Seanad Éireann - Volume 128 - 25 April, 1991

ESB Dispute: Statements.

An Cathaoirleach: I understand that the Minister for Labour is coming into the House. I call on Senator McKenna.

Mr. McKenna: As Labour spokesman for the Government, I welcome the opportunity to make this statement on this dreadful dispute which is taking place at the moment. It is all the more serious [1119] because of the total chaos that is being experienced in every facet of Irish life. It also happens at a time when the country was approaching a situation where we were on a par with the levels of industrial peace in the best European economies. We have to maintain that level of restraint if we wish to continue our economic development. If we have not got the right climate then most certainly the investment and job creation so necessary for the progress of this country is put into very serious jeopardy indeed.

Everyone knows the dreadful situation that exists at present. Industry is being brought to a standstill. Indeed, we are aware of many industries where it is vital that they would keep their production levels and production schedules on time. The fact that the dispute has now occurred is putting those industries in serious threat of total closure. There are examples throughout the country where that is happening at the moment.

Farmers, shopkeepers, housewives, young, old, sick and infirm are all severely affected. Schools and every facet of Irish life are being adversely and seriously affected by this really unwarranted dispute. The Government have made every effort to ensure that adequate machinery for the settlement of industrial disputes exists. We now have in place, as a result of the new legislation, one of the most fundamental reviews of trade union dispute and industrial relations law that we ever had since. the foundation of the State. The Labour Relations Commission has been put in place, to which the vast majority of Senators paid such glowing tributes in this House not all that long ago. The ESB have their own internal machinery, which has proved relatively successful in the past.

Industrial disputes in large public service utilities portray an image of the country, both at home and abroad, that is, to say the least, very unhelpful. The damage being done to the economy as a whole and to people in general and the hardship being caused is totally out of [1120] proportion to the issues involved in this dispute. Surely it should be possible to call off the action and allow proper procedures to operate to find a settlement.

The most surprising fact is that this dispute is occurring so soon after agreement on a three year programme was reached between all the social partners and the Government. That programme was overwhelmingly endorsed by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. I do not think that any small sectional group should be allowed to hold the rest of the country to ransom. That has to be read into the record. This country cannot stand the type of small sectional groups of people who for their own specific reasons hold the rest of the country up to ransom and are at this moment causing such widespread difficulties, confusion and frustration throughout the whole country.

Whether it takes today, tomorrow, next week or the week after, the dispute is going to be settled anyway. But at the end of the day what happens is that industry, the people themselves and all sorts of sections within the economy have to pick up the pieces and start again. If the dispute continues for any further length of time the difficulty is that there will be no pieces for some of the industries to pick up. We are going to cause a very serious situation throughout the country.

The provisions of the Programme for Economic and Social Progress must be adhered to. There is no way that that programme can be broken. It is in everyone's interest that this dispute should be settled immediately. I am calling on the strikers to return to work immediately and have the dispute settled within the proper procedures as laid down there for them.

Mr. Manning: May I, first of all, thank the Leader of the House for having so readily agreed to my request this morning to make this half hour available so that the views of the House can be put on the record? Clearly, we are all very conscious that we do not want to say anything which could exacerbate a difficult situation. [1121] Nonetheless there are certain things that have to be said and need to be said and must be said here this morning.

First, I do not believe that I have ever seen such widespread total seething anger among so many people throughout our community as is felt over this particular strike. If that anger can be translated into pressure on the various sides in the dispute to bring it to a fast end, then so much the better. We have at least the opportunity here this morning to put our views on the record in that regard. The strike is without doubt the biggest failure in Irish industrial relations in the past decade or longer. More important than that, it is a strike which is totally unnecessary. It is a strike which has, as has been said, consequences out of all proportion to the issues involved or to anything which can come when it is settled. It should never have happened. Like other speakers, the first most important thing to be said here today is to support the plea to the strikers to go back to work. They have made their point. They must now get back within the proper procedures. They will not be easily forgiven if they do not do that.

