The absence of buses throughout the country was undoubtedly a cause of frustration and annoyance for many commuters on Friday and Saturday. National Bus and Rail Union (NBRU) and SIPTU-affiliated employees of Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann undertook a 48-hour strike action in opposition to government policy to privatise 10% of their routes. In advance of the strike, Dublin Bus claimed the unions’ action would cost the company €1.2 million over the two days, while Bus Éireann forecast a total loss of €1.5 million. Both companies are planning to sue the unions for losses, with further strikes set to take place from May 15th to 16th, and May 29th and 21st.
Public transport strikes can be particularly irritating in terms of their ability to ‘trap’ people in their homes. While in Dublin and large towns, alternatives (albeit more expensive) may be on offer, in smaller towns and villages throughout the country, many people are dependent on Bus Éireann for transport. Many people in post-crash Ireland are no longer able to afford a car and have had to sell theirs to pay bills or mortgages, 268,000 of which were in negative equity in August 2014. Older people who have never driven a car or no longer do would also have felt the impact of the 48-hour strike. Tourists were especially inconvenienced. It is not good that a strike has happened and that more are planned. But strikes do not occur spontaneously, and it would be irrational for workers to stand in a picket line, losing two days of pay, unless they believed that no alternative effective action was possible.
As a result of strikes, it is often the employees and unions who face the ire of the general public, many of whom it would be reasonable to say probably have no idea why the workers are engaged in industrial action. That’s fair enough. People have their own issues; a sick relative, pressure at work, caring for young children, teenagers studying for exams etc. But no one should be so wilfully ignorant as to believe that a strike ever occurs for the sake of it, and not because of injustice and genuine grievances regarding specific disputes that epitomise wider issues of conflict in our society.
State media facilitates the bus company and government spokespeople in setting the terms of debate and limiting the focus on the inconvenience caused.
When newspapers, TV and radio stations try to stoke up cheap, unjustified resentment towards striking bus drivers, many commuters fall for it. Facebook newsfeeds are taken up by statuses by media outlets, other private businesses or individuals denouncing the strike, local radio stations are all too keen to ask commuters how they’ve been directly affected by the strike in the narrowest of senses, newspaper columns, such as former Fine Gael minister Ivan Yates’ piece in Saturday’s Irish Independent, and letters to the editor sections are filled with anti-union and anti-strike tirades. RTÉ’s current affairs department fails, like in most circumstances, to adequately challenge the establishment’s portrayal of the issue. Instead, the state’s media facilitates the bus company and government spokespeople in setting the terms of debate and limiting the focus on the inconvenience caused, seemingly arbitrarily and unjustly, for commuters, with commuters and not management or government presented as the real target of strikes.
The root of this particular series of bus strikes is the government’s policy to privatise 10% of the routes currently operated by Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus. Enda Kenny maintains, as if all people are as gullible as those who have elected him non-stop since 1975, that this government’s policy has nothing to do with privatisation. Rather, the routes are being put out to tender and the semi-states can be contenders for their former routes. So in Taoiseach logic, it’s not privatisation at all. It’s just putting routes out to tender. Well, good luck to the two public bus companies that receive among the lowest amounts of government subsidies in Europe as they apply to buy back their own routes.
There is nothing strange about this agenda. Privatisation is at the core of what the main government party has always been about, and the junior coalition party, which presented itself before the last election as a buffer between Fine Gael assaults on public services and progressive taxation, has exposed itself as a blue wolf in red sheep’s clothing. Fine Gael are determined to ‘row back the state’ and ‘Labour’ are not even pretending to stand in the way. It would be foolish from Fine Gael’s perspective to do this all in one fell swoop.
That’s why underfunding public services over a number of years, consistently promoting the deregulation of all markets, eroding the concept of general goods and services, such as water paid for by general taxation, and incremental levels of privatisation are key to Fine Gael’s agenda. In addition to the campaign against public transport (which Leo Varadkar pushed as minister for transport for three years, and taken up in 2014 by fellow indoctrinated party loyalist Paschal Donohoe), the government is as vigorously determined to finally do away with providing medical treatment and care to all people regardless of their means.
They haven’t been too subtle either. Leo Varadkar, minister for health for the past 10 months, is the greatest ever cheerleader for the private health insurance industry to hold ministerial office. Not an easy feat to achieve after the era of Mary Harney. In a bid to cut down on the state’s (and by extension, his own) responsibility and workload in the health sector, the Trinity-educated doctor has implemented a levy on over-34 year-olds of 2% for each year that they do not buy health insurance. What are we paying tax for if we’re not even guaranteed adequate unconditional medical treatment by the state which we are meant to control? 700 people were lying on hospital trolleys in a third-world standard health system in January and the minister thought it more important to broadcast his sexuality than resolve an escalating health crisis. Make no mistake about it, if Fine Gael pursued compassion and empathy to same degree as and in place of their pursuit of the interests of the rich, society would look, feel and be a lot different.
Broader government agenda
The case-by-case actions and policies of the government are not happening in isolation. The government’s individual policies fit into a broader agenda and that an anti-progressive one. Neither is what Ireland is experiencing unrelated to international events and trends. Currently the EU is engaged in secret negotiations (arguably on the unauthorised behalf of its 500 million citizens) with the US government. This is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) programme. While it has not yet been completed and there will be many aspects to it, most worryingly, it likely will entail the creation of an Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism, whereby companies will be allowed to sue national governments in an extranational court. That is extremely unsettling. It would solidify the worst features of globalisation, namely the unrestricted power of corporations and wealthy individuals. The concepts not only of statehood, but nationhood and sovereignty too, are under direct threat, to be replaced by a vision of unlimited corporate-rule.
If you die on a trolley in a public hospital, rather than receiving early treatment in the Denis O’Brien owned-Beacon Hospital, it’s just your fault that you didn’t work hard enough in this ‘equality of opportunity’ economy of ours.
What is perhaps more unnerving is our government’s attitude to TTIP and the negotiations. Instead of speaking out against the overwhelmingly secretive and anti-democratic nature of TTIP, our government (Richard Bruton in particular) insists on full steam ahead, wanting to drown out the voices of those concerned about handing the power exclusively held by states to unaccountable multi-national companies, such as the ‘People’s Movement’ in Ireland and the ‘War on Want’ in Britain. In whose interest are our government and the EU institutions working?
So when the bus drivers make a stand on two more occasions this month, think about the broader picture. Think about the importance of public services, of provision of goods and services to all our citizens as equals. Do not allow a method of divide-and-conquer to pit one person against another. It’s time that public goods; transport, housing, water, health and education to name a few, were staunchly defended.
That’s not to say this government has been all bad news. If you are, for example, a multi-billionaire tax exile, media emperor, Denis O’Brien-type character who, although having been found by a state tribunal to have given IR£500,000 to a Fine Gael government minister in the process of acquiring a telephone license, can attain ownership of the water meter installation company Siteserv (in very murky circumstances), you should be doing quite well. And of course, your success is totally down to your own hard work, effort and dedication because we all know that one’s income and wealth corresponds to what each of us deserves. So if you die on a trolley in a public hospital, rather than receiving early treatment in the Denis O’Brien owned-Beacon Hospital, well it’s just your fault that you didn’t work hard enough in this ‘equality of opportunity’ economy of ours. Unlike Denis. Fair play to him.