The famous car in the Back to the Future movie was, of course, the Belfast-built DeLorean. If you want an emblem of the back to the future nature of the Irish economy these days, you need look no further than the humble Dublin bus.
Those of you who have been unfortunate enough to visit Dublin in the last few weeks will know all about this. A series of one and two day strikes each week by Dublin Bus drivers have been inflicting misery not only on the nearly half a million locals who use the service everyday. Also badly hit by these rolling strikes have been the thousands of tourists in the city.
The TV news here one day last week, for example, interviewed a pair of perplexed backpackers standing at a bus stop waiting for the bus to take them to the airport and wondering why it was so late! The reporter had to tell them it wasn't coming at all.
This has been going on now for a few weeks as the bus workers pursue their claim for a substantial pay hike. It was supposed to happen again on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week but was called off at the last moment for another round of talks to search for a solution. The unions have said that failure will mean that a one day strike they have planned for this Saturday -- which happens to be the day of the GAA football final replay -- will go ahead. And 13 more days of strikes are planned over the coming weeks.
At the time of writing the prospects for success at the talks this week do not look good, given the huge gap between the two sides. Dublin Bus, which is a commercial semi-state company, says it doesn’t have the money. The workers say the state will have to increase its annual subvention to the company so they can get their huge pay raise.
And despite the spin being put on it by the unions, the pay raise they want is huge, more than 20 percent. The union line is that the bus workers have not had a raise for eight years, have endured austerity, have to work longer hours, and so on. They say that now that the economy is back on track they want to recover the money they have lost, which means they must get at least a 20 percent raise over the immediate future.
This is made up of compensation for a six percent raise they were supposed to get back in 2009, which was deferred because of the financial collapse, plus at least another 15 percent to be paid over the next three years or so.
Part of the justification put forward for this is the 18 percent pay hike over three years which the Luas (Dublin city tram) drivers won last June after a series of strikes, some of which shamefully affected the 1916 celebrations in the city.
We were told at the time that the Luas pay hike would not be used as an excuse for piggy-back claims by other transport workers here, but it is being used in exactly that way now, with not just Dublin Bus drivers but Bus Eireann (the national bus service) and rail workers all lining up to take advantage.
Initial calculations of how much Dublin Bus workers must get, both to recoup what they were owed and to match what the Luas drivers got, reached an incredible 30 percent. That seems to have been recalculated back to somewhere over 20 percent, but it is still a massive pay raise.
Some time ago, the Labor Court here (the independent body which makes judgments on pay claims) found that an eight percent pay rise over three years could be justified in Dublin Bus and the company accepted this. But this was flatly rejected by the workers and the series of one and two day strikes began.
The effect for people in Dublin has been appalling, with many walking for miles to get to and from work in the city. Particularly unfair has been the effect on all the kids who use city buses to get to school.
The financial effect on business in the city has been severe, with city center stores claiming they have lost tens of millions and warning that they may have to lay off workers if it goes on.
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Dublin Bus, which is always short of money and only survives because it gets large amounts of state aid every year, says it is losing over half a million every day the strike takes place.
Given all the mayhem this is causing, you might think there would be intense media examination of how much bus drivers in Dublin are actually earning. But this is not the case.
The newspapers and RTE endlessly repeat the union line about bus workers not getting an increase for the last eight years. But if you Google the media websites and look at all the reporting, you will find it hard to get an answer to the obvious question: How much does a Dublin Bus driver earn?
Since no one else seems to want to provide the answer, we have done some digging and come up with the following.
It's a seven day service, of course, so rostering and shifts are complicated. For a five day week, including working on a Sunday, a Dublin Bus driver gets basic pay of just over €830. If the week does not include a Sunday, the basic is just under €730.
Overtime pay, of course, is extra and is around €48 an hour on a Sunday or €27 an hour on a weekday. Bank holiday pay is €385.
On the face of it, this seems like a pretty good pay level, although being a bus driver typically means working a 12 or 13 hour shift, with a four hour break in the middle of the day (to maximize services in the morning and evening rush hours).
A comparison with what bus drivers in cities like Manchester or Madrid (or other cities in Europe) are earning show that hours are similar but that Dublin Bus drivers are already significantly ahead of pay rates elsewhere, including cities in the U.S. And that is before they get the massive increase they are demanding. So why should they get more?
If this was just a matter of Dublin Bus, it would be bad enough. But the real problem here is much wider and encompasses much of the public service, particularly in service areas where pressure can be applied by workers.
Other transport workers here, teachers, gardai (police), health workers and several other sectors are now all looking for substantial pay increases -- and threatening disruption if they don't get what they want. It's hard not to see it as blackmail.
This pressure for more is justified by the unions (the state sector is the last area where unions are still powerful) on the basis that the economy is recovering and they want full restitution of the ground they lost during the years of austerity when the state had run out of money.
There are several problems with this reasoning. First of all, the economy and tax revenues have only partially recovered, and we also have been left with a massive national debt after the bailout.
Even meeting the billions of interest payments the state has to make on this debt every year is a strain. So it can be argued that any extra money that is available should be applied to that rather than hiking up already high pay rates in sections of the state or semi-state sectors.
Another factor is that pay in the private sector -- the real economy -- is only going up by around two percent a year at the moment, and that is only in companies where any increases are possible.
The public sector unions also argue that their members took a huge hit when the crisis happened because they were hit with both pay cuts and levies to help pay for their pensions. The fact is it was much worse for many workers in the private sector, where pay was hit, pensions were shut down altogether and companies collapsed and people lost their jobs. At least state sector workers have their generous guaranteed pensions and there are no compulsory job losses.
Viewed in that way, what is going on in Dublin Bus now is much more than an inconvenience. It is symptomatic of a much wider problem, a sort of Back to the Future mentality that seems to be intent on denying economic reality and recreating the unjustifiable and unaffordable spiral that got us into trouble in the first place.
It's barely 10 years since the crash happened and we had to be rescued by the IMF. But some people seem to have forgotten already.
The other argument put forward by the Dublin Bus unions is that the state subvention the company gets every year was cut back significantly by the government following the financial crisis here and is now significantly lower than in cities in the U.K., for example. That is true -- but there were big cutbacks in all state spending here because we had no other choice.
The unions argue that the state subvention of Dublin Bus must now be restored to at least the level it was at before the crash. If we could afford it we should certainly do so, because a good public transport system is essential in any civilized society.
But the unions want the money to be used to provide their members with pay hikes that are premature, to say the least. Surely any increase in the subvention should go to improving the service for the public?
As we said, it's back to the future time here. How quickly we forget.