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(en) WSM.ie, Strikes and Solidarity: Interview with a worker at Irish Rail
Sat, 2 Dec 2017 13:27:45 +0200
Irish Rail workers were out on strike recently. What's going on? ---- The WSM recently
caught up with J, an activist and worker at Irish Rail, to find out. ---- [For background
details, see our analysis, "Why Irish Rail workers are right to strike", published here.
---- WSM: Hi J. So why have workers at Irish Rail been out on strike recently? ---- J: Hi.
Yeah - so workers have been in pay talks with the company through the unions over the last
number of months. We've had a pay freeze since 2008 and there have been pay cuts. We have
given in terms of productivity and we've just been putting in for pay increases. In the
negotiation we were looking for an increase with no conditions attached. The company were
saying that there was no money and it was looking like nothing. We were looking for a
3.75% increase. The company were offering 1.5% with about 20 conditions attached to it in
terms of productivity.
We were about to secure a deal for 2.5%, I think, within a 12 month period with a 500 euro
voucher at Christmas. The CEO refused to sign it. The CEO was not engaging with the unions
at all and sent the HR director to negotiate with the unions. When that document was
agreed by the unions and brought back for the CEO's signature he refused to sign it. The
workers, the unions and the Labour Court were frustrated to say the least. The CEO is over
from the UK, could be described as Thatcherite and does not negotiate with unions. He was
brought over with an agenda presumably - privatisation and cuts - and is very anti-worker.
At that point the company started lying saying that we were the ones not negotiating and
that we walked out of talks. They put out there PR spin but at that point we were balloted
for industrial action. And the anger of everybody! I think there was 80% or so voted for
strike action. We went out then over a series of days.
WSM: What form did the strike action take? What happened?
J: Pickets were formed at each work location. We worked a rota on the pickets of workers
doing that duty.
[J later added: The cleaning workers respected the picket and didn't cross it. They are
members of SIPTU as well. They should get strike pay because they help our strike by not
crossing it. But they don't get strike pay. They're down pay and they're low paid workers.
It's something we should put pressure on the unions to do].
WSM: Strike action has been called off for now. What have been the latest developments?
J: We were called back in to the Labour Court just before the third day of action. This
would have fallen on the day of the Ireland-Denmark match which would have caused the
company some disruption. The Labour Court has delivered a recommendation. It's a peculiar
one in that it's complicated. You read it back around to see what they are actually saying.
Basically, they recommended a 2.5% increase over three consecutive years and a 500 euro
voucher bonus. (It's in voucher form to avoid the tax aspect of it).
The unions are interpreting the recommendation as saying that there are no conditions
attached to that. There are a few - I think they're called ‘initiatives' - that workers
will have to comply with the railway safety legislation - you know, things that we would
have to be complied with anyway. Then there's a list of further conditions, items to be
discussed. We agreed to go into talk again with the company on these items. Some of them
are outsourcing and pay roll reform. There's a list of them.[J later added that the
company's ‘initiatives' feature increased ‘performance management', including GPS tracking
on the workers' vans].
They are also saying that there is be a ‘no strike' agreement.
WSM: What do workers think of all this?
J: The concern with workers is that those conditions are tied to the agreement. Anything
mentioned in the agreement or in the recommendation, we can't strike for. But then you
have to go back to another paragraph which says that the company can't bring in those
items without - now it doesn't say without ‘agreement', it says without ‘productivity
discussions' and referral back to the Labour Court if needs be. I suppose, of course, the
fear would be that the Labour Court, because it is not impartial, would deliver a
recommendation that we would have to comply with those conditions further down that road.
So the unions, on the one hand, can see that it is something over a three year period.
They're saying that any sort of productivity or pay talks that have happened in the past
have had a ‘no strike'[presumption]and that hasn't prevented us from acting anyway. We
take it that there are still ways.
Some workers are saying[...that they would take action...]if the company does try to bring
in anything unilaterally without our agreement or without some sort of payment attached to
each of those conditions. They see it as tying those conditions into payment separate to
what we have. If the company tries, then they are, in effect, breaking the agreement. Then
we would be able strike on that basis.
I don't know. It remains to be seen how that will play out. Some people are talking about
voting against until it is explained to them more. Other people are saying that they want
to take this and fight further battles down the line. They think that these conditions are
now tied to something in return. The agreement did say that no extra costs are to be
claimed by the unions but something in return for those conditions would be cost-neutral
in a sense.
WSM: Is it difficult being in a union at Irish Rail?
J: No. It's part of the culture. It's a very unionised environment. You're encouraged to
join a union.
WSM: What effect has the strike had on the way that your colleagues, fellow workers relate
to one another?
J: Between workers who scabbed the strike and those who were on the picket, there is the
obvious tension there. Between workers who were on the picket together, you can't beat the
feeling of just walking past and there's a ‘how-are-ya?' acknowledgement. You know that
you have each other's backs. You know the solidarity.
WSM: What would you say to any worker at present - not necessarily those at Irish Rail -
who was afraid to go out on strike?
J: I would say that it is scary. The way to overcome the fear is through the collective
Find just one other worker who thinks the same as you in order to organise. If it's not a
workplace that is organised, find just that one other person because often times they try
to keep you isolated within a workplace. Two great - but even just one other person! You
can organise from there.
WSM: Thanks J. To wrap up, what would you say you have learned from this strike?
J: A few things. I‘ve realised my own fear around being on strike. It's not my first
strike. I was on strike in 2014.
This time around I've learned that - as somebody on the left and knowing the importance of
agitating for revolution - there is also a line as to not patronising workers when they're
on strike and not fetishizing us. There would be some people whose support is welcome on
the picket but maybe some people overly enthusiastic. You know, leftists asking ‘So what's
the mood?' and clapping their hands - real enthusiastic when the mood at that particular
moment was a mood of fear. We had just been photographed from a window. I think it's a bit
distasteful. It feels kinda fetishized, not meeting workers where they are at, or listening.
I've learned that the only way to overcome the fear though is through collective action
and having more people from your own work area around you. In my work location there are
workshops and offices. There were more people from the workshops out with me on the first
day. On the second day, we got a ratio of about 23 from the workshops and 16 from the
offices. You'd feel that bit safer. The only way to combat the fear is through collective
solidarity with your fellow workers. You can actually win, I suppose!
Finally, I suppose it's easy for us to get demoralised as activists. What was very clear
to me throughout the strike was that the struggles that have gone before are still there,
that we're not doing this for the first time, and that it's not just happening in a
vacuum. The struggles that have gone before have ingrained in people not to cross your
picket. The importance of that is there. That all of the struggles that have gone before
still matter and that our struggle now will matter into the future as well. We're building
this, passing the baton on through time. What you do now - even though it may feel like
something isolated or not having an impact - it does have an impact and it helps continue
that on for the future.
Topics: Economy, The Left
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