The question of who is to blame is something which must be faced up to. There are lessons which must be learned from this dispute. The ESB certainly must share a very major proportion of the blame. It is a monopoly and holds trust from the public. It is the key semi-State body in our community. It has a duty to be in the forefront in industrial relations. It often has been in the past. On this occasion there has been total failure on the part of the ESB management. They failed to anticipate. They failed to deal properly with the issues. Most of all, they failed to warn the public at large of how imminent and how serious the consequences would be. There are questions to be asked about the ESB.

The ETU has pushed its claim further down than any responsible union should in view of the consequences which flowed from it. Nothing can justify what they have done — the damage which has been caused, the fear felt by old people, the plight of those who are ill, those who are [1122] uncertain, people locked in large blocks of flats and the lifts not working, the jobs lost; the exports lost, the damage to our economic fabric. All of this is incalculable and should have been part of their calculations when they decided to go that step further. It was all done to make a point, just for a few pounds more. That, at the end of the day, is all that will result from this. Put that against the consequences of what has happened.

I would also like to know — as, I am sure, the Minister does — what happened to the early warning system that the new Labour Relations Commission is there to provide. One of the key functions of that commission was to provide the sort of early warning system which could anticipate strikes like this coming up. It certainly has not worked on this occasion. Maybe it is not long enough there. The Minister and every Member of this House want to know why it did not work on this occasion with such extraordinary consequences. The ICTU may ask themselves some questions about their importance in this situation, their inability to do anything.

This morning I telephoned the ESB, because my own house is out completely and will be out for the duration of the strike. A very nice man at the other end, who is taking abuse day and night for what is happening, said to me two things: he was ashamed to be associated with the ESB and he was ashamed to be a member of a union. He said: “If the strikers out there could hear the phone calls I am getting minute after minute from old people, frightened people, sick people, people whose jobs are at stake, they would go back because nothing can justify the hardship and chaos they are causing”. I say here this morning to the Minister and all involved, and especially to the strikers, for God's sake get back to work. Let the proper procedures take place. The damage being inflicted on the country is little short of national sabotage. The sooner sanity comes back, the better. We in this House, without taking sides, without apportioning blame, must stand behind the call to return to work [1123] and the call for a return to sanity and to proper procedures.

An Cathaoirleach: I am taking the leaders in the same order as we take them on the Order of Business.

Mr. O'Toole: That is the tradition of the House. I would like to make a number of points which are important. I can stand up here and from a trade union point of view I can say without a shadow of a doubt, with my hand on my heart, bad management blew the lights out all over the country. I can spend as long as I want in justifying that position, but I do not think it adds very much to the debate. I think it is a reality. It is as easy to blame one side as the other. As Senator Manning said, there is blame to be apportioned on both sides, but he very clearly apportioned blame to one side rather than the other when it came down to it.

Mr. Manning: I did not.

Mr. O'Toole: The reality in any industrial dispute is that it is the person at the end of the line who has to take the action and the person suffering at the end of the line is going to be the worker. In any industrial dispute the general public are not really interested until the action is taken and then invariably it is the workers who are the ones who have to take the blame.

As far as I am concerned, I see this dispute as a reflection of inadequate procedures. I see it as a reflection of the failure of industrial relations within the ESB. Industrial relations have two sides — I readily admit that point — but it is not just an issue for today. As Senator McKenna said earlier, we had those who welcomed the Industrial Relations Bill in the media and other places some months back. They welcomed the fact that we would no longer need crisis involvement from ICTU and from the Minister for Labour, that we would now set up a Labour Relations Commission to deal with these things. It is quite unfair and [1124] illogical to hear these people today, in the media and other places, calling for the Minister to intervene and calling for ICTU to intervene.

Industrial relations are in chaos in many places because everybody wants to go to the top of the line before they use the structures. As far as I am concerned, this action — and I do not intend to justify it — is a reflection and an expression of the frustration being experienced by a group of workers who for four years have been trying to process a claim with management, a group of workers who a month ago offered talks. It seems to me incredible that management refused the ETU's offer of a readiness to talk a month ago and that they waited for the cooling off period to expire before they got around to talking. I want to make that point firmly for the record, that much could have been happening on this over the last month in order to achieve some improvement.

