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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 24 Apr 1991

Vol. 407 No. 4

ESB Dispute: Motion.

By agreement it is proposed, notwithstanding the Order of Business today, to take a motion relating to the ESB dispute at 6 o'clock. It is proposed that the following arrangements shall apply: speeches will be confined to a spokesperson for each of the groups as defined under Standing Order 89; the speech of each spokesperson shall not exceed ten minutes; the Minister shall be entitled to five minutes to reply and the proceedings shall come to a conclusion at 6.45 p.m.

I move: "That Dáil Éireann—appalled by

the disastrous losses to industry, agriculture and services,

the disemployment of large numbers of workers,

the hardship caused to families and individuals, particularly to the most vulnerable,

the risk to life resulting from the widespread cutting of electricity supplies,

calls on the workers involved, in the interest of the economic and social welfare of their fellow citizens, to suspend their strike action and return to normal working while they and management use all the available industrial relations machinery to resolve the dispute.

In the past two years the economy of this country grew by almost 10 per cent. Inflation is down to a few percentage points. The living standards of social welfare recipients has been protected. The climate for enterprise and investment improved radically.

We have, in fact, developed a consensus which has resulted in a new approach to economic and social development. It is only months since we signed a new three year deal which will ensure the continuation of that new approach for the next three years.

This new approach and climate have resulted in the best record for days lost through industrial disputes. The first quarter of this year showed a continuation of this favourable trend — 10,000 days were lost in 14 disputes. I hope we will never again see years when over a million days were lost as happened in the past. We are approaching a situation where we could be on a par with the levels of industrial conflict in the best European economies and it is important that we strive for that goal in terms of investment and employment. If we do not create the right climate for investment then we will not create the employment this country so badly needs.

The Government have made every effort to ensure that adequate machinery for the settlement of industrial disputes exists. We have recently put on the Statute Book the most fundamental review of trade union, trade dispute and industrial relations law since the foundation of the State. We have set up the Labour Relations Commission to promote good industrial relations and to revamp the conciliation process. The Labour Court also exists should the parties wish to avail of its services. In the case of the current dispute, the ESB have their internal machinery which has proved to work very satisfactorily over the years and has made a great contribution to industrial peace in the ESB.

Industrial disputes, especially in large public service utilities, give us an image as a country which is not helpful to investment or the creation of employment. We must, as a country, do everything to avoid such disputes. The Programme for Economic and Social Progress provides for a period of industrial peace and, as I have said, there is no absence of industrial relations institutions to help solve problems when they arise.

Everybody is aware of the widespread disruption being caused all around the country. All sections of the community —industry, agriculture, health services and domestic consumers — have been seriously inconvenienced. The ESB have about 1,250 megawatts now available compared to a normal peak load of 2,100 megawatts and are making every effort to share the available power equitably across the country. However, their efforts in this regard are hampered by the fact that the switching operation would normally be carried out by ETU members. The ESB of course, will endeavour to give priority to essential users of electricity.

One fact about the current dispute is that the damage being done to the economy and the hardship being inflicted on individuals is totally out of proportion to the issues involved in the dispute. This is all the more so in a case where it should be possible to call off the action to allow procedures to operate to find a settlement.

The Government have considered the situation. I should emphasise the main points of the Government statement issued yesterday: 1. The Government are extremely concerned that a dispute in this essential industry should have occurred so soon after agreement on a new three year national programme had been reached between all the social partners and the Government and after this programme and the pay agreement associated with it had been over-whelmingly endorsed by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions; 2. The interests of the country and its people cannot be allowed take second place to the interests of any one group of workers when there are procedures to enable their grievances to be considered; 3. The Government are determined that the provisions of the Programme for Economic and Social Progress shall be adhered to. The electrician's claim can be assessed by procedures in that context. The Government therefore, in the public interest, call for a return to normal work immediately while the appropriate procedures to look at any possible grievances are put in train.

