I move that the Bill be now read a Second Time.
I think it is necessary, when introducing this Bill to the House, and in the circumstances under which we are assembled, to give to members a brief outline of the history of the dispute which is threatening the country's electricity supplies and of the subsequent negotiations for the settlement of that dispute. I propose to do so very briefly, and if possible, to avoid covering facts which are well known to Deputies from the reports which have appeared in the daily newspapers. As the House is aware, the Minister for Industry and Commerce was directly involved in all these affairs from the beginning and if any information which I do not give the Dáil at this stage is required by Deputies, he will be available to supplement what I may say.
It was on 17th August, 1961, that the Labour Court made a recommendation in a dispute between two trade unions, the Electrical Trade Union (Ireland) and the Irish Engineering Industrial and Electrical Trade Union, on the one hand, and the employer group of the National Joint Industrial Committee for the electrical contracting industry, on the other hand, concerning the wage rates and weekly hours of electricians. Some 2,500 electricians in the electrical contracting trade were concerned in this dispute. The recommendation of the Labour Court was rejected by the unions concerned without being submitted to a ballot of the members and strike action was taken on Monday, 21st August.
When the strike commenced, pickets were placed on the premises of the E.S.B. and of the contractors. The E.S.B. reported that men belonging to unions not involved in the dispute were refusing to pass the pickets. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions interested itself in the dispute on the day it began, 21st August. When an indication was received that consideration was being given by the Congress to a suggestion that the pickets might be withdrawn if the E.S.B. agreed to enter into negotiations with the unions, the Minister for Transport and Power, after consultation with me and the E.S.B., informed the Irish Congress of Trade Unions that he had asked the E.S.B. to accept the proposal of the Congress that discussions be started immediately between the electrical unions and the employers, both the E.S.B. and the electrical contractors, on the understanding that pickets on the E.S.B. premises would be withdrawn.
It was announced that night by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions that a meeting of the unions with members in the E.S.B. had authorised the Congress to issue a decision to the effect that the dispute in the E.S.B. should be confined to the workers directly concerned, that is, to the members of these two trade unions, the Irish Engineering, Industrial and Electrical Trade Union and the Electrical Trade Union of Ireland. The statement added that the Congress had been requested to take steps with a view to arranging a meeting between the parties. In view of the gravity of the situation, involving as it did the possibility of a national emergency, the Minister for Industry and Commerce intervened on the following day, Tuesday, August 22nd. He had meetings with the representatives of the employers and representatives of all the unions concerned and also with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.
Arising out of these discussions, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions that evening published an announcement, signed by the representatives of all the non-electrical unions concerned, instructing their members, that is, the manual workers employed by the E.S.B., to return to work immediately as the E.S.B. had agreed that, immediately on resumption of work by the members of those unions, any wage claim served on the Board on behalf of these manual workers would be dealt with expeditiously by the Board. In the meantime, the employers and the representatives of the electrical unions had agreed to enter into negotiations under the National Joint Industrial Committee procedure but with a chairman appointed by the Minister. The Minister appointed the chief conciliation officer of the Labour Court.
The electrical unions thereupon issued a statement that evening to the effect that the discussions had been opened under the chairmanship of the chief conciliation officer; that a basis for negotiations had been agreed upon and accordingly that both unions now directed that all strike pickets be withdrawn immediately pending the termination of these discussions.
The negotiations continued on Wednesday, August 23rd, although the instruction regarding the removal of pickets did not become generally effective until mid-day. The manual workers meanwhile had not returned to work immediately but there had been some degree of return to work in other generating stations.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions issued a statement referring to the agreement reached with the E.S.B. in regard to the claims of the manual workers and indicating that while a substantial resumption of work had taken place throughout the country, that was not the position in Dublin. The statement said that the present negotiations relating to electricians were endangered by this situation and that further negotiations with other workers were contingent upon a complete return to work by all the members of the 18 unions concerned.
The statement indicated that, in the opinion of the Trade Union Congress, any workers who had not returned were acting directly against the interests of their fellow workers in the E.S.B. as well as against the national interests and that any workers who did not return must bear the consequences of their action.