The reality is that this is the management who were surprised to find themselves at the end of this very difficult action. It seems to me that that is an extraordinary admission and an extraordinary reflection of an inept control of the organisation of the ESB. I certainly cannot have confidence in a management who could be so surprised, who could so mislead the rest of us with statements that we did not have anything to worry about, who refused to accept the offer of the ETU a month ago for talks on this matter. This is a long term claim. It was being pushed through the procedures. It is something that not only is not part of the present programme but was initiated before the last programme.

That is the reality. It is no wonder these workers are frustrated. I would also ask them if they could reconsider their position, if we could perhaps get a bit of space for negotiations to take place. But I will not just take the view that these workers acted overnight without giving any indication. This has been going on for four years, before even the last programme began. It is now four years since there was any kind of industrial action in the ESB. Before we start hammering these [1125] workers for the action over the last two days, let us look back over the last ten years. We have not had any dispute of this nature in the ESB since 1987. Previous to that it was 1986, when they threatened industrial action and it was called off the day before it was due to take place. It was threatened at that time because management would not sit down and talk to the union, exactly the same as happened this time, except that this time it went over the edge and we are into a dispute, a dispute that helps nobody.

There is chaos out there. It is unfortunate. It is unacceptable at this stage that this should be allowed to continue. It is certain that we have to find a resolution of it. It is correct that we would urge all the interested parties to do that at the moment. But it would be totally wrong for the politicians in either House to present themselves at this point as industrial relations experts. We are not. It is quite in order for us to comment on it and to represent views on it. But at the end of the day the industrial relations procedures, which we welcomed in this House some months back, will have to take their course. We can do no more than urge the people involved on both sides to find a resolution that will allow these workers also to be dealt with in a dignified and a responsible way so that people do not have to suffer further.

Dr. Upton: This country is now in the middle of a great national crisis. The economy is put in jeopardy. The health and welfare of ordinary citizens, who had neither hand, act nor part in this business, is also being put at risk. Great hardship is being experienced by the vulnerable, such as the ill, the elderly, children, infants. The safety of ordinary people is being compromised because of the failure of such simple things as traffic lights to work effectively. Yet this strike was a clear possibility and had been well signalled to the ESB for a considerable period of time. Due processes of industrial relations procedures were followed. The 30-day cooling off period was followed. The 14-day strike notice was served and adhered to. Yet the ESB management [1126] were making statements as late as last Friday evening that there was no threat to electricity supplies.

Clearly, the industrial relations mechanisms in the ESB have failed. They have failed to prevent the strike. They have failed to anticipate it. They have failed to warn the public of the impending problems so that they might be able to take appropriate measures to limit some of the difficulties that these would create. The dispute has also shown the deficiencies in the industrial relations structures in this country. It has shown the inability of these structures to anticipate the problem and to take effective preventative measures.

What is important now is to look for solutions. Every effort must be made to facilitate the continuation of the talks. Management and unions must now, even with greater urgency, seek a means to get the power supply restored and renewed to everybody while talks continue and while negotiations proceed. No useful purpose will be served by giving into demands for heavy-handed action. This strike will finish sometime. That is inevitable. We must be careful to do nothing now that will inadvertently defer the solution of this strike and make that solution more difficult. There are enough precedents in this country to show that when this type of strike is handled badly a bad situation can be made worse. We must all the time keep on reminding ourselves of that possibility.

In conclusion, I would like to thank and to pay tribute to all the people who are working to try to resolve this strike. Talks had been going on for something like 36 hours, the last time I heard about them. They have probably gone on for as much as 40 hours now. A great effort is being made by many people in this matter and we should pay tribute to them, thank them and indeed encourage them to contribute to try to find a solution.