I would now like to briefly summarise the background to the dispute. About 18 months ago the Electrical Trade Union initiated a claim for a salary increase for electricians mainly on the grounds of impact of a reorganisation plan of 1986. Negotiation sessions took place with the union but, as no agreement could be reached, the claim was referred to the ESB's Joint Industrial Council in September 1990. The council issued their recommendation on 14 November 1990, which effectively requested both parties to meet again to find a solution. The sides met subsequently on at least two occasions. The matter was then referred back to the Joint Industrial Council who ruled that one in-scale increment would apply to all electricians; and that electricians on their natural maximum — that is, those who may not advance further without promotion or progression through qualifications or promotion — be paid a once-off lump sum of £650.

The ESB accepted the decision of the Joint Industrial Council, but the ETU rejected the council's ruling. Following expiry of the 30-day cooling-off period which applied after the issue of a council recommendation — in accordance with agreed procedures — the union informed the ESB by letter dated 5 April 1991 that its executive, having carefully considered the matter at issue, decided to sanction entering into an official dispute with the ESB. This letter formally put the ESB on 14-days' notice to that effect.

Further meetings took place all day Friday last but negotiations broke down. The strike took effect from Monday morning and the Labour Relations Commission immediately invited the parties for explanatory discussions. Those discussions have continued throughout the night and are in progress as I speak. I am keeping in close touch with both sides in the dispute. I sincerely hope that a formula can be arrived at soon which will allow a return to work to enable further consideration to be given by both sides to the issues involved in a less-charged and more rational atmosphere.

I propose to share my time with Deputy Flaherty, the Fine Gael spokesperson on Energy.

First of all, I suggested that there should be an all-party motion calling on the workers on strike in the ESB to return to work immediately. I made this suggestion because I know that a point may be reached in the negotiations at which there are the beginnings of a desire to return to work but there is a need for a pretext to explain why such a decision is being taken. The initiative taken this morning, whereby all party leaders, or their representatives, are now calling on the workers concerned to return to work indicates a common political will and will provide justification and, in a sense, cover — if that is necessary — for those responsible for taking the decision to recommend to their members within the ESB to return to work. It is fair to say that the workers concerned have made their point. They have brought their grievance in this matter to public notice. The public realise the important role they play in the economy. Having made their point, however, there is no need to continue with this extremely damaging dispute.

It is fair to say that this dispute is doing permanent, not temporary, damage to the Irish economy. Ireland, as an investment location, Ireland as a place in which to create work is rendered less attractive if public services are unreliable here. Therefore, the existence of a strike such as this renders the creation of employment here more difficult.

It is also fair to say that this dispute is doing permanent damage to the Electricity Supply Board; the reliability of the board itself, in the eyes of their customers, is damaged by this dispute. Any potential future customers of the ESB, as a result of this dispute, will look more closely than they might otherwise have done at alternative energy sources. That does damage to the ESB and to everybody whose living is dependent on the successful operation of the ESB. Permanent damage is being done by this dispute. I call on those responsible, in particular those on strike, to return to work.

However, on this occasion I would also have to say that I am deeply concerned at the negligence of the Government in this matter. The fact is that the Government and those in authority in the ESB, who are responsible to the Government, those in authority in the labour relations area, who are also responsible to the Government, seem to have been taken unawares by this dispute: it seems to have arisen to their surprise. That surprise should not exist and the existence of such surprise ultimately stands as a condemnation of Government management of this affair. However, there will be another occasion on which to debate that matter. The important issue at this moment is that there should be a united voice in this House asking those responsible to return to work so that an atmosphere will be created in which, whatever difficulties exist, can be sorted out amicably without threat to either side.

Having said that I would like to pass the remainder of my time to our spokesperson on Energy, Miss Flaherty.

