Bus company cuts lead to industrial action

Planned cuts of €9 million at Ireland’s national bus service, Bus Éireann, were first announced in June 2012. Industrial unrest at the company led to a revised plan, followed by a Labour Court proposal that reduced the savings figure to €5 million. Both were rejected by the bus unions. With no deal reached by mid-May, a two-day strike was held. Further industrial action was averted when proposals from the Labour Relations Commission were accepted by most of the unions involved.

Business recovery plan

In June 2012, Ireland’s state-owned national bus service provider, Bus Éireann, which employs around 2,700 people, announced that it needed to make savings of €9 million by 2013. As part of its business recovery plan, the company proposed the elimination of overtime, shift and rota allowances, with other expense payments to be reduced by 60–70%.

Some of the company’s proposals were modified in December 2012, with a reduced overall savings figure of €7.5 million. Among the changes to the original plan were a reduction in overtime rates from 1.5 times the hourly rate to 1.25 times and reductions in shift payments. It also outlined cuts to rota allowance and expense payments.

Bus Éireann Chief Executive Martin Nolan said the cuts were needed due to rising fuel costs and a 25% fall in state support.

A deadline of 13 January 2013 was given for these changes to be approved. The move was resisted by the unions involved – the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), the National Bus and Rail Union (NBRU) and the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA), as well as a number of craft unions. SIPTU and the NBRU balloted for industrial action in the event of the unilateral implementation of any cost-cutting measures.

Union sources said that the more moderate proposals had not been put to them in talks. The company replied that the unions had made it clear that they were not negotiating on the overtime, shift and rota allowances matters, so there was little point in putting these proposals to them.

Unions maintained they were reluctant to discuss the issues separately from other measures that featured in the recovery plan, in line with the principle ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’.

The matter was then referred to Ireland’s Labour Court for a recommendation.

‘Stalking horse’ cuts

The TSSA national negotiating committee said that in early 2013 Bus Éireann workers felt they had been ‘used by the government as a stalking horse for Croke Park 2’. They were referring to negotiations between the public sector unions and the Irish Government for a successor agreement to the Public Service Agreement, also known as the Croke Park Agreement (IE1212019I). The committee felt the proposed reductions in overtime and other allowances, as well as increased working hours, were similar to the proposals being made during public service agreement discussions.

The Labour Court amended the company’s cost-cutting proposals in February 2013, reducing the €7.5 million savings target to €5 million. The court’s proposals included:

  • the first two hours only of overtime at 1.25 times the hourly rate, where the company sought 1.25 times for all overtime hours;
  • a 20% cut in expenses, where the company sought 33%;
  • a ‘split the difference’ scenario between the company’s proposals for shift payments and the status quo.

The court backed the company proposal for an increase in the weekly working hours, an initiative mainly affecting clerical staff represented by TSSA.

The court’s recommendations were rejected by SIPTU and TSSA, while NBRU postponed its original ballot on the recommendations. It later asked members to vote on the court’s recommendations, and on whether they would support industrial action if Bus Éireann unilaterally implemented the cuts by the company’s deadline of 12 May 2013.

No agreement was reached by 12 May and NBRU held a two-day strike – the first industrial action at the company in 10 years. SIPTU members refused to cross the picket line.

Labour Relations Commission steps in

The Labour Relations Commission (LRC) intervened and produced a proposal that stopped further industrial action. The LRC proposal included the retention of shift and rota allowances for drivers, as well as cuts for top managers. It called for stronger commitments on reversing the cuts in December 2014. The cost-cutting measures expire in December 2014, and the LRC said that management should come to an agreement with unions at that time.

NBRU and SIPTU have accepted the LRC’s proposal. TSSA has yet to accept the deal, saying that the suggested changes ‘fall short of a fair and equitable proposal’. However, TSSA members are currently considering an amended LRC proposal that takes specific account of clerical workers.

Andy Prendergast, IRN

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