Mr. Cullen: Let me first of all thank the Leader of the House for allowing time for this very important debate to take place. One cannot underestimate the gravity of the present situation. [1127] Because of that it is also an extremely sensitive issue and certainly I have no intention of trying to apportion blame. That would not be constructive or assist in the process that is ongoing at the moment.

As has been referred to by other Senators, it seems to me that there is something wrong with the procedures within the ESB that this situation should have occurred in the first place. I am at a loss to understand how we have actually found ourselves now in one of the worst industrial disputes in this country in recent years. I and the vast majority of people living in this country thought that the days of such strikes had long ended, particularly following on the conclusion of the Programme for Economic and Social Progress and what that means for industrial relations in this country and the hope it held out to many people.

This is certainly a very retrograde step and one that must be brought to a conclusion immediately. As my colleague has just stated, this strike will end and what we are now concerned about is: what price do we have to pay for the ending of this strike? We have come through a very difficult economic situation in the recent past and great efforts have been made on both sides, from the employers' and the employees' side, to bring forward new industrial harmony in this country. I have gone on record in this House in commending the new strides that the unions have made in their attitude to industrial relations; and to see that threatened now has grave consequences for the whole economic and commercial life within this country.

I would appeal to the senior people involved in unions to appeal to their colleagues in the ETU to get back around the negotiating table and put off the strike until negotiations can be completed. There are many companies in this country at the moment, both small and large, who have been hanging on in a difficult international economic climate. This sort of strike could be the death knell to those companies. I spoke to many of them in the last 24 hours. This was the one thing [1128] they did not plan for, that they could not have planned for, that they did not expect to happen at all. By the admission of the management in the ESB, who certainly did not anticipate it, it certainly would have been extremely difficult for these companies to have anticipated such a strike.

Not alone are we talking about jobs that are in existence in this country being under threat but it has certainly postponed the agenda of many companies for the creation of jobs both within existing companies and also the prospect of new companies starting out in the immediate future. The consequences on that side are clear for all to see. It must be realised by all sides that this strike has enormous potential damage for the whole fabric of the economic life. It is also sending disastrous signals internationally for the planning which the IDA and other companies are doing in attracting foreign investment into this country. This is the worst possible signal that could be sent abroad. I know that the view being taken of Ireland in the last number of years has been one of an economic miracle. All of the signs were so positive for investment, so positive for job creation, so positive for industrial harmony, so positive for a very great future post-1992 that Ireland was once again at the forefront as an attractive location for economic development.

It has also had a great effect on the individual in this country, from the very small man or woman in the street right through our commercial life. The chaos it is causing, the hardship, the worry and the concern is something extraordinary. It is extraordinary because it was not anticipated by anybody in the country. I would appeal to all of those involved to call off the strike. That must be the essential first step that must be taken — to get around the table and find a solution. There is a solution. There is no question about this. All of these problems are resolvable, so let us resolve them without paying a horrendous price. The price at the moment is serious, but it can be an awful lot worse. I have every confidence in the Minister for Labour, [1129] having seen him act in other situations that I am personally aware of. I would ask him to use his undoubted skills to bring this situation to a conclusion immediately.

Minister for Labour (Mr. B. Ahern): May I first of all thank all the Senators for their support. I am in the unique position in this debate that I could agree with almost all that was said by everybody in the House. I want to assure the House that the Labour Relations Commission have commenced the talks again this morning at 11 o'clock. They had finished at about 2.45 a.m. I was with the negotiating team for the commission throughout the night and we met again at 8 a.m. this morning.

The first thing I want to put on the record is my appreciation of all the commission staff. In the last few days they have taken a certain amount of criticism, which they are well used to. I think some of it is unfair — for example, to say that they are not available at weekends when for the past four weekends they have been involved in three disputes, in the rail dispute, in the bus dispute and in a mixture of disputes which arose over the Easter weekend. In fact, the staff involved at least once a week lose a full night on their five day shift and every second week lose a weekend. When a major dispute commences people look at their job but when they are successful throughout the rest of the year nobody really notices what they are doing. I want to thank them for the extraordinary effort they have put in on the session of talks that started at 12 o'clock on Tuesday and ended at 2.45 a.m. this morning. Certainly, it was a marathon effort. I think it is true to say that both sides involved had an opportunity to get some hours sleep and, to get meals, but the Commission staff never left their post and I think that is public service at its best.

