Ireland: Dublin Bus Workers’ Strike - their story

Last week an important dispute flared up at the Dublin Bus company over new work schedules. Although the strike was called off today, the present article, written last week, gives an idea of the militant mood that exists among Dublin's bus workers. Dublin Bus management triggered off a strike of 500 bus drivers last Monday, November 11th, at one of Dublin's biggest bus depots when the company suspended a bus worker who refused to drive a bus on a new route. The company was trying to unilaterally impose new work schedules on the workers in order to cut costs. The workers claim that this would lengthen their working day by two or three hours without compensation.

The workers are located in Harristown depot, near Dublin Airport, 11 kilometres from the city centre. When the depot was inaugurated two years ago, the company agreed with the workers that all drivers would start, break and finish in the depot. The agreement, however, was verbal, and now the company denies there was such an agreement. The company is clearly lying. That agreement has actually been the normal work routine since the depot started to operate two years ago.

The company, however, unilaterally decided to change that arrangement on two new routes they were planning to introduce last Monday, 11th November. Drivers would start and finish in the city centre, over an hour away from the depot, around which, the unions claim, workers have developed their lifestyle. They park their cars, start, break and finish. There, they have a restaurant, a credit union and a gym (Irish Times, 10 Nov 07).

In order to minimize the labour conflict that this change could create between management and the workers, the company hired 70 new workers to manage the new routes. The idea was to create a two-tier system, distinguishing between new and old workers.

The workers and their unions (SIPTU and National Bus and Railworkers Union - NBRU) understood rightly that this could be the beginning of a worsening of working conditions for all bus drivers and opposed the move.

Last week, and after nearly one year of negotiation with the workers, the company announced that the new routes would start on Monday, November 10th. They argued that a labour Court recommendation issued on October 22nd had ruled in favour of the company's position.

The unions replied to this ultimatum with a union ballot (Friday, November 9th). The majority of the workers in both unions opted for full strike action if the company suspended workers who refused to accept the new work schedules.

Willie Noone, SIPTU branch organiser, said that, "Our members will be reporting to work normally and will do so, unless the company forces them to operate on the new routes... If disruption does occur it will be because the company tries to change rosters and working conditions for drivers unilaterally." (Irish Times, 11 Nov 07).

But on Monday the company suspended a female junior worker who refused to accept the new working conditions. Immediately, the rest of the workers in the depot came out in solidarity with her. A veteran bus driver on strike reported:

"Everyone turned up on Monday morning to work as normal. We only walked out when one of our junior colleagues was suspended. Had that not happened, the garage would still be working, and if the suspension is lifted and the disputed rosters put to one side for now, the buses can be back on the street within hours. FYI, the working week in Dublin Bus starts on Sunday, not Monday, however junior drivers do not work Sunday, so the company deliberately held back on starting these routes until Monday morning in order to try to press a junior into doing the work. When she stood her ground, the result was inevitable." (https://www.indymedia.ie/article/85040)

The whole point of the workers is that they have being suggesting better arrangements, so the workers wouldn't have to increase their working day and the management of the routes could also improve. The following account, by the same worker, illustrates very well who is to blame for any disruption created in the Dublin public transport system and the complete lack of efficiency of Dublin Bus management. It illustrates very well too that bus workers are much better qualified to manage the company by themselves:

"A year ago the company called in the union reps and informed them that these routes were going ahead and straight out asked how much money we wanted to work them. We told them to stick it because it wasn't about money, it was about working time. In order to be flexible, we offered them a skite of compromises. We offered to break in the city and asked only that we be allowed to finish where we start so as to avoid the extra hour on our working day. When that wasn't acceptable, we offered to redeploy staff to city centre garages to split the bases from which we worked in order to avoid the extra hour a day. When that wasn't acceptable we even drew up alternative schedules conceding 90% of what we were being asked to do, and that wasn't acceptable either. I don't know about you, but where I come from, a 90% compromise is pretty generous.

"What's actually happening here is a turf war, but it's not between the unions and management, but between a dozen or so people at Dublin Bus HQ and everybody else, including, I suspect, the management of the individual depots. Dublin Bus has always been run from the depots, not O'Connell street. Management staff there have, by tradition, always been the kind of bright young things who spend their careers ritualistically progressing from one promotion and pay rise to the next and never really contributing anything of any substance to the day to day running of either the company or the city. That's fine, and generally they're let get on with it. The problem is that every five or six years they take a brain storm and actually try running the company. When that happens, chaos ensues. In this instance, somebody in O'Connell street looked at the union's proposed schedules, realized that they would actually work and then started worrying that if they were accepted, Minister Dempsey might scratch his head and wonder what the hell he was paying head office staff for. It's the kind of thing that happens in every business, public or private, and when it does, somebody always gets caught in the middle. The only question is, how do you react if you're the one who gets caught.

