Tuesday, 27 May 2008
Private Notice Questions
Dispute in Irish Rail.
I propose to take all the questions together.
I thank the Deputies for raising this matter. I am sure that they condemn this unofficial action that has brought such disruption to train services. The day-to-day operation of train services, including the management of industrial relations, is a matter for Irish Rail.
This industrial action, which has brought almost 20 daily train services in Cork and Kerry to a halt, including commuter services in the Cork city area, has its origins in the refusal by some drivers to undertake in full driving duties that had been agreed with the NBRU and SIPTU national drivers committee and endorsed by the Labour Relations Commission last March. The dispute is affecting thousands of passengers, many of whom are not well placed to organise alternative means of transport. These people are being seriously inconvenienced by this unofficial action, which should cease immediately as far as I am concerned.
Apart from directly impacting on Irish Rail revenue, the unofficial action is also undoing some of the good work carried out by Irish Rail in recent years to improve the quantity and quality of services. There has been sustained high-level capital and current investment in the rail network over the past decade. This year, a total of €522 million in capital funding and €191 million in current funding has been allocated to Irish Rail, which represents an 18% increase on the 2007 figure. That is a substantial level of Exchequer investment in the railway network. It is being used to fund major infrastructure and rolling stock upgrades. The beneficial impact of this Government investment is evident in the increased passenger numbers being carried by Irish Rail, which are up from 31.7 million passengers in 2000 to almost 47 million passengers in 2007, representing a 50% increase. There are now more trains and more services carrying more people than ever. This customer base, growing in response to the improved services, rightly expects a reliable service that is not subject to regular disruption. If it is to retain and expand its customer base and effectively make the case for ongoing investment in the rail network, Irish Rail must be able to guarantee reliability.
Regarding "no strike" clauses, Iarnród Éireann has agreements in place to limit industrial action and its impact on services. The Labour Relations Commission code of practice advocates procedures and safeguards in the case of essential services, namely, those whose cessation or interruption could endanger life, cause major damage to the national economy or widespread hardship to the community. The Labour Relations Commission recommends that parties should recognise the joint responsibility to resolve disputes without resorting to strikes or other forms of industrial action.
Unofficial industrial action hinders the promotion of public transport as a viable alternative and there is a case to be made that "no strike" clauses would improve confidence in public transport and ensure the efficient operation of public transport network services. It would not be appropriate for me to intervene and I do not intend to do so. I regret the inconvenience caused to customers and ask that the unofficial action be withdrawn immediately.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing the private notice question. I was caught in this last Thursday when the dispute broke, as were thousands of others. The Minister referred to the fact that this has been going on for quite some time. Is there no early warning system in the industrial relations machinery of the State that should have picked this up and averted it a long time ago? I welcome the fact that the Labour Relations Commission is meeting both sides today. I wish it well and hope that it resolves the dispute.
Does the Minister agree there is something fundamentally wrong with the relations between some workers and management in Iarnród Éireann to lead to this? It seems to be intractable and bitter. It needs some form of investigation to find out what has led to this and to ensure it does not happen again.
Does the Minister agree that the important matter is to get the trains on track so that the public is not inconvenienced any further? Many thousands of people in Cork have been seriously discommoded over the past while. Will the Minister join with me in calling on both sides to get the trains on track now, to work to sort out whatever residual difficulties exist and to use all the mechanisms of the State to ensure this deep and bitter issue, which has been going on for some time, is resolved as soon as possible so that it will not happen again? Other State companies, such as the ESB, are an example of good practice whereas we have memories of major difficulties in some of those companies in the past. They now have internal mechanisms to ensure we do not experience the kind of problems that are happening in Iarnród Éireann.
Regarding the Deputy's question on early warning systems, the signs have been there for some time. Patient efforts were made by Iarnród Éireann to ensure that services were maintained across the network. The company has tried to contain the action but if one has a small group of individuals who are determined not to comply with normal industrial relations machinery and procedures, it is difficult to do much about it other than cajoling the workers to comply with obligations and agreements made.