Having said that, I cannot tell the House that we have yet reached a stage where we can get a resolution of this dispute. At around 8 o'clock last night I met the senior people from both sides. I [1130] explained to them what I had said in this House and the unanimous conclusions of the political parties of the other House. Also, because they had not had an opportunity of seeing the day's news, I gave them a list of the devastation that has been occurring nationwide. Senator Manning read a list of that, which I have no argument with. I think this is the reality of the dispute. It often happens that when people are in disputes, and particularly in long sessions, they can get removed from the reality outside and I spent some time last night emphasising to the people involved that, regrettably, may be they did not intend it, but whether they did or not they had brought the country to a virtual standstill in many areas and that they had an obligation to undo that, based on talks. In this country we have an amazing amount of industrial relations machinery. The Labour Relations Commission is there, the Labour Court is there, the Employer Labour Conference is there and in the past perhaps we had not got a proactive Labour Relations Commission. In this case on Monday morning they were into the front line.

I want to answer directly the question posed by Senator Manning. I want to assure him that at the end of this dispute — I think during the dispute is not a time to do it — I will investigate, because I think it is important to know why the early warning system did not work. I am not here to say that it did not. But I want to assure the House that as soon as the gravity of the situation was made known and the fact that the information that would normally reach us was silent, the Labour Relations Commission were in action within the hour. I did not do it yesterday or the day before but I just want to put on the record now that I was in the Department of Labour until fairly late on Saturday night on another dispute which was taking my attention — I will not say which one — and I was doing some background work on it. My officials had been there late on Friday night and at no time did anyone make contact with me or any of the officials. I believe they [1131] may have tried to contact an official on Sunday.

The normal channels through the Congress of Trade Unions, through the FIE, through the Labour Relations Commission, through the Employer Labour Conference, through the Labour Court or directly to any official were not used on this occasion. On checking it on Friday one of my senior officials, a very experienced person, was told there was no difficulty on any disruptive action for a week, that we would have a week to deal with this. That is why nobody from the Labour Relations Commission went into circles on Saturday or Sunday, which was fair enough since they had got that information. However, it is regrettable.

I intervened in the last ESB dispute prior to the dispute starting. But this time no information came. However, I must say, having met the people directly last night that I do not believe there was any major plot by anybody. I want to make that clear. What happened was that people were looking at each other waiting for somebody to blink, both blinked together and we ended up in this dispute. I want to assure the House that we will carry out at the end of this dispute an examination of how everything went unnoticed. It rarely happens, but it is a worry that it can happen and that the information that filtered through was so totally wrong.

I want to thank Senators again. It is not often we get a chance to speak on such a topic two days in a row. The reason the talks stopped at 2.45 a.m. was that I came to the conclusion that after so many hours the key people required some rest. It was coming to the stage where it was impossible for people to think straight. They have now got that rest. As I said yesterday, the enormous effects of the dispute bear no relationship whatsoever to the issues involved. The ESB are one of the few organisations who have their own joint industrial council. Without any difficulty these issues could go back to the joint industrial council and be discussed over the coming days under an independent chairperson. If they need [1132] any assistance from me directly, from the Labour Relations Commission, from the Labour Court or anybody else, that will be forthcoming. I think that is adequate for any set of workers, particularly when we are talking about 1,000 workers affecting 3.4 million people. We are at a stage now where, in fairness to the society we live in, these workers should listen to what we are saying and return to work. They have my assurance that we will negotiate and examine the issues central to this dispute in a calm atmosphere away from the massive disruption which is being caused.

Sitting suspended at 1.35 p.m and resumed at 2 p.m.