It was learned the next day that, following that announcement of the Congress, the night shift generating station workers had taken up work.
A report was made to the Minister for Industry and Commerce on the evening of August 23rd that agreement had not been reached in the negotiations between the employers and the representatives of the electrical trade unions. The maximum offer the employers' representatives were prepared to make was an increase from the rate of 5/5d. per hour, recommended by the Labour Court, to 5/7d. on the basis of the adjusted hours of working recommended by the Labour Court.
The Minister for Industry and Commerce pressed the unions to submit this offer for the consideration of their members as he regarded it as reasonable that it ought to be submitted to the men for their consideration. He asked that a ballot be taken and that the pickets should not be replaced while the balloting was in progress. The unions' representatives gave an assurance that there would be a ballot but they declined to recommend the offer for acceptance or to give an assurance that the withdrawal of the pickets would be maintained. The Minister also asked for an assurance, which was given, that the unions would permit electricians to take any action that might be necessary to enable essential supplies to be maintained.
On the following morning, August 24th, the pickets had been restored on all the premises and the E.S.B. reported that the manual workers, notwithstanding the statement issued on behalf of the unions of which they were members, were again refusing to pass the pickets. The evening papers of that day and the morning newspapers of August 25th contained statements to the effect that the executives of the electrical unions had rejected the pay offer of an increase of 8d. an hour but that the ballot would proceed. These Press reports were subsequently stated by the leaders of these unions to have been made without their authority.
The result of the ballot, which became available on the evening of Monday, August 28th, showed that there was a substantial majority against acceptance of the offer. When reporting that decision to the other parties to the dispute, the union representatives denied they had issued any public statement of rejection prior to the commencement of the ballot or that they had recommended their members not to accept the offer.
The Minister for Industry and Commerce then asked both parties to meet him again on the following day. He asked them to come invested with full plenary powers and, in the case of the unions, if necessary, to bring their entire executives. On Tuesday, 29th August, the Minister met the parties to the dispute separately and suggested that the matter be made the subject of consideration by a special tribunal or court or board—the name did not matter—of inquiry which would be presided over by a supreme court judge and consist of representatives of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, representatives of the electrical trade unions, representatives of the E.S.B. and representatives of independent contractors. The Minister indicated that the terms of reference of the court would be to investigate the claim and to make an agreed recommendation or, in the alternative, a recommendation by the chairman.
The Minister said he would be prepared to make arrangements for the setting up of such a tribunal of inquiry, subject to certain conditions, which were: that the union executives would agree to recommend the findings of the tribunal for acceptance by their members; that a ballot on the recommendation would be conducted by the tribunal; and, thirdly, that on establishment of the court, the men would return to work immediately and all pickets would be removed pending the result of the ballot.
After discussion with the Minister, the employers' representatives ultimately indicated that they were prepared to accept this arrangement and the conditions attaching to it and undertook that they would for their part commit themselves to accept the findings of the tribunal or court. The union representatives, who did not have their full executive present, said that they were not fully mandated to deal with the matter. They requested that the constitution of the court be altered by omitting the representatives of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and substituting an additional representative of the electrical unions and that the ballot should be conducted by the unions in accord with their normal procedure but with a representative of the tribunal present at the counting.
The Minister indicated that he was prepared to accept these changes in his proposals. The union representatives also indicated that they would not be prepared to recommend the resumption of work or the withdrawal of pickets because they did not consider that they would be able to secure their members' compliance with any such recommendation or directive. The employers' representatives, however, regarded the condition of return to work and removal of pickets as an essential condition of their acceptance of the proposals. The Minister informed the union representatives that a return to work and the removal of pickets appeared to be a necessary condition and asked them to consult with their executives and discuss the matter further with him the following morning.
On Wednesday last, 30th August, the union representatives informed the Minister for Industry and Commerce that they could not agree to the proposal that work should be resumed and pickets removed. They claimed their mandate did not extend that far. The Minister indicated that he would be prepared to modify these conditions to the extent that he would be satisfied with an undertaking from the unions that they would urge their members to return to work. The union representatives also said they would not be prepared to recommend acceptance of the findings of the tribunal or court of inquiry. All efforts to secure the alteration of the union's attitude in that regard failed. The employers' representatives, on the other hand, were adamant on the acceptance of these two conditions.
