The attack on Bus Éireann
Workers in Bus Eireann first heard of the alleged scale of the financial crisis in their company through the media. Information from a report on the company by private consultants Grant Thornton was drip fed into the newspapers in early January.
The leaks first highlighted the report’s findings that Bus Éireann’s Expressway intercity service was recording large losses and could not be allowed to operate as it was. It ruled out the viability of restructuring this commercial arm of the company and also stated that it could not currently be closed as Bus Eireann did not have the monies to fund the resultingredundancy packages.
In recent months, a new management team at Bus Éireann headed by acting CEO Ray Hernan had replaced a longer serving group of managers who left the company, with undisclosed severance packages believed to value hundreds of thousands of euros each, over recent months.
By the middle of January, the media was carrying the meat of the Grant Thornton report — a ‘revision of business plan’ — which outlined severe cutbacks throughout the company to generate the funds to exit Expressway at a later date or maintain its operation as on a “low cost model” with existing workers removed.
Again it was through the media that many employees learned that changes to their terms and conditions had been brought in overnight without agreement on the 16th January. One of the most brutal of these changes was a curtailment of flexi-time arrangements for clerical staff which has severely impacted on working mothers.
Within days the acting CEO had issued two more letters outlining further massive cuts he intends to implement including compulsory redundancies, redeployment according to management orders, the end of shift pay, reductions in premium and overtime payments among many stringent measures.
The cumulative effect for most workers of these cuts would be a 30% pay reduction.
The letters also included a derisory pay offer of a 1%, 2% or 3% rise on the new reduced incomes when cash flow allows.
In his correspondence, Hernan also delivered an ultimatum that these cuts would be unilaterally implemented on 20th February with or without the agreement of workers. In response workers across the five unions in Bus Eireann have conducted strike ballots or in the case of SIPTU members activated an existing mandate for strike action.
On 2nd February the Bus Éireann group of unions announced that if the company would not enter talks without preconditions and carried out its threat to push through cuts on 20th February, trade union members “response to this appalling and unprecedented attack” will be all-out strike action.
SIPTU representatives have also highlighted the real problems at Bus Eireann, the dwindling state subvention and competition rules that preclude the company from providing extra funding to its connections which are not defined as Public Service Obligation (PSO) routes.
SIPTU Transport, Energy, Aviation and Construction (TEAC) Divisional Organiser, Greg Ennis, told the media that there was an attempt to “sacrifice” the terms and conditions of employment of SIPTU members in Bus Éireann “so as to subsidise the abysmal failure of the State to provide the requisite investment for an essential national public bus service.”
He also highlighted the clear thrust of the proposals from Bus Éireann, and in particular the ending of its intercity service as one that was constructed “for the benefit of others” i.e. private bus operators.
The pay of private bus workers was starkly revealed during a radio debate between Ennis and Kevin Traynor, the National Director of Coach Tourism, at the private sector lobby group the Transport Council of Ireland. During the debate Traynor stated private bus workers were earning “between €100 to €120 a day” working cross country routes. This compares to a long service Bus Eireann driver’s basic pay of €624 for a 39-hour week.
The closing of Expressway, taken alongside the recent move to open at least 10% of Bus Eireann routes to tender, according to SIPTU Organiser, Willie Noone, is a case of “private bus operators being set up to cannibalise the services currently provided as a public service by Bus Eireann, with workers’ pay and terms and conditions of the employment the key cost factor to be pushed down.”
Such private services will also not stop in as many locations, which could result in large swathes of rural Ireland being cut off from direct connections to major towns and cities. It is also clear that closing Expressway will do little to ease the financial difficulties that faces company. The Grant Thornton report stated that the closure would transfer €6.2 million of overheads onto the Bus Eireann operations which cater for PSO which are subject to state subventions.
SIPTU representatives have been clear in highlighting that a wider agenda is at play in the current crisis in Bus Eireann. In his presentation to TDs and Senators in the Oireachtas in late January, Willie Noone, emphasised that his members were well aware that;
“some political parties and politicians wish to drive down wages to the floor”.
He also began his presentation by referring to the Fine Gael policy concerning public bus transport as stated in its 2011 election manifesto. It stated: “Nationwide Bus Competition: We will completely overhaul the bus market in Ireland by introducing competitive tendering for all bus routes in the country as soon as practicably possible. More operators will provide more routes and services to the public and at a cheaper cost to the taxpayer and passenger.”
Willie Noone said:
“Once you see through all the issuing of private consultants reports and various claims by management the agenda here is clear; the destruction of our public bus services which are vital to life in rural Ireland.”
“The losers in this move to privatisation will be all bus workers — public and private, the rural communities which Bus Eireann currently services and finally the whole country as it loses a key piece of economic and social infrastructure.”
This has been the case in other countries such as the UK where the privatisation agenda won out. The good news is we still have a chance to stop this disaster occurring here.