In the aftermath of the Dublin Bus strikes, Tara Hanneffy asks who exactly is to blame for the industrial action, and why public support is shrinking.
On the 7th of October, Dublin Bus drivers accepted a new deal of a pay rise of 11.25% over three years – and Dublin city breathed a sigh of relief. The pay deal brings to an end the – relatively short – period of strike action that began in September and was due to carry on into October. Dublin endured only a few days of the bus stoppages, but it was enough to send the city into turmoil and begin once more the debate around striking workers.
When the Luas workers went on strike earlier this year, very few people were in their favour. Some were incredulous as to why a Luas driver required more money in order to drive a tram that’s guided by tracks. The general consensus was that if Luas drivers wanted to be treated like train drivers, they should go be train drivers. Dublin was eternally grateful for the Dublin Bus drivers, who could still get them to school and work. Unfortunately, however, then in September of this year, Dublin Bus workers voted in favour of industrial action in a dispute over pay and suddenly the general public were not so grateful.
Why weren’t the public more sympathetic towards the bus drivers? Considering that the Luas drivers had been given a pay rise earlier this year, we surely knew it was coming. The pay increase the bus drivers were looking for was also less than the Luas workers had demanded. The general public tend to agree that “driving a bus is considerably more challenging than driving a Luas” (a statement made by Brendan Farrelly, a Dublin Bus driver and shop steward with the National Bus and Rail Union). If we believe this to be true, why did many start attacking the bus drivers with the idea that ‘unskilled jobs require lower pay’? Why did people claim drivers shouldn’t be striking? In short, why did we get so angry about the bus strikes?
The biggest question that comes to the fore in times of strike is: Who is to blame?
The biggest question that comes to the fore in times of strike is: Who is to blame? Is it the government, for cutting grants to the body in question? Is it the body itself, for not pushing for better pay for their workers? Or does the fault lie with the workers themselves, for inconveniencing the public by striking?
It is not the fault of the workers, because in most cases, strike is the absolute last resort. Strikes happen when all other avenues and approaches have failed. Strikes happen when the workers cannot take any more. So if the workers are not to blame, why do we blame them? Surely it is logical to channel one’s exasperation towards the higher powers, the people who should and could do something about it.
The reality is that most people are just looking for somebody to blame, and that generally tends to be the people whom we know to be directly involved; in the case of Dublin bus, the drivers. Although in some cases, the workers have no choice but to strike, the strikes affect the people who have no power to help the strikers. The general public can do little to aid the workers in their struggle; yet they are the ones left without bus services, Luas services and any means of getting to work, school/college, or even hospital appointments. It is not the fault of the people, yet they lose the most when it comes to strikes. It is not fair, and this unfairness is what leads to feelings of anger and resentment, which later leads to unsympathetic attitudes towards the strikers.
So do people care about workers and strikes? People try, but it’s hard. People understand that the strikers are only trying to get the working conditions and pay they feel they deserve. People understand that sometimes they have no choice but to strike. What people struggle to grapple with is how one group of worker’s problems can shut a whole city down and it can be allowed to happen, not once, but multiple times. Now with the prospect of more transport strikes looming, one has to wonder whether striking is really ‘the only way’. At its root, the problem lies within the concept of striking and not the workers themselves. Is there no other way for workers to exert their annoyance and for it not to plunge millions of people into chaos?
Now due to the Luas and Dublin Bus drivers both being granted considerable pay rises, inevitably industrial action will take place within other transport bodies. In fact, part of the reason Dublin Bus workers went on strike was because they believed that if Luas drivers could be given a pay rise, then surely they were entitled to one too. Now there has been talk of strikes within Bus Eireann, Irish Rail, and even An Garda Síochána. NBRU’s General Secretary Dermot O’Leary has been quoted as saying: “We will now concentrate our focus on Bus Eireann and Irish Rail staff and seek to achieve a long-overdue pay rise for them.” Despite the uproar it causes, it is not likely we’ll see the end of strikes any time soon.
We will only really start caring about strikes when it doesn’t have a huge impact on our lives. It is difficult for people to be sympathetic about a situation that causes a major inconvenience to them, and it is even more difficult for them to sympathise with those taking part. In light of the recent havoc created by the Dublin Bus industrial action, more strikes are not likely to be welcomed by the public with open arms. However, in contrast to the Luas strike, the Dublin Bus strike was resolved relatively quickly, so one can only hope that this marks a change in how strikes are handled. Nevertheless, despite the inconvenience it causes to innocent bystanders, it seems that the bus strikes will only serve as an example to other bodies that striking is the most effective way of getting a reaction – so it is unlikely that we’ve seen the last of the strikes just yet.