The shutdown of Dublin bus services begins prematurely at 21.00 tonight thanks to management's refusal to trust the workers to wind down the service ahead of tomorrows two day strike, the first of three scheduled. As our name suggests Solidarity Times stands in solidarity with the bus workers, just as we were in solidarity with the LUAS strikes.
In both strikes a media looking for angles to attack the workers on choose the relative size of the pay claims they were making. 21% sounds big but the period covered, 2008 to 2019, is actually 11 years. But workers in Dublin need big pay increases and contrary to what RTE might tell you this isn’t a bad thing for most of us, quite the opposite.
Dublin has often been a city with extreme divisions between poverty and wealth. The tenements of the Strumpet City of the 1910s were one side of the city, the other was the thousands of families living in mansions with 3 or more servants. The 1913 lockout was centered on transport workers, in that case the trams.
Today in Dublin 1 in 40, or 5% of families have over one million euro in assets excluding the home they live in. But the rocketing cost of rent and mortgages means most workers can’t afford a home in the city where they work. There are only two solutions to that, a drastic reduction in the cost of housing or a drastic increase in the share of wealth going to ordinary workers. That requires a drastic increase in wages. Our expectation should be that by our 20s we should be able to obtain a secure home with enough space for us to comfortably live in, a situation that is currently out of reach for 80% of people in this city.
Declining union membership has meant that most workers now have little control over what they are paid. Our pay is set by our boss and we can like or lump that. The minimum wage is a joke, no one believes that its possible to have a reasonable life on such a low wage. So for most of us it’s a race to the bottom in which there are only two things holding back a complete wage collapse.
The first is that a very few workers have skills that are still rare, this is particularly true of some computer workers. Incidentally this is why the government is so keen to pump up the number of graduates in that sector, not because there is infinite work but because they want a surplus of workers in that sector so wages can be driven down.
The second brake is that some workers are still organised and although unions are the weakest they have been in decades this means they can still organise to resist pay cuts and more importantly demand pay rises. We don’t want to overstate that, the strongest organised sector is the public sector and workers there took a hammering, suffering enormous pay cuts and what is now heading for a 8 year pay freeze. The reasons for that deserve an article in itself but partly it was down to the massive demoralisation following the media led attacks on those workers back in 2009 and the subsequent collapse in resistance after the one day strike.
So why have transport workers been at the tip of the spear when it comes to fighting for the sort of wage increases we all need? One reason perhaps is that the unsocial hours they work - which mean they have to be at depots before public transport is running - mean they have to live in the city. But the wages they earn are too low for them to be able to afford decent accommodation within a reasonable distance of many depots.
More importantly though they have power. When transport workers strike there is massive disruption that can’t simply be ignored because it eats into profits of many businesses, not just the bus company. Public transport was created to move workers between their homes and the places they work. If we get into work late or not at all then profits are hit way out of disproportions of any other type of workers (except energy workers) taking strike action. Most of the big important strikes of the past that won improvements were led by energy or transport workers because of their exceptional power.
Specifically with the buses and the Luas strike that section of workers winning decent wage increases helps build a wage floor that protects the wages of almost all workers. Not a floor at the level of the useless minimum wage but hopefully at a level that allows a decent living standard.
That’s why employers are so outraged by the idea of workers they consider to be low skilled receiving decent wages. They fear a redistribution of wealth if low skilled workers can earn enough to expect to be able to afford a decent home and a decent standard of living. If we can understand why that concept strikes fear into the hearts of the richest 0.01% it should also be very clear that a win would only be good news for the rest of us. Lets help the bus workers win.
WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter