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Strikes and Solidarity: Interview with a worker at Irish Rail
Irish Rail workers were out on strike recently. What’s going on?
The WSM recently caught up with J, an activist and worker at Irish Rail, to find out.
For background details, see our analysis, "Why Irish Rail workers are right to strike", published here. https://wsm.ie/c/why-irish-rail-workers-are-right-strike
WSM: Hi J. So why have workers at Irish Rail been out on strike recently?
J: Hi. Yeah - so workers have been in pay talks with the company through the unions over the last number of months. We’ve had a pay freeze since 2008 and there have been pay cuts. We have given in terms of productivity and we’ve just been putting in for pay increases. In the negotiation we were looking for an increase with no conditions attached. The company were saying that there was no money and it was looking like nothing. We were looking for a 3.75% increase. The company were offering 1.5% with about 20 conditions attached to it in terms of productivity.
We were about to secure a deal for 2.5%, I think, within a 12 month period with a 500 euro voucher at Christmas. The CEO refused to sign it. The CEO was not engaging with the unions at all and sent the HR director to negotiate with the unions. When that document was agreed by the unions and brought back for the CEO’s signature he refused to sign it. The workers, the unions and the Labour Court were frustrated to say the least. The CEO is over from the UK, could be described as Thatcherite and does not negotiate with unions. He was brought over with an agenda presumably – privatisation and cuts – and is very anti-worker.
At that point the company started lying saying that we were the ones not negotiating and that we walked out of talks. They put out there PR spin but at that point we were balloted for industrial action. And the anger of everybody! I think there was 80% or so voted for strike action. We went out then over a series of days.
WSM: What form did the strike action take? What happened?
J: Pickets were formed at each work location. We worked a rota on the pickets of workers doing that duty.
[J later added: The cleaning workers respected the picket and didn’t cross it. They are members of SIPTU as well. They should get strike pay because they help our strike by not crossing it. But they don’t get strike pay. They’re down pay and they’re low paid workers. It’s something we should put pressure on the unions to do].
WSM: Strike action has been called off for now. What have been the latest developments?
J: We were called back in to the Labour Court just before the third day of action. This would have fallen on the day of the Ireland-Denmark match which would have caused the company some disruption. The Labour Court has delivered a recommendation. It’s a peculiar one in that it’s complicated. You read it back around to see what they are actually saying.
Basically, they recommended a 2.5% increase over three consecutive years and a 500 euro voucher bonus. (It’s in voucher form to avoid the tax aspect of it).
The unions are interpreting the recommendation as saying that there are no conditions attached to that. There are a few – I think they’re called ‘initiatives’ - that workers will have to comply with the railway safety legislation – you know, things that we would have to be complied with anyway. Then there’s a list of further conditions, items to be discussed. We agreed to go into talk again with the company on these items. Some of them are outsourcing and pay roll reform. There’s a list of them. [J later added that the company’s ‘initiatives’ feature increased ‘performance management’, including GPS tracking on the workers’ vans].
They are also saying that there is be a ‘no strike’ agreement.
WSM: What do workers think of all this?
J: The concern with workers is that those conditions are tied to the agreement. Anything mentioned in the agreement or in the recommendation, we can’t strike for. But then you have to go back to another paragraph which says that the company can’t bring in those items without – now it doesn’t say without ‘agreement’, it says without ‘productivity discussions’ and referral back to the Labour Court if needs be. I suppose, of course, the fear would be that the Labour Court, because it is not impartial, would deliver a recommendation that we would have to comply with those conditions further down that road.
So the unions, on the one hand, can see that it is something over a three year period. They’re saying that any sort of productivity or pay talks that have happened in the past have had a ‘no strike’ [presumption] and that hasn’t prevented us from acting anyway. We take it that there are still ways.
Some workers are saying […that they would take action…] if the company does try to bring in anything unilaterally without our agreement or without some sort of payment attached to each of those conditions. They see it as tying those conditions into payment separate to what we have. If the company tries, then they are, in effect, breaking the agreement. Then we would be able strike on that basis.
I don’t know. It remains to be seen how that will play out. Some people are talking about voting against until it is explained to them more. Other people are saying that they want to take this and fight further battles down the line. They think that these conditions are now tied to something in return. The agreement did say that no extra costs are to be claimed by the unions but something in return for those conditions would be cost-neutral in a sense.
WSM: Is it difficult being in a union at Irish Rail?
J: No. It’s part of the culture. It’s a very unionised environment. You’re encouraged to join a union.
WSM: What effect has the strike had on the way that your colleagues, fellow workers relate to one another?
J: Between workers who scabbed the strike and those who were on the picket, there is the obvious tension there. Between workers who were on the picket together, you can’t beat the feeling of just walking past and there’s a ‘how-are-ya?’ acknowledgement. You know that you have each other’s backs. You know the solidarity.
WSM: What would you say to any worker at present – not necessarily those at Irish Rail – who was afraid to go out on strike?
J: I would say that it is scary. The way to overcome the fear is through the collective action.
Find just one other worker who thinks the same as you in order to organise. If it’s not a workplace that is organised, find just that one other person because often times they try to keep you isolated within a workplace. Two great – but even just one other person! You can organise from there.
WSM: Thanks J. To wrap up, what would you say you have learned from this strike?
J: A few things. I‘ve realised my own fear around being on strike. It’s not my first strike. I was on strike in 2014.
This time around I’ve learned that - as somebody on the left and knowing the importance of agitating for revolution - there is also a line as to not patronising workers when they’re on strike and not fetishizing us. There would be some people whose support is welcome on the picket but maybe some people overly enthusiastic. You know, leftists asking ‘So what’s the mood?’ and clapping their hands - real enthusiastic when the mood at that particular moment was a mood of fear. We had just been photographed from a window. I think it’s a bit distasteful. It feels kinda fetishized, not meeting workers where they are at, or listening.
I’ve learned that the only way to overcome the fear though is through collective action and having more people from your own work area around you. In my work location there are workshops and offices. There were more people from the workshops out with me on the first day. On the second day, we got a ratio of about 23 from the workshops and 16 from the offices. You’d feel that bit safer. The only way to combat the fear is through collective solidarity with your fellow workers. You can actually win, I suppose!
Finally, I suppose it’s easy for us to get demoralised as activists. What was very clear to me throughout the strike was that the struggles that have gone before are still there, that we’re not doing this for the first time, and that it’s not just happening in a vacuum. The struggles that have gone before have ingrained in people not to cross your picket. The importance of that is there. That all of the struggles that have gone before still matter and that our struggle now will matter into the future as well. We’re building this, passing the baton on through time. What you do now - even though it may feel like something isolated or not having an impact - it does have an impact and it helps continue that on for the future.