense for days!!. Some irresponsible nutter took the the unilateral decision to put 1000s of peoples lives out of kilter. 1000s of mandays and millions of euro up the swanny – and I’d bet some lives were put at risk as well.

    Accidents happen. A driver might have had a heart attack etc. I presume that Ianroid Eireann would have the necessary continuity plan to keep the ball rolling. Judging from this, apparently not.

    Not only should the drivers be fired, but a good deal of the idiots managing the system as well. This is a vital service that cannot ever be allowed to stop.

    I see decent folks in MNCs and struggling businesses loosing their jobs – stoically sucking in and getting on with it as best they can – these are skilled, responsible folks who are exposed to business realities.

    Social justice – in the interest of maintaining what little social charter we have in this country – should mean the public sector feeling the same kind of heat in direct proportion to their “longevity” and management position. I bet if you put that to the unions you’d soon see what their true colours are.

  17. John Q. Public

    It is to be expected in this country. Look at how all the other unions behave. A union in a monopoly!, think about the precarious position that puts us all in if we use the train regularly. I’d like to know how many other countries have unions in monopolies that have the strength of ours and get paid as much for such an intellectually undemanding job pulling levers and knobs!

  18. Seamus Wall

    This is a classic example of how the wants of the few (train drivers) have taken precedence over the wants of the many (passengers). Another example of this farcical situation is found every day on the Luas. The luas does not have automatic right of way at traffic lights instead it waits (many passengers) for the car traffic (few passengers) to pass . When I inquired why this was the case, an RPA engineer told me that Dublin corporation would not allow the Luas to take precedence over car traffic – again the wants of the few (public servants) taking precedence over the many (citizens), it’s all too indicative of a malfunctioning democracy.

  19. walnut

    Trains are incredibly easy to operate; essentially there is one lever – push forward to go, pull back to stop. This country as a whole is in deep, deep trouble. Watch out for further mortgage repayment increases over the next few months. Then the fun will really start!!!

  20. Stephen Kenny

    I find it a bit odd that I, self employed for almost 20 years – and not on some cushy-la state contract – find myself seeming to side with strikers, but at various times it seems to happen more, so it’s quite interesting.
    The whole point of going on strike is to inconvenience someone, as Douglas Adams pointed out, there’s not a lot of point the philosophers going on strike. Over the last 25 years (basically since financial deregulation in the USA), we’ve had a growing acceptance of the efficacy of purely economic arguments to social and national questions: Mass immigration is good simply because it’s good for the economy, for example, and the even more dubious argument that ‘debt is good’. We are therefore encouraged, to a greater extent than previously, to view work in terms of financial self-interest. People want a better life, which in it’s simplest form means more pay, and they never look down when considering their position. If you’re on 30k, you look at someone on 50k and say “God pay, what’s the problem”. If you’re on 100k, you just keep quiet about pay and find some thing else to bitch about, while in your heart of hearts, saying “How the flipping heck does anyone live on 50k? Where do they live, for christ’s sake?”
    Striking public sector workers seem to do so because their terms of employment are being changed without their agreement. It’s generally described as increasing flexibility, which translates as making their lives less pleasant, it’s as simple as that. Their life styles are being made worse. Let’s face it, if it was the same, or better, they wouldn’t strike – even Arthur Scargill wasn’t into that. On the rare occasions that this is the case, some sort of beady-eyed, over-politicised, never-grown-up, student union activist, they just harm everyone, especially their own union’s members.
    In their eyes, if not in reality, they’re being asked to live a worse quality of life, for the same pay (more antisocial rotas, shifts, etc).
    That happens a lot in the private sector, and for good reasons: The company comes under pressure, and they need greater productivity, so people work different hours, weird shifts, etc for a time. Companies, being more focused, go further, they try to make their staff want to do it. They could say, “Come in Saturday’s or the company’ll go broke and you’ll all lose your jobs”, but they don’t, that’d be stupid at a number of levels (the good staff dig out their CVs, and the crap staff get sullen), so they say “Right, free pizza and cabs for late working, and coffee, orange juice and pastries on Saturdays” or something. They figure out how to make people feel appreciated, because they are appreciated – this is management 101 stuff.
    Look at the UK, strike-central for decades. Look into any strike, and you generally see either incompetent management and frightened, over-reacting unions, or a management out to royally shaft the workforce, possibly for very good reasons, like the computerisation of the newspapers in the 80s. But the life styles of said workforce were crunched none the less, and not to expect people to defend themselves is dumb. You and I might say “It’s progress, it’s unfortunate for some, but it’s good for the organisation and the economy, and they must go along with that”, but any sane person would use what leverage they have, to optimise their position, which would include, I would think, not going so far as to get sacked.

  21. david vidal

    At least train drivers have a responsible job and are responsible for the safety of many people.The rest of the public sector spend their day talking sport and drinking tea! and go home at 5 o clock.

  22. Dave H

    Sounds like it was a mountain made from a molehill. When unions are used to settle petty arguments instead of common sense it undermines their value and it’s very unfair to workers with real issues.

  23. Jonathan

    52K and a permanent job?? Where can I sign up??
    This is a joke. Time for the government to get tough on these malcontents. I’d wager that after 1 week of training almost anybody could drive a train. If they don’t like the conditions replace them with people who do. There are plenty of people out there who are better qualified (in general, not specifically to drive trains) and work longer hours and get paid less who would gladly take their place.

  24. Interesting to see two, “small, open economies” like Iceland and NZ are going down the toilet right now. Would it be so with Ireland sin EU?

  25. Malcolm McClure

    B said “Even in France the trains run. I know they strike but at least they have rules. Here we do not and holding the public to ransom is the name of the game.”
    But the cost of train subsidies and 35 hour weeks and welfare benefits and quality medicare has just about bankrupted France, masked so far by ECB soft loans.
    Francois Fillon, the current French Prime Minister recently declared: “I run a state which now stands in a situation of financial bankruptcy, which has known deteriorating deficits for fifteen straight years and which has not voted a balanced budget for twenty-five years. This cannot last.”
    A former German central banker declared: “I used to think that France needed a Margaret Thatcher, I now realize she needs an Arthur Scargill” (the Trotskyite leader of the Miner’s Strike). In other words, to get a government to shrink its size, you first need a serious crisis (or a scarecrow a la Scargill); only then do people accept real sacrifices.
    It could be that the Cork train drivers become Ireland’s Arthur Scargill. But has Brian Cowen the cojones of Maggie Thatcher to deal with them?
    Ireland is actually in a healthy financial position vis-a-vis other European countries. Its public debt interest is only 0.2% of GDP whereas for Belgium it is 3.7%. And its pension liabilities are minuscule compared with those of France, Spain and Greece. Perhaps Ireland is still strong enough to see off the Trots. The fundamentals look good so long as we continue to run a tight ship.

  26. Eric O Driscoll

    just found this website today and to be honest i’m delighted to get this type of analaysis on the goings on in Ireland. I haven’t been home for 10 years and if you believed what you read in the irish papers you’d think itIreland was the greatest ricnest country that ever existed
    Above you mentioned the cork – midleton line starting next year
    Is it actually ever going to get built ?, i know this has been promised for a decade at least

    P.S saw you in boston a couple of months ago .Realy enjoyed it , very entertaining

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