We interviewed John Houlihan about the Labour Court Recommendation to Bus Eireann and the unions following the March/April bus strike. John has been a bus driver in Cork since 1988 and is a member of the National Rail and Bus Union (NBRU). Below is an interview in which he outlines the reasons for the ongoing dispute and provides insight into the scale of the threat to working conditions and the policy decisions that have led to the dispute.
People Before Profit: What is the essence of the Labour Court recommendation, and how does it differ from the changes that the Bus Eireann management were trying to make to workers’ conditions?
John Houlihan: A lot of what the management wanted is in the Labour Court recommendation. They have a few extra pieces insofar as that the wage structure will change. We would move to a consolidated rate of €20.11 per hour. While that may sound a lot (for a 39-hour week it works out at €784), it also includes Sunday and shift pay. A driver on the city services in Cork would have had €799.60 weekly. That driver would be down €15.60 on a 39-hour week. Other staff in Bus Eireann, on fixed-hours, fixed shifts and fixed rest days, will be expected to move to shift hours. We don’t know what the shift patterns are going to be.
One driver has been on the same shift for the last 33 years and has had no indication from the company what he will be doing for the rest of his Bus Eireann career. He’s expected to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and not to know what his working shift is going to be until later. Everybody’s shift will be non-negotiable. The company are of the opinion that they will tell you what you are going to do, and if you don’t agree with it you can take it to a binding arbitration. That means that your shift will be examined by a panel who will decide whether it is suitable or not – the driver will have no say in the matter.
PBP: What, if anything, has been won in this Labour Court recommendation by the unions during negotiations?
JH: They have staved off some of the excesses of the previous documents. They have staved off the fact that Sunday rate was going to drop from double-time to 1.2x time. They’ve amalgamated that into the consolidated rate of pay. So that’s something that has been a good outcome. Overtime rates are also being subsumed into the consolidated rate. Pensions will improve – my pension at the moment is €124 weekly, and that is going to rise to €157.
Redundancies will be voluntary – what they are expecting is that nobody will be forced to leave the company. And all those who worked on the X7 service from Clonmel to Dublin – they were going to be made redundant – they will now be retained by the company and will be moving to a depot of their choice.
PBP: Could you comment on how the redundancies might affect future services at Bus Eireann?
JH: Bus Eireann no longer decide the timetables of services or where they run. That’s decided by the National Transport Authority (NTA). What will be expected of the drivers, after the redundancies, is that whatever work is left over will have to be covered by full-time drivers in additional weekly hours. The management will also now have the option of hiring part-time drivers. We don’t know what rates of pay will be involved, or whether they will be joining a trade union, or if they’re going to have fixed-hours contracts or zero-hours contracts. That’s still undecided, and we haven’t got any detail on that.
It was a very disappointing document from the Labour Court. The Union got very little of what they asked for. The judge was mindful that this was a company of 2,600 people and he didn’t want to see it go out of business. The management have said that if this is not agreed, Bus Eireann will go out of business. It’s not clear whether that statement is true or not; I haven’t seen the company’s finances. But Kevin Foley, the chairman of the Labour Court, may have seen something or may have been given figures by the company that he has taken on board and agreed with.
There has also been scare-mongering being done against newer drivers that the company is going to go to the wall. That is being fostered by the company to a large extent.
PBP: What about the drivers that may be hired in, for example, five years’ time – if this recommendation is accepted by the unions – does that mean that these future drivers might be hired under worsened conditions?
JH: The expectation is that that won’t happen. People join and are on a pay scale increasing for the first three years. On the fourth year in our job you get everything that everyone else gets. So you have a three-year pay scale and then you have the full time rate. And that will remain.
PBP: How do you think the vote is going to go on this recommendation?
JH: Without saying what our working conditions are going to be like afterwards, I can’t see anybody voting for it. There is a threat from management also: the company have said that if there is a ‘no’ vote, they will immediately put the company into examinership. That protects the company from its creditors for up to 100 days. The court will appoint an examiner to come into the company who will make recommendations. We don’t know how far-reaching they could be. If that happens, the figures of the company will have to be made public.
I think the recommendation will be rejected either way – it is a matter of what the scale will be. We will be into unchartered waters if there is a big majority ‘no’.
If there is a ‘no’ vote but the margin is close, the unions will identify stumbling blocks and if there is a way that they can get over those things, they will re-negotiate. If the vote is 70 or 80% ‘no’, it will be an entirely new situation. There would be no easy fix for that sort of situation.
PBP: Is victory in sight for the bus drivers in terms of how this materialises in the coming weeks?
JH: Things have changed drastically for bus drivers. We certainly haven’t got a victory out of this. It is the scale of the defeat that is going to be important in this situation. I think we’ve lost – they’ve brought in conditions that would have been unacceptable two or three years ago. This is the template that they’ve set down, and there’s going to be very little change to it. I think we’re takings step back. Bus drivers in Bus Eireann will now have a different rate of pay to drivers at Dublin Bus. Dublin Bus drivers have 7.5% more pay, and in 2018 they’ll have 11.25% more than Bus Eireann drivers. That’s never happened before.
PBP: Lastly, do you think there will be further strikes or stoppages in other CIE companies?
JH: That will depend on the scale of the vote. If the vote is close, they will try and sort out a few things. During even the worst of the austerity measures, Bus Eireann were making a profit. For nine years, staff have received no pay increase. It needs to be examined – what has happened to Bus Eireann to make it go from a profitable flagship company to a company that is facing the threat of examinership? The workers are being blamed for it, but it’s inconceivable that it is their fault. Somewhere along the line, somebody knew that this company was heading for that level of change, and nobody put their head above the parapet and said they need to sort out the funding problems.
There was a poster during the march in Dublin – it said “If Bus Eireann was a private bank, Fine Gael would use public money to bail it out”. And we have to question – how does a company go from profitability three years ago, to going into examinership now? The involvement of the National Transport Authority (NTA) has to be called into question. The NTA decide the routes, the timetables, the fares. Bus Eireann are no longer the masters of their own destiny. This situation has been manufactured by the government.