I do not accept that there is something inherently wrong with the situation between unions and management in Iarnród Éireann. It must be said again and again that this is unofficial action and is not sanctioned by either trade union in the company. It is the action of a number of individuals in the Cork-Kerry area. Some other people in other areas went out in sympathy. The sympathy should be with the travelling public, not those who do not appear to want to work towards a solution. I agree that if there is a problem between unions and management there are labour relations mechanisms that can solve a dispute. The official unions, SIPTU and NBRU, used this recently to solve it. There is an ongoing discussion between the company and the group of unions on pay, conditions, working hours and pension improvements, which carried on for a long time before being referred, by agreement, to the Labour Relations Commission. There was a conciliation conference on 4 March and the deputy director of conciliation issued a proposal to both parties, which exhorted the drivers to restore full co-operation with training and changes of duty and to cover absences of colleagues. The joint NBRU-SIPTU national drivers committee unanimously accepted the Labour Relations Commission proposal and issued advice to driver members to restore co-operation. We must make the distinction that most drivers responded positively to that and got on with their business. A number have resolutely refused to go back and this is where the difficulties arise.
Is the core of this wildcat strike the refusal of a driver to drive a train, which is his job? The key to the solution of this is the draft proposal made by the Labour Relations Commission in 1992 on essential services, to which the Minister referred. Where essential services are affected, such as rail transport in this case or the air traffic controllers strike earlier this year, we must have an agreement between the social partners — the unions and employers — and this must be based on the consent of both sides. A "no strike" clause must apply to the new code for essential services. Notwithstanding that it is 16 years since these proposals were first made, is it not the case that this proposal does not apply?
Ireland has dropped 17 places in international competitiveness in a few short years. We cannot afford to have the image portrayed that Ireland is a bad place to invest in with the cancellation of major intercity trains between the county's two largest business and urban centres for days on end. If we have a "no strike" clause in place and if there is a new partnership agreement, as part of the Minister's role should he not intervene in partnership agreements to ensure a mandatory cooling off period of six months at a minimum in a case like this? The vast majority of workers do not want or support this strike but a small number of wildcat strikers are getting away with it. We must deal with them effectively in the modern economy. We must put them outside the agreement of workers and unions who consent to this. We must ensure our economy is not held to ransom by people refusing to drive a train, which is actually their job.
The Deputy is correct that this particular phase of the dispute came to a head when a driver based in Cork refused to undertake a particular duty, namely, to facilitate the training of four trainee drivers. He refused to undertake this duty on the basis that he had been assigned a different duty per his roster. Following removal of the person concerned from the roster, 12 other drivers in Cork refused to operate their rosters.
Previously, where such disputes arose people were suspended with pay. However, in this case the drivers have been advised payment to them will not resume until they have returned to duty and accepted the proposal agreed by everybody else. This is proving to be the core of the problem, the final straw, although I suspect given the background to this dispute that there is more involved.
I share the view expressed to me today and previously by Deputy O'Dowd that a "no strike" clause should be negotiated as part of the social partnership agreements to prevent this type of irresponsible striking. I have no difficulty saying this. A problem arises in respect of those people who put themselves outside——
It may be the answer but it may also cause a greater problem at the end of the day. A difficulty arises in respect of "no strike" clauses. As I stated earlier, we have chosen the route of partnership and have set up various mechanisms in this regard. We now have in place as fine an industrial relations machinery as any state. We have chosen the route of partnership rather than the introduction of draconian legislation. However, instances like this give rise to questions such as those raised by Deputy O'Dowd and others in respect of the provision of essential services. We need to put in place legislation to deal with the taking of unofficial action in this regard.
I welcome the involvement of the Labour Relations Commission. I hope a basis for a quick resolution of this dispute will emerge as soon as possible.
In any public transport system commuters must come first. It was totally unacceptable last Thursday that thousands of people were left stranded on platforms waiting for trains that did not arrive. It is also unacceptable that many people missed important appointments and were unable to attend concerts, community games and so on. This should not have happened.
It appears this problem has been simmering for at least seven or eight years. The new deal for locomotive drivers emerged in 2000. I note that in 2006 there was to be a final resolution in respect of hours worked given an agreement in this regard had been reached in 2000. However, this was not implemented. It is the job of management to implement an agreement but it did not do so.