As our Leader has said, we in Fine Gael wish to restate our conviction that there should be an immediate return to work. The havoc wreaked by this strike is out of all proportion to the grievance involved. The impact of the cuts to date is virtually impossible to over-state, for example, the serious position pertaining to the sick, the elderly, industry, dairy farmers, animal rearers and indeed the average householder is being recorded hourly on the airwaves. Some areas are in a critical position having had no power for two days. If this dispute continues I would ask the Minister for Energy to ensure that, within the limited resources available, special help be given to those communities who have experienced a total breakdown in supply. If the power supply cannot be reconnected, then other emergency assistance should be given to them by the Army and Civil Defence. I gather that the supply situation is critical. If any one of the three major stations operating, at Aghadoe, Tarbert and Moneypoint, were to shut down, even the current limited rota would collapse.

Today the ESB group of unions have backed the strike. This may lead to further cuts when ballots have been completed in the various unions. Everyone wants to know how and why this could happen and why the Government seem powerless to act. Clearly there is a very serious industrial relations problem here which did not start only on Monday last. Despite an elaborate industrial relations mechanism, this dispute has ended in a strike. A number of questions need to be answered. Why, first, did this industrial relations mechanism fail? Why is there clearly a lack of knowledge between management and workers as evidenced in the information given by our leader in his contribution? Why was there no procedural agreement which included recourse to the State's labour relations mechanisms, in the event of a failure of their own internal system, as is common in most other in-house industrial relations agreements and, indeed, is common to agreements in this House with groups of workers? What were the Ministers for Labour and Energy doing before Monday last to avert this strike? Why did the Labour Relations Commission not intervene before Monday during the 14 day strike notice period? Why have the Government, and the management, not ensured that there is at managerial level, or available to management, sufficient expertise to maintain at least an emergency service? Yesterday we had the frightening scenario painted for us by the Minister that he could make no commitments whatsoever about power supplies in the coming days. The public are demanding answers, they want an end to the crisis and changes implemented to ensure it cannot happen again.

The issues raised by this strike should not be allowed to rest. I have tabled eight questions to the Minister for Energy on the industrial relations climate and practice in the ESB. Fine Gael will insist that once this dispute is settled the Labour Relations Commission be asked to report on the industrial relations problems in the ESB and propose appropriate changes. These assurances should lend extra weight to our insistence that the workers return to work while procedures are being followed in the knowledge that the issues raised will not be allowed to rest.

On behalf of the Labour Party I am glad to support the motion before the House. When all parties in the Dáil can agree and find common ground in relation to a dispute of the magnitude of the ESB dispute that in itself should be an encouragement to those locked in the dispute to redouble their efforts to bring about a solution and find common ground. At the very least I hope both sides to the strike will now be under no illusion about the gravity of the situation, as has been described, and the gravity with which we view the actual and potential damage being inflicted upon industry, workers, families and on the community in general, all of which has been detailed in this House over the last 24 hours.

It is not our duty to assign fault or blame or to try to establish a guilty party in this dispute: that would be an exercise in scapegoating and I am not prepared to be party to any effort to make a scapegoat of either the ESB workers or of the management in this context. Neither is it possible for us in this short debate to provide solutions. They must come from the parties involved in the dispute. I have no doubt that given adequate goodwill it will be possible to find a solution that reconciles the interests of both sides and that in turn reconciles those interests with the urgent need of the whole community.

Without wishing to assign blame for this dispute there are, however, a number of important questions that arise. In the interests of accuracy and fairness these questions should be addressed and have not been to date. The dispute has been brewing for a considerable time as outlined by the Minister for Labour, yet it appears that the ESB management were taken totally by surprise on Monday morning. The degree of support for the dispute within the workforce in the ESB appears to have been far more widespread than management information would have suggested to them over the past fortnight.

The so-called early warning system, about which we have heard much in recent months available under the new industrial relations mechanisms, appears to have failed completely to pick up any hint of the impending dispute. Sadly, the new Labour Relations Commission appear to have been somewhat slow and amateurish in their response to this serious crisis. Certainly many questions about their lack of response over the weekend arise.

