The Drive To Privatisation Condemned

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‘THE most dramatic strategic shift of the balance against ordinary citizens, especially the ill and infirm, in over a generation, has been the drive towards privatisation implicit in the move to co-locate hospitals’, SIPTU trade union General President Jack O’Connor told delegates at the opening of the union’s biennial conference in Tralee, in the Irish Republic.

Co-location had been marketed on the basis of freeing-up capacity in crowded general acute hospitals, but he warned that ‘the ruthless law of the market will ultimately prevail.

‘The private side will flourish while public facilities will be gradually starved of resources because those who depend on them will not command the political influence to assert their interests’.

He also criticised the government for being one of only three EU countries that ‘refused to legislate for the principle of equal treatment for Agency Workers’.

He pointed out that wage rates in one sector where use of agency workers was widespread, hotels and catering, had actually fallen in the first quarter of this year.

‘Unless it was rectified, the abuse of agency workers will grow like a cancer threatening the quality of everyone’s job’.

In the light of ‘the ongoing assault on security and quality of employment across the private and public sectors ‘the question of our ongoing participation in social partnership arises’, he said.

The process was ‘only legitimate if it reconciles the objectives of maintaining competitiveness with simultaneously enhancing fairness at work and quality of life in society.’

The focus was ‘entirely on the wrong question. The real issue is the extent to which we are really serious about building a strong trade Union Movement.’

Referring to the powerful impact of the Irish Ferries mobilisation on employment protection reform, he said, ‘Sometimes we can become too reliant on the structures evolved under social partnership to address our needs but we, as a movement, must never lose sight of the fact that we draw our mandate from organised workers or let our opponents forget it either.’ There was a danger of focussing on ‘the growth in membership rather than the fall in density’.

The fundamental flaw with this approach was that ‘we concentrate all our energies, all our resources, and all of our pressure on employers who recognise people’s right to organise, whilst those who don’t get off largely Scot free.

‘We must get serious about marshalling the resources needed to support workers who want to organise and demand their rights from employers who interpret the “can do‚ culture” of modern Ireland as a license to walk on others.

‘There can be no equivocation on this. It is way past wake up time for all of us. We must deploy resources, change strategy and tactics, and ensure a degree of co-operation never attained between trade unions before’.

He criticised the ‘privatisation juggernaut’ and the failure of the government to learn anything from the Eircom debacle, before ‘the sale of Aer Lingus was rammed through’.

Those opposed to privatising the national airline had been vindicated and ‘near absolute control’ of our aviation sector now rested with Ryanair.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has also warned about the privatisation of health care.

Its statement said: ‘By persisting with the privatisation of Irish health care though “co-location”, the government is ignoring the clear lessons of the past and ensuring that Ireland will soon be witnessing another privatisation debacle.’

Addressing the SIPTU National Conference in Tralee on October 2, Congress Economic Advisor, Paul Sweeney, warned that the co-location argument is state subsidised privatisation through tax incentives to investors.

‘Firstly, as with past privatisations, there is no great clamour or demand for this – who campaigned for the privatisation of Eircom?

‘Secondly, despite all efforts, the proponents have failed to produce a sound business case with compelling social and financial reasons for the “co-location” plan. The same happened with Aer Lingus, where no business case was produced. Many state companies have been privatised at a fraction of their true value.

‘For example, the battle between private equity firms for Irish Ferries, a former state company, is really about the valuable land assets.

‘Greencore, formerly Irish Sugar, had huge under-valued land assets, and got tens of millions in EU sugar subsidies.

‘Two state banks ACC and ICC were sold at a fraction of their true value. So too, it will be found in later years that the leases on hospital lands will have been given at a fraction of their real value.

‘In both instances, the results for the Irish economy and society have proven disastrous, with loss of control of key strategic assets and a diminution in the service provided. We can expect the health services to suffer similarly.’

The government also needed to deliver on its commitments in the Towards 2016‚ national agreement to address the pressing issue of occupational pensions.

Meanwhile, industrial action is extremely likely at Dublin Port Tunnel according to SIPTU Branch Organiser, Owen Reidy.

Transroute Tunnel Operations are refusing to engage in discussions with SIPTU over the terms and conditions of employment of Union members, Mr Reidy said.

He added: ‘Despite the fact that the workers have organised themselves over the last twelve months, management has consistently refused to afford them respect and their basic right to be collectively represented by SIPTU.

‘It is completely unacceptable that a company which has been awarded an attractive State contract – and given significant public monies to operate a vital piece of public infrastructure – should deny their employee’s legitimate right to be collectively represented by a trade union.

‘The rates of pay and terms of conditions of employment are significantly lower at Transroute than at other well known competitors and this issue must be dealt with.

‘The workers have been trying to engage with management collectively since June of this year in order to address their concerns and to build a constructive and progressive relationship with Transroute, which reflects a level playing pitch. The company has however, steadfastly refused to enter into negotiations with us.

‘The workers‚ objective is to avoid a dispute which has the potential to close the port tunnel and severely disrupt the travelling public. However, should management maintain its current negative and out-dated approach, then a serious dispute, while regrettable, may be inevitable.

‘We have already alerted the NRA to this serious matter,’ concluded Reidy.

Transroute Tunnel Operations (set up by a French company Transroute International), were given a five year contract in 2005 by the National Roads Authority to operate and maintain the Port Tunnel. The contract is reportedly worth 15m euros to Transroute over the five year period.

Also, SIPTU says Aer Lingus Management has no conception of social partnership or social responsibility in its new attack on workers pay and conditions.

SIPTU is calling a meeting of its workplace representatives from Dublin, Cork and Shannon in response to the pay freeze and ultimatum on cutbacks by Aer Lingus Chief Executive Dermot Mannion.

Following this the union will be demanding a meeting with Mannion to challenge his decision and the basis on which it was made.

‘Aer Lingus has sunk to a new low in threatening our members with a pay freeze because they haven’t agreed to the company’s cost cutting plan, involving cuts in the earnings of many members of between 4,000 euros and 5,000 euros per annum’, SIPTU National Industrial Secretary Michael Halpenny said yesterday afternoon.

‘It is even worse when you consider that the Chief Executive himself reportedly earned 982,000 euros this year in respect of his work over the preceding twelve months and that the company convened a general meeting to sanction, amongst other things, a new long term incentive bonus programme for an undisclosed number of managers for pushing through pay cuts.

‘In the process, Aer Lingus management has reneged on both local and national agreements between the Social Partners under T2016.

‘Further, it is in breach of commitments entered into prior to privatisation that it would honour such agreements.

‘The company is also in breach of Labour Court Recommendation 18550, last March, which only allows it to open new bases provided there is no adverse impact on the job security of existing staff.

‘Clearly in the case of Shannon it has done the opposite. It appears that Aer Lingus’ only strategy for the future is to take money and jobs off the workers and transfer the value to senior management and the big investors.

‘Our members are not going to succumb to this kind of blackmail. They are entitled to expect all agreements, including the pay provisions of T2016, to be honoured.

‘They are entitled to expect that management will adhere to normal industrial relations procedures including those laid down in T2016. Above all they are entitled to respect as workers and not have to endure these attempts by management to bully them into submission.’