By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Industrial relations turmoil is set to continue in the run up to the Dec. 6 budget with a bitter row about the deregulation of the taxi market causing travel chaos in Dublin and leading to a split in the ranks of the coalition.
After years of trying to resolve the taxi shortage in Dublin, the tightly controlled market of 2,700 licenses in Dublin and 600 throughout the country has been thrown open and thousands of would-be cabbies have made inquiries.
The move by Progressive Democrats junior Minister Bobby Molloy followed a High Court decision that ruled out his earlier offer to grant new licenses on a one-to-one ratio to existing license holders.
The opening of the market means that about 150 licenses a week, at a cost of £5,000 each, will be issued and demand will regulate the numbers.
The effect of the deregulation has been to sharply devalue existing licenses that had been changing hands on an unofficial market at up to £80,000 each.
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The drivers say a promised tax deal to allow them to write off what they had paid is unacceptable.
It might have given many of the existing license holders a virtual tax holiday for life and media reports have suggested that widespread evasion in the cash business is the reason the offer is so unattractive.
The taximen have been on a full-scale strike since Molloy made his announcement last week and they plan to meet him this week. They say it is for "negotiations," he says it is for "discussions" and the new deal stands.
In the meantime the public suffers. Not only are there no taxis, but their protests have meant slow convoys and blockades on the airport that caused widespread disruption.
The public have little sympathy with the taximen, having suffered with a dreadful service and long queues. Any support they had has virtually evaporated as traffic gridlocked and people were intimidated. An element even threatened to end their service for the disabled.
Within the coalition, traditional sympathy among Fianna Fail backbenchers for the taximen again emerged. Junior Minister Willie O’Dea was taped at a Limerick meeting by RTE describing it as a "disastrous, bad decision" outside Dublin and blaming the PDs.
"They are sticking by their line, but we have seen that before and we’ve seen things change overnight," O’Dea said of his party’s coalition partner. "So, let’s keep the pressure on."
While the taximen grabbed the headlines, other disputes rumbled on and are set to continue this week.
Industrial action by secondary teachers will close schools for three days this week. A two-day rail stoppage hangs on the outcome of Labor Court talks on the rail signal staff dispute. Meanwhile, rail level-cross staff are gearing up for action.
Tara Mines is still hit by a dispute about contract staff and promotions and disputes remain unresolved in many areas of the public service, such as the health service and Aer Lingus.
The mounting industrial tension bodes ill for the key incomes deal, the Partnership for Prosperity and Peace, which is only existing on life support. Inflation, currently running at 6.8 percent, has eroded the benefits of the deal.
Unions are looking for compensatory pay increases from employers and a new tax and social welfare deal in the budget.
However, the scale of the industrial revolt — with both official disputes and wildcat actions — means there is already a semi-controlled free-for-all on wages.