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Dublin Report Striking teachers, hacks a threat to Celtic Tiger

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By John Kelly

No more than in the U.S., it was a traumatic week for Ireland. It was as frenzied as the exciting bad old days before the advent of the National Partnership when all of the many trade unions engaged happily in murderous free for alls.

It fairly wiped the smile off the face of the Celtic Tiger and left it with a distinct limp. Inevitably, somebody coined the description, the "Celtic Snail."

It was like the bad old days in the tangled field of Irish industrial relations.

It all seems a long time ago, but in the 1960s and ’70s, such lightning strikes were commonplace. Trade unions were much more independent then. The tendency was often to strike first and ask questions later.

Many Irish employers were equally as bloody minded as workers were. Confrontation was the order of the day.

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Trade union amalgamation helped bring about change. Bertie Ahern, in particular, an experienced peacemaker in disputes, took the opportunity to encourage employers and the unions to enter into the so-called National Partnership.

The troika — the government, employers and the unions — have since negotiated annual pay rates.

Until now, it seemed to work quite well. Continuing industrial peace has been one of the mainstays of the successful Irish economy.

Recent events may seem to have unraveled the cozy relationship. But that is not the case. The three disputes that almost brought the country to its knees have been on the boil for quite some time.

The government could see it coming. If any criticism is to be made it can only be made on the basis that it did not act quickly enough to head off the disputes before they happened.

Secondary teachers stopped teaching on a temporary basis and then refused to supervise classes even when they were officially teaching, if you know what I mean.

The result was that schools were effectively out of action for most of the week.

Their union, the Association of Secondary Teachers, is separate from the biggest teaching union in Ireland, the Irish National Teachers Organization, which represents junior grade teachers.

The INTO, one of the most powerful unions within the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the powerful umbrella body for the most Irish unions, accepted the terms of the last national pay deal negotiated with the government.

ASTI took an independent line. It opted instead to do its own bargaining with the government.

It claims with some considerable justification that teacher pay levels are too low. Secondary teachers are all university graduates. They also have to qualify for the Higher Diploma of Education after graduation.

As in many other countries, most notably the U.S., salary rates are relatively low to other professions especially in the early years.

So the union lodged a whopping 30 percent claim.

Not surprisingly, the government rejected it out of hand. However, it did enter into negotiations. They are continuing.

Naturally, the two other Irish teaching unions are closely watching it unfold from the sidelines.

The INTO voted very narrowly to agree to the pay rates negotiated during the last national negotiations. Its members will certainly be sore if their colleagues in the senior schools make considerable gains.

It is a delicate situation for the government. Concessions can lead to knock-on effects all down the line.

The situation is pretty much the same in relation to the various unions representing workers in the transport industry, still virtually a monopoly operated by the state-controlled CIE.

Striking traffic signalers led to the cancellation of mainline services in the Republic, leaving an estimated 50,000 passengers stranded on one day.

Similar stoppages are scheduled. Trade union leaders are now huddled in urgent talks with CIE representatives in the Labor Court.

As with the teachers, all CIE workers, members of different unions, are watching these proceedings with great interest.

This is especially the case with drivers employed on the Dublin suburban DART, the nearest thing we have to subway travel.

The service is extending in response to the ever-increasing demand, the consequence of the city’s rapid growth.

Drivers are pursuing wage increases as the result of the new demands.

Again, the government has to be fully alert to the possibility of knock on effects.

Whatever about those disputes, as difficult and frustrating to the public as they were, the real news was made by taxi drivers. They staged massive protests throughout the country, especially within Dublin.

One of their main targets was Dublin Airport. Entrance and exit roads were blockaded with the result that international travelers, many old or with children, had to walk long distances from the main highway to the terminal building.

Aer Rianta, the body responsible for running Irish airports, was forced to take a court injunction to remove the blockade.

The protest is against the government plan to deregulate taxi licenses in an effort to increase the numbers of vehicles.

Again, growing demand, especially in the mushrooming Dublin metropolitan area, is the main cause.

The supply of taxis is so small and late-night public transport so limited that people have to wait for hours at certain times before they can get a taxi — if they manage at all.

Because licenses were so scarce, it became financially profitable for investors to buy license plates whether they drove taxis or not. They could be rented out for large sums. Prices reached highs of £70,000.

Deregulation will finish all that, of course. The government plan, pushed especially hard by the Progressive Democrats wing of the coalition, will allow plates to be bought for as little as £5,000.

That means a lot of taxi drivers, many of whom paid top dollar for plates, have suddenly lost a hell of a lot of their investment cash.

Not surprisingly, they are hopping mad.

However, their current tactics and their lengthy manipulation of what was effectively a monopoly have certainly not increased their popularity with the long-suffering public.

It has also led to some political wrangling between members of the coalition partners. Some Fianna Fail TDs have already expressed the view that deregulation will prove to be a bad option.

Ironically, all of the disputes have their roots in the success of the Irish economy.

As European economists predict that the Republic will continue to be the red-hot economic achiever in the year to come, it is now becoming apparent that the biggest problem facing Ireland is no longer the fight to overcome economic depression, but how to deal with its success.

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