Here's Why I Support the Bus Strike

Andy Storey

Andy Storey is a lecturer in political economy at University College Dublin and a board member of human rights group Action from Ireland (Afri).


Why are Dublin Bus workers on strike? According to David O’Connor, writing in these pages earlier this month, “The real reason Dubliners are being subjected to another spate of public-transport strikes” is that the bus workers’ union fears “the slicing up of their transport market and the displacement of their monopoly position in worker representation”.

What this refers to is the proposed opening up of selected bus routes to competitive tender,with 10 percent of routes in the first instance. O’Connor rejects the claim that this represents privatisation – it is rather, he argues, the introduction of “controlled competition” in accordance with EU regulations.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with privatisation, it is hard to see how allowing private companies to bid for previously publicly run routes does not at least open the door to privatisation. And the fact that it is happening at the behest of the EU hardly sweetens the pill.

More fundamentally, how can O’Connor know for certain the real reasons why workers are striking? As documented by Dan MacGuill on TheJournal.ie, the drivers and others have very valid grounds for grievance that have nothing to do with privatisation or competition proposals.

Bus drivers have had their wages effectively frozen since 2008 – at a time when the cost of living in Dublin has mostly, and sometimes very dramatically, been rising (especially in areas like rental costs in recent years).

That freeze, combined with cutbacks in driver numbers, temporary reductions in overtime payments (between 2013 and 2015), and extensions to the working day, has helped to turn Dublin Bus from a loss-making to a profitable operation since 2013.

That workers would expect some return for their years of sacrifice seems eminently understandable, as does their position that, under the circumstances, the current offer of an 8-percent increase (over three years) is inadequate.

Union official Dermot O’Leary is quite right when he says, “The staff have done a lot in the last eight years towards paying for the company to get back into profit … the staff are saying quite clearly, ‘you asked us to put our shoulder to the wheel for eight long years – we’ve done that, we’ve got you back in profit – now it’s our turn.’”

And the profit turnaround for Dublin Bus has been achieved despite continuing cuts to the company’s already limited subvention from government (which has been slashed by almost 33 percent since 2008 to stand at only €58 million in 2015).

Michael Taft of the UNITE trade union takes up the subvention issue in a recent column. He finds that if the state subvention were be increased to even the relatively modest levels applying in London, then Dublin Bus should be receiving over €90 million extra per annum from the state (and much more than that if the subvention levels pertaining in other European cities applied here).

The low level of state support helps keep bus fares comparatively high in Dublin, among the highest in Europe, in fact. Taft sums up the situation as follows: “Public transport supports are incredibly low, services have been cut, fares are incredibly high and wages and working conditions in Dublin Bus are on the floor.”

In their June 2016 report The Truth about Irish Wages, UNITE found that Irish wages were not only comparatively low by European standards but that wage inequality has been growing: over the last five years, managers and professionals received an average increase of 11 percent in their weekly income, while ordinary workers (both white- and blue-collar) only received a 1 percent average increase.

This growing inequality has been driven by government policy, including last year’s budget (and those of previous years). To start reversing those trends, the upcoming budget would have to prioritise investment in infrastructure and services (including public-transport services) over tax cuts.

In the meantime, victory for Dublin Bus workers would be a welcome start.

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Andy Storey: Andy Storey is a lecturer in political economy at University College Dublin and a board member of human rights group Action from Ireland (Afri).

Reader responses

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wacker
at 28 September 2016 at 14:17

I fully support the bus workers. The race to the bottom of working class pay by this and successive governments has been unrelenting. It takes a lot of courage to strike these days, but what really boils me over is the way management pay themselves even if the screw up the get a handshake on the way out. There is so much injustice in our society towards lower to middle class working people that this is only the beginning. If politicians can at the drop of a hat give themselves a pay rise in the middle of our worst recession to date then why not us.

Donnacha Hennessy
at 7 October 2016 at 17:19

Why should we further subsidise inefficient public services? Encouraging competition from private bus operators in Dublin is the best way to minise operating costs, and therefore reduce prices the consumer pays. Your suggestion, further subsidisation would just make the tax payer foot the bill, and by weaking cost controls further exacerbate Dublin high transport costs. Lose-lose.
Also, how did Dublin bus return to profit in the past few years? It looks like it was from cuts…. to staff….
Also Income inequality is not solved by caving to these bus drivers so what’s your point?
Also I imagine you’re thinking of income inequality before taking into account taxes and government transfers. When you do the level and trend of (Household) income inequality is very different to the lazy, misconstrued but commonly used “market” income measure.
You lecture in UCD, and being an Alumni I hope you have some counters to these points.
If you don’t I think your analysis is more than a little confused

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