Has the chief executive, Dick Fearn, and the Irish Rail management team brought to the Minister's attention since he took up office as Minister for Transport this festering industrial relations problem which needed to be resolved? As the Minister stated, a majority of workers turned up willing and available to work but were not permitted to do so. Is there any substance, therefore, in the charge made by SIPTU and others, that to some extent management allowed this dispute to happen? As I understand it, the day the dispute arose an industrial relations meeting was taking place in respect of the resolution of the basic problems, including hours to be worked, which dated back to 2000.
The Minister noted the achievements of Irish Rail and mentioned it had carried as many passengers last year as Ryanair. The Government's investment in Irish Rail is welcome as is the company's performance right across the board. What everybody in the country wants now is for the trains to be running again. Commuters in Cork, Mallow, Tralee, Dublin and elsewhere have been discommoded and they want the trains up and running immediately. In that context, is it not invidious that any kind of preconditions would have been set, as happened yesterday? The service could have been back in action as soon as possible with substantive negotiations in hand.
I agree with the Deputy that commuters must come first. We all share the view in respect of the provision of quality customer services at all times. Of particular importance in respect of a quality customer service is the provision of a reliable and dependable service, one from which people will not walk away at the drop of a hat. It is important people bear this in mind.
I set out at a recent rail union conference the importance of providing a reliable service. As I stated, passenger numbers have increased by almost 50% from almost 32 million passengers to 47 million passengers in a relatively short period. With the roll-out of new stock on the Sligo, Limerick and other lines, the creation of the new hourly services between Dublin and Cork and improvements throughout the system, people are beginning to believe we have a rail system that is reliable, fast, efficient and comfortable. The evidence exists; people are voting with their feet.
The progress we have made during the past six or seven years can be undone in two or three days as a result of this type of strike action. I do not believe this is acceptable. Those responsible for this dispute are doing themselves and the company a huge disservice and they should stop it. Deputy Broughan is correct that there have been underlying industrial relations issues in the company for almost seven years. People are aware, however, that it takes two to tango. As the Deputy stated, the issue first arose in 2000 following a proposal to reduce the working week for drivers, the core working hours and in respect of improvements to pensions and so on. Discussion on these issues commenced at that time. An improvement in the working hours for drivers was achieved in 2001 but negotiations on the matter have not yet concluded. This also benefited pensionable pay. In return for these concessions and making them official, the company is seeking three major changes in work practices in respect of performance pay, central rostering and contingency drivers. These issues have been ongoing since then. They are the background to this more immediate dispute.
With regard to the Deputy's other question, if people say they want to come back to work they should come back without preconditions. They are the people on unofficial dispute and it is not unreasonable of the company to ask them to sign up to not walking out again in 24 or 48 hours if the mood takes them. I have no issue with this from a company point of view.
I welcome the intervention of the Labour Relations Commission and I wish it well in its efforts to get the trains back on track. The Minister must agree that over the years CIE and Iarnród Éireann have been in an industrial backwater with archaic management and working practices. Even though we had the modernisation of the rolling stock in recent years, some of these archaic practices still exist in management and work practices. Yesterday, when workers indicated they would return to work they had to sign up or not be allowed back. Did the Minister ask whether anybody realised this was akin to throwing petrol on a simmering labour relations problem? Did anybody ask whether it was inevitable the travelling public would be victims again because of a management decision?
I condemn wildcat strikes and unofficial strikes. However, as the Minister stated it takes two to tango. The very act of asking people to sign on a dotted line yesterday inflamed the situation and made it worse. I agree the Minister cannot get involved directly in talks between management and workers. However, the question must be asked as to why this type of inflammatory act was allowed to impose on the travelling public yesterday.
As I stated, this was and is unofficial action. Discussions took place some time back at the Labour Relations Commission to resolve outstanding difficulties. A recommendation was made by the deputy director of conciliation. He issued a proposal to the parties. This proposal exhorted the drivers to restore full co-operation with training, changing of duties within turn and covering the absence of colleagues. This was unanimously accepted by the trade unions, NBRU and SIPTU, and their committees. Last Thursday, and not for the first time, several people decided they would not honour this and caused the current difficulties. Perhaps the Deputy is more aware than I am that this is not the first time this has happened. They went back before and came back out again.
In these circumstances it is not unreasonable to ask people to sign up to state they will not do it again and will let the Labour Relations Commission get on with its business and deal with the issue. I do not think it was designed to inflame the situation and nor should it. At that time, the drivers had indicated they were willing to come back, work and co-operate on everything else. All they were being asked to do was confirm it in writing and I do not think this was unreasonable.