In a last effort to find some basis of settlement, the Minister for Industry and Commerce asked the union representatives whether an offer of 5/8d. an hour would be recommended by them to their members for acceptance and whether they would be prepared to instruct their members to return to work and to direct removal of the pickets, pending the result of a ballot on that figure. After consideration, the union representatives indicated that they were prepared to recommend acceptance of a rate of 5/8d. an hour and to instruct their members to resume work, pending the result of the ballot.
Following consultation with the employers' representatives, a statement was then issued, of which the House is no doubt aware, and which included the announcement that the unions had undertaken to recommend these proposals to their members who would ballot on them and that they directed their members on strike to resume work at normal starting time on the following day, August 31st, pending the result of the ballot.
After midnight, however, on that day, that is to say, in the early hours of yesterday, August 31st, another statement was issued on behalf of the Electrical Trade Union (Ireland) and the Minister for Industry and Commerce was officially informed in like terms by the union. This statement was as follows:
On receipt of information by the strike committees that the members would not return to work until a decision was made on the ballot vote messages were sent to the executive. The Executive Council at a special meeting considered this position and have decided in the interests of all concerned to inform the Minister for Industry and Commerce that the arrangement is withdrawn and also to notify the parties to the strike.
It has since been announced, as Deputies will be aware, that the executive committee of the other trade union, the Irish Engineering Industrial and Electrical Union, regarded the terms negotiated as acceptable but in view of the attitude of the Electrical Trade Union executive, they were not taking any further action on it.
Yesterday evening, the Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions endeavoured, but without success, to persuade the Electrical Trade Union executive to reverse their hasty decision of Wednesday night or early Thursday morning regarding the agreement and to reinstate that agreement, and that is how the matter now stands.
I think we must accept that the prospects of settling this particular dispute by a process of reasonable negotiation have faded. In view of the grave consequences to the whole community which can follow on the prolongation of the dispute, the authority of the Dáil is now being sought for certain procedures which the Government consider to be appropriate to the circumstances. It is proposed, in the first instance, to establish the tribunal simisequence lar to that which was under discussion during a stage of the negotiations, as I have informed the House, which will be charged with the duty of determining what rate of remuneration should in all the circumstances apply to the persons involved in the dispute. It is proposed that the rate so determined will have the force of law and shall operate for six months.
I can say that while the proposals in the Bill permit of some flexibility, it would be the Government's idea that the tribunal contemplated in that section of the Bill should be constituted in accordance with the general lines that were discussed during the course of the negotiations. It may be that the tribunal would consist of three members or five, but in the Government's view, that would not be a matter of any importance. It is proposed to put in hand a formal inquiry into the procedures of the Electricity Supply Board for settling the remuneration of their staffs and for dealing with disputes about their conditions of employment and to make recommendations. It is expected that the recommendations resulting from this inquiry should be available well before the expiration of the six months during which the mandatory effect of the findings of the tribunal would apply.
It is made clear in the Bill—it is hardly necessary from a legal point of view but it was certainly desirable for the purpose of avoiding any possible misunderstanding—that the holding of the proposed inquiry into the procedures of the Electricity Supply Board in determining rates of remuneration and settling trade disputes does not involve any delay in dealing at once with adjustments of remuneration for any other category of workers employed by the E.S.B. in accord with the usual and established procedures and practices.
It is proposed also that the Minister for Industry and Commerce should be given emergency powers to cope as best he can with any shortages of essential supplies which may result from a total or partial failure of electric power. I have no desire to exaggerate what can be done by ministerial regulations in such circumstances. In the event of a failure of electric power either generally or over any wide area of the country, it is certain that very grave public hardship would be caused which no ministerial regulation of any kind could possibly alleviate. It would not be possible to prevent that hardship. While I think it is clear that the Government or a member of the Government should have power to do whatever can be done to ensure that hardships will be minimised, it would be an illusion to think they could be avoided altogether.