"All that is required is that those drivers who start in town, finish in town, and that those who start in the depot, finish in the depot. That's it. Problem solved, and the unions have already presented schedules that do that. These buses could have been on the street months ago, but HQ staff vetoed the union proposals because they were union proposals. Privately, the scheduling officers in Dublin Bus (ie, the functionaries who actually draw up the timetables) have admitted the schedules proposed by the company are, in any event, unworkable. They require, for example, a driver starting in town to leave Harristown and travel to the city centre in 45 minutes on the number 27B (the bus which serves the garage), the official running time of which is actually one hour. This, of course, leaves the driver with two choices: either he can come in early and get an earlier 27B (for which trouble, of course, he will receive no pay, since he wasn't asked to do that) or he can leave the garage at the official time and be late picking up in town. Since he will be picking up on a cross city route, this means that the driver he is relieving will have been sitting in the city centre with a bus full of irate passengers waiting to continue their journey for at least fifteen minutes, and probably longer. In addition, since it will take at least an hour to get back to the garage after shift, then every shift will finish late and every driver will be claiming overtime, which will make a massive payroll bill anyway.

"It's idiotic, but it's being forced through because a group of David Brent types in O'Connell Street figure it's necessary to justify their existence." (https://www.indymedia.ie/article/85040)

The bus drivers also understand, rightly, that their best chance to win this struggle and stop the "bullying bosses" would be to spread the dispute to other garages. The company fears an extension of the strike and through a spokesperson has said that they would "seriously consider all its options" if unofficial pickets are placed in other depots (Irish Times, 13 Nov 07).

It is unclear what "all its options" means. Since the beginning of the "lockout" the media and the company keep reporting on the 60,000 commuters affected by the strike and putting the blame on the workers' shoulders. They are trying to stop any show of solidarity with the strikers from other bus workers and from commuters.

On the other hand, the chairman of the Labour Court, Kevin Duffy, had talks on Wednesday with Dublin Bus and trade union representatives. He warned the unions "strongly that any escalation of the dispute to involve other Dublin Bus garages would make an intervention by the Labour Court more difficult (Irish Times, 15 Nov 07)."

All this pressure is affecting union leaders. Michael Faherty (general secretary of the union NBRU) has also warned several time in the media that the workers' strike could escalate to other garages through unofficial pickets in the event that workers could get frustrated unless the dispute is not resolved within a couple of days (Irish Times, 13 Nov 07).

This warning was directed at Dublin Bus in order to reach a quick agreement. But it also expressed the real fear of Faherty that the workers might be ready to put up a real fight. Over 300 bus drivers, actually, organised a protest in Dublin city centre on Wednesday. They marched from Parnell Square to Dublin Bus headquarters in O'Connell St. The bus worker Owen McCormack, one of the organisers of the protest, said that the workers on strike are getting great support from colleagues from other depots. He added, "We are not going to be split and not going to be isolated." (Irish Times, 15 Nov 07) But the problem is that both unions have branded any escalation of the strike as unofficial.

In the meantime, the right wing TD Paschal Donohoe, from Fine Gael, said on Wednesday on RTÉ that the bus routes, which are the centre of the industrial dispute, should be offered to private operators. He also demanded that the government intervene more actively in the dispute (14 Nov 07):

"If these particular routes are not going to be used by CIÉ, we should be tendering those routes out to other operators who are going to use them, so that we can ensure that all of the passengers on the northside of Dublin are not being held hostage to the inability of Dublin Bus to make two routes work."

This is where the real threat lies. The state is one of the partners in Dublin Bus, but its management is private. In the last years, according to one of the bus drivers on strike (https://www.indymedia.ie/article/85040), no fewer than 110 private bus routes have been authorised. However, he goes on:

"There are not 110 private bus routes operating around Dublin, or anything like it. Indeed, many of those licences are gathering dust in desks somewhere because having secured them, the hackers are just sitting on them, much like the taxi drivers used to sit on their plates and sell them on later."


Private bus routes only start to operate when the routes are profitable. Dublin Bus, with state funding, must cover the routes that are profitable and the ones that are not. But the long-term aim is to fully privatise the whole public transport system. To do it, however, Dublin Bus must break the resistance of the workers, and then worsen their working conditions and lower their wages.

Our bus driver also understands what is the general tendency of privatisations that the Irish government has been implementing: "Forget the PD [Progressive Democrats] claptrap about the forces of the market... If you think we're bad, just wait for what follows." Another poster in indymedia.ie added: "First they came for the bus drivers. You didn't give a shit, you don't drive a bus. Then they came for the airline workers. You didn't give a shit, you don't fly a plane... Wait 'til they come for you."

The struggle of Dublin workers must become the struggle of all Irish workers against the wave of privatisations happening to this country. We cannot let them down.