I acknowledge the inconvenience caused to the travelling public, whether they are travelling to work, social or sporting events, family meetings and the usual reasons people travel. We are acutely aware the LRC talks have been under way for less than three hours. We wish all those involved well and hope a positive outcome will be achieved this evening to allow people get back to work tomorrow morning and allow the public to travel and use Iarnród Éireann's facilities.
While I understand the Minister cannot jump in to intervene in every dispute on day one or two, can he employ a mechanism to involve the LRC much earlier in disputes such as this? I wonder with regard to all areas and not only transport whether a mechanism can be found to involve the LRC at an earlier date to get people together and talking, sort matters out and get everybody back to business as soon as possible.
It is ironic just minutes after I moved a Bill to amend the Constitution and which calls for union recognition, recognition of collective bargaining and the right to strike that we are discussing a "no strike" clause. We had clear early warning signs with regard to this. I understand what the Minister stated with regard to the difficulties involved. Could a greater effort have been made by all involved, particularly management and the trade unions, to have this closed off before it came to the point of inconveniencing the public for six days?
I share Deputy Allen's view on management seeking workers to sign up to not striking again when it was clearly an extremely fraught time. Does the Minister accept that an opportunity existed to get people back to work and to use the time productively to try to negotiate and get everybody's head around what needs to happen, resolve possible disputes and allow the public to travel?
The Deputy raised an interesting question. I am long enough in this House to remember times when Ministers directly and publicly intervened in strikes and disputes within State and semi-State companies. They were berated by everybody——
——on all sides of the House for interfering in the day to day running and management of a company.
To ensure we keep party politics out of it as much as possible we created an elaborate set of labour relations arrangements such as the Labour Court, which has been established for a long time, the Labour Relations Commissions and other ways and means such as partnership and implementation bodies, to try to ensure the people in dispute discussed the dispute and tried to resolve their difficulties through the partnership model. It was not felt political intervention was the best way.
Those mechanisms are in place and they were used in this instance to try to resolve outstanding difficulties. A Labour Relations Commission report was made on this and accepted by the unions. A group of workers decided to step outside of it. From everybody's point of view, we are back to square one. The mechanisms that exist should be used where necessary. There is no excuse for this type of dispute where workers step outside the mechanism.
I regard the recognition of unions as extremely important. In the past, unions have shown themselves to be responsible in their attitude and response to the national interest. Partnership has enshrined that. A number of people decided they wanted to step outside of that. One cannot make much of an effort to avert something that one does not know will happen. By its very nature, a wildcat strike flares up, as this did, even though there were underlying issues. Now that the LRC is communicating with both union and management, that is the place to resolve this dispute rather than anywhere else and I sincerely hope it will be resolved.
I agree with the Minister regarding the level of service on offer on the Cork to Dublin and Tralee to Dublin routes. It has been a success, which is evidenced by the large number of people availing of the service, and this makes last Thursday's wildcat strike all the more difficult for people to take. It affected many people who had made plans for the weekend and it affected them yesterday and today. Passengers cannot make plans and nobody knows where they stand for the week.
One driver refused to operate a roster last Thursday and 12 others went out in sympathy with him. Is 13 the total number of drivers involved? I accept many drivers want to return to work and they are not happy with the position in which they find themselves. This issue has been simmering for a long time and anyone who uses the rail service regularly will be aware of stoppages and delays. When issues have flared up previously, they were resolved in a few days. This is an unofficial dispute and I acknowledge the role the unions and the LRC are playing. However, is the Minister committed to the introduction of a "no strike" clause, particularly for essential services? Earlier, he seemed to indicate his support for such a provision. Can we take it he does and that he will introduce such a clause for a limited number of essential services in order that the public will not be discommoded to such an extent?