I am sure most reasonable people and members of the House will regard these measures which the Government propose to put in train as the very minimum which the Government could take in this grave situation. This is, of course, a crisis for Irish trade unionism as well as for the county but that is essentially a matter for the responsible leaders of the trade union movement. I, personally, have always believed that in normal times it is preferable to have rates of remuneration and conditions of employment of workers fixed by a process of negotiation and that belief is based upon my own personal experience over very many years that those charged with the conduct of such negotiations are usually very reasonable and responsible persons who have full regard to all the implications and consequences of their acts.
I want to make it clear that no other meaning or significance should be read into this Bill except certain specific proposals for dealing with one particularly urgent situation. It carries no implication of any kind in respect of wage disputes generally. The Dáil is aware, from the account I have given of these negotiations, that the Minister for Industry and Commerce, during the long hours throughout which the negotiations were in progress, tried very patiently to achieve a negotiated settlement and, indeed, he went to bed, as I did on Wednesday night, believing that he had at last succeeded in bringing that about. When, however, in respect of such a vital service as the supply of electricity, a position of deadlock has arisen and the danger of acute public hardship arises, we are forced to depart, if only temporarily, from these normal procedures and practices and to assert the right of the ordinary people, through their elected representatives, to protect themselves, without resorting to measures which can be regarded as unjust to anyone.
I do not consider for a moment that the great majority of the electricians who are on strike want to make war on the nation, to inflict hardship on their neighbours, to jeopardise life, to deprive their fellow workers of employment or to cause grievous loss of perishable foodstuffs now accumulating in particular volume from the harvest. The Government would, however, be guilty of a serious dereliction of duty if they were to stand inactive in the face of that prospect and it is our view that when more normal measures have failed to cope with it, the measures which the Government are now proposing to the Dáil are adequate to ensure that the just grievances of the workers concerned—whatever they may be, both their long-term and short-term grievances—will be investigated and dealt with.
I want to leave the House under no illusions whatever regarding the imminence of the danger of the complete failure of electric power. When this dispute began, the responsible senior technicians of the Electricity Supply Board did not consider that it would be possible to maintain a supply of power over the period that has since elapsed. They have kept going from day to day without being able to give any assurance that the crisis would not develop on the following day and the report which I have received from the Electricity Supply Board this morning indicates that is still the position. It is true that if the peak period of demand today is surmounted without serious mishap, then we have the weekend before us when the demand is normally at its lowest ebb, in which to try to get this situation resolved. That is one reason why I urge on the Dáil that the action which the Government proposes should be put in train today. The critical period can well develop on Monday and the Board have indicated that one serious major fault developing in a power station can have a cascading effect throughout the whole system and may eventually put it all out of operation.
I want the Dáil to understand that this is a matter of extreme urgency. I have no desire to spell out in any alarmist fashion what the consequences of a power failure can be— I am sure Deputies will be able to understand that themselves. It is hardly necessary for me to say that it is far from being the intention to do any injustice to the men involved in the dispute. Our concern is expressed in the proposals which we are putting to the House to find a fair and equitable basis for the termination of this dispute and to do so in circumstances in which the normal process of negotiation cannot now work, in the interests of all the people of the country, including all the many thousands of workers in other employment which would cease if power should fail and indeed many classes of our community who will suffer with special severity if the dispute is not terminated.
I should like to say and to have it understood that if any alternative to the short-term tribunal which is proposed here—the tribunal that will deal with wage rates for the workers involved in the dispute—should come forward in the early future which would give equal prospects of bringing the dispute to an end, we would delay taking action under that section. I was informed this morning that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions are exploring that possibility but I gather they are not very hopeful of the outcome.
If the situation is not rectified soon by the procedures which are proposed in this Bill and otherwise, it will be necessary to call the Dáil together again to consider what further action should be taken in those circumstances and that will be done. I feel sure no responsible member of this House who understands the full implications of the situation which the Dáil has been called upon to consider can find any substantial objection to the proposals I am putting forward. What I am saying is that the Government will be prepared to consider any suggestions that may be ventilated or any amendments that may be put forward.
Business suspended at 12.15 p.m. and resumed at 1 p.m.