With regard to a "no strike" clause for essential services, in 1992 under section 42 of the Industrial Relations Act 1990, the LRC, following consultation with the ICTU and IBEC, prepared a code of practice on dispute procedures, including procedures for essential services. The code is designed to assist employers and trade unions in making agreements that recognise the rights and interests of the parties concerned and contains procedures that will resolve issues in a peaceful manner and avoid the need for the parties to resort to actions that would lead to a disruption of supplies and services. This voluntary approach has worked very well in general since it was put in place. I encourage unions and management in as many companies and essential services as possible to adopt this approach. However, if a number of workers intend to be as disruptive as possible, all the no strike clauses in the world will not help, whether they are voluntary or provided for in legislation. It is not up to an individual company or union to negotiate such a clause. The way to approach this is to discuss such a provision at partnership rather than having it imposed by a Minister or a company.
The Deputy asked about the total number of drivers involved. One driver refused to work and he was followed by 12 others who went out in sympathy with him. The following day a number of drivers in Athlone, Galway and Westport joined the unofficial stoppage in sympathy with the Cork drivers. I am not sure about the total number of drivers involved nor am I sure about the total number employed by Iarnród Éireann.
On a related issue, the union has sought reduced working hours for drivers and the company has attempted to train additional drivers in order that the agreement on reduced hours could be put in place. A number of drivers have as little as two hours training to complete and, therefore, the action is not only causing problems for passengers, it is also causing problems for the company and the drivers who would like to work more regular rostered hours. It is causing them difficulty because the new drivers cannot be deployed, which is regrettable. I hope sense will prevail and the drivers who are causing major disruption will think a little more about commuters and resume the provision of a quality customer service on the routes in question.
The Minister indicated the normal reaction to an unofficial action is to suspend a worker with pay. Is it normal to tell someone he is off the payroll? What mechanism is in place to provide for this? Is that the equivalent of sacking somebody on the spot? Is the Minister saying it would be preferable to suspend workers with pay and hold discussions? Will he receive a report on the dispute from the LRC or the company when it is resolved? Will he investigate it further to ascertain what improvements can be made in order that such an action cannot happen again? Does he agree it is most important to ensure services resume as soon as possible while the talks are ongoing or is he saying the talks should conclude, an agreement should be finalised and everything signed up before services resume?
I am not saying that. Trains should not be stopped. The drivers should work in accordance with the agreements in place and trains should run, irrespective of what is happening at the LRC or anywhere else. No suspensions should happen or be lifted on the basis of the outcome of the LRC talks. This is an unofficial action, which should not be happening, irrespective of whether the commission is in discussions with the parties involved. The trains should be running.
With regard to my reference to suspensions, previously when such an action took place, drivers were suspended with pay but, in this instance, the drivers are deemed not to be available for work and, therefore, they are not being paid. That is a reasonable position.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to contribute. I am a regular user of the Mallow to Dublin service and I rely on it greatly. It is perhaps a credit to Iarnród Éireann in some respects that it has rolled out a fairly extensive service. However, credit is also due to the existing drivers on those routes. Some of these drivers have eaten considerably into their holiday time over the past 12 months because of the shortage of drivers and were refused leave in some instances when they sought and gave notice for leave for family occasions like confirmation or first holy communion.
While we agree this is an unofficial strike — I particularly welcome the fact that the LRC machinery is now kicking in and I hope that both sides will come to a compromise on this — there needs to be a roll-out of the drivers as promised. If that can be expedited so that the service is resumed and the existing drivers are not put under increasing pressure that should be done.
There are two sides to this Iarnród Éireann story. I hope it will come to a successful conclusion. Some drivers have been very flexible in their approach with Iarnród Éireann and have been more than willing to accede to its wishes in terms of practices. I hope Iarnród Éireann will reciprocate in kind.
Services from the town of Tralee could be at risk. I understand the figures regarding passengers carried from Tralee are dropping. In view of the competition from Ryanair and so on from Cork Airport, this strike could affect the future or frequency of the service from Tralee.
Rather than go into the nitty gritty of the points local people have properly made and which have been answered in many cases, the point I make is that for 14 weeks in a row this spring, the early morning commuter train from Portlaoise was cancelled because of this industrial action. It is not something that is just confined to Cork but concerns issues that affect commuters right around the country. In his reply, the Minister said he does not disagree with the idea of legislation to deal with this issue. In this LRC document, the key point the commission makes is that where the parties have continued to disagree and the LRC forms that opinion, it should then consult the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and IBEC. The document states that:
The objective of such consultation should be to secure their assistance and co-operation with whatever measures may be necessary to resolve the dispute including, where appropriate, arrangements which would provide a basis for a continuation of normal working for a period not exceeding six months while further efforts by the parties themselves or the dispute settlement agencies were being made to secure a full and final settlement of the issues in dispute.
That is the core point I make to the Minister about the "no strike" clause. Effectively, having gone through all the options, ultimately, the LRC tells both the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and business people that they must go back to work for six weeks and that it will continue to make every effort to resolve this dispute. We must take a firm stand on this and if legislation is needed, I put it to the Minister that this is the sort of "no strike" clause that would effectively come into play at that point.
Clearly, the right of workers to collective bargaining is a key belief of my party. Talking about "no strike" clauses is pointless, right-wing rhetoric that does not solve the fundamental issue for commuters and the company. The Irish Rail Users Union has spoken about the necessity for independently set and monitored standards of service that would be delivered. I note in respect of the debate on the Dublin Transport Authority, which the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Noel Ahern, took last week because the Minister was not in the House, that, obviously, contracts of service will exist. However, the Minister is not bringing forward a national transport regulator so in a situation like the one we are discussing this evening, there is no body that can insist on a particular type of service delivery. Does the Minister think he should look again at the necessity for a national transport authority?
The Minister did not respond to my earlier question about whether management at Iarnród Éireann brought to his attention the fact that it had a long-running and deep-seated problem in respect of the management of working time and the successful expansion of the network. I understand it is training 60 drivers at present and so on. Given that this is the case, was the Minister forewarned that this was likely to happen and could management have done more to stop it?
The Minister spoke about people signing preconditions but the travelling public would prefer it if at least the bulk of the service would run. There is no point in trying to make debating points when people are left without a transport service. The most important point is to get the trains running on time and get the service back.
I agree with the Deputy that it would be better to have the service back but not just for 24 hours or 48 hours or until somebody decides to take issue with an instruction again in the future. That kind of service is no good for anybody. What everybody wants is for the service to be resumed and for people to be able to make plans and not be left like the people last Thursday who wanted to go to rugby matches, community games or a concert and suddenly found that there were no trains to bring them. We should not just roll over and let them back without getting them to sign anything so that they can do this again on a bank holiday weekend when they think it is a good day to have another strike. It is not a debating point or anything else; it is a fact.
We have had enough of this kind of carry-on from a small number of people who are giving the rest of the drivers, the official trade union movement and the company a bad name and preventing people from making the full change to public transport. Now that this problem is where it is, it should be resolved finally rather than resolved for 24 hours or 48 hours or until somebody decides that they will head off in a different direction again.
I apologise for neglecting to answer Deputy Broughan's question about whether I was made aware of a deep-seated problem. I was made aware in briefings when I came into the Department and in meetings with the company that there is an ongoing labour relations problem within the company to which I averted earlier on. Attempts have been made to resolve this problem over a period. The way to solve it is to use the full labour relations mechanisms of the State, as both the official unions and the management have been doing. I encourage both sides to do this and bring the problem to some conclusion so that we will not have people trying to exploit the problem for whatever reason.
I agree with the Deputy that service delivery is extremely important. The sequence of events I have laid out in the transport area in respect of regulation is that we would set up the DTA, reform the 1932 Act and, in light of the experience, decide on the national transport authority or a national transport regulator. That is in accordance with the programme for Government and we intend to do that.
I have dealt with the points made and will not delay the time of the House in respect of "no strike" clauses, with which we have dealt. I again acknowledge that Deputy O'Dowd raised the matter. Deputy Sherlock is correct in saying that at various times, some drivers have been under pressure. I would say that leave could not be granted to them rather, than that leave was refused, because sufficient drivers were not available at any particular time. Refusing to train the trainee drivers, as was the case in this instance, is not a way to relieve the problems in respect of having to work longer hours because there are insufficient drivers on the roster.
I accept what the Deputy says regarding some drivers having to work longer hours than they want to but that is not going to be resolved by blocking the 60 people that are in training, some of whom are within two days of being fully qualified train drivers and who would expand the workforce and number of drivers, thereby taking pressure off the current drivers. That is not the answer to that particular problem. The answer is to allow the training to continue, as per agreements and to allow the drivers to complete their course. That will ensure that there are sufficient staff rostered to relieve the pressures that exist.