There was a time space of 14 days in which there could have been a response, in which intervention could have taken place and do what the Minister for Labour said this new body would do, intervene before strikes took place. They failed to intervene over the weekend following the breakdown of the talks on Friday afternoon. It appears that nobody was either available or willing to intervene until Monday morning when the crisis was upon us. It is impossible for us to make a judgement. In making the call contained in this motion and agreed by all, we should also seek an assurance from the Minister for Labour that he will stand ready to intervene in the event of any further breakdown of negotiations. I would like that assurance from the Minister before this debate concludes.

It is because of the far-reaching implications of this dispute that The Workers' Party are supporting this motion. If the agreement of all parties in this House is to serve any constructive role in facilitating a resolution of this very serious dispute, it is important that we avoid simplistic knee-jerk reactions or uninformed partisan criticism. In my experience that kind of partisan criticism can only aggravate a dispute such as this. Notwithstanding that I am satisfied that the union most centrally involved in this dispute fully acknowledge that there must be a sense of proportionality about a dispute that threatens to put fellow workers out of employment, many of whom are on low pay.

If the management of the ESB were not alert — and certainly it seems from recent events that they were not — to the depth of grievance and determination of the workers concerned and to the completely unexpected extent of support they got from fellow workers, they have been truly jolted awake in the past 48 hours. The electricians have made their point and The Worker's Party join with the other parties in the House in urging a suspension of the strike while urgent talks to resolve the dispute continue.

As we speak I understand that a formula is being hammered out under the auspices of the Labour Relations Commission and hopefully that formula is well on the way to being accepted by both parties. I hope it is accepted by both parties but if it should require further refinement, I suggest that that process can continue after the suspension of the strike action. The question must be asked, why talks on such a formula were only initiated after the strike began? Why were the ESB management so complacent? They say now that they were surprised at the level of support from other unions in the ESB. They are paid not to be surprised. They are paid not to be out of touch with such a critical category of the workforce in the ESB.

The House may, indeed, have been unaware and the public may have been taken by surprise but there is no excuse for the ESB management to have been taken by surprise to the extent that they were. The dispute, it is now clear, has been simmering for some years. As long ago as 4 March the internal agreement was observed when 30 days' notice were served by the union on the ESB management, as required in the cooling off period, and subsequently on 5 April, prior to initiating industrial action, the union concerned served 14 days notice of strike action.

Why was nothing done during that period of 44 days? That is what the public want to know. When were the Government first informed of the pending dispute in the ESB? That is something we have not been told. When they were informed why did they do nothing? If the elaborate industrial relations machinery that exists in the ESB was inadequate we have just put in place a more elaborate conciliation and industrial relations system than the old conciliation system of the Labour Court. Why was that system not up to the occasion? During the passage of the legislation in the House which put in place that system I offered the opinion that the Labour Relations Commission may be indeed a good solution, but what was the problem? It seems that the old Labour Court network would not have allowed this to happen.

It is extraordinary that both the ESB management and the Government have been caught napping in the manner in which they were. It is reasonable to ask whether the fact that the Programme for Economic and Social Progress is now in place has induced a sense of complacency in management of major enterprises here and in the Government. They seem to be absolutely satisfied that there can be no fractures of industrial peace now merely because they have managed to put the Programme for Economic and Social Progress in place. That clearly is not the case having regard to what has happened and that kind of complacency is not justified.

Indeed, it is unthinkable, as I said yesterday, that in a dispute so grave as this negotiations were not initiated on Friday night rather than on Monday after the strike started. The Minister for Labour seemed to be in as scant evidence as the chief executive of the Labour Relations Commission. The Minister, when enacting the new industrial relations Act, made clear in section 38 of that Act that he wished to reserve the right, in grave disputes affecting the public interest, to intervene and facilitate a settlement in the manner specified in subsection (1) of that section. It seems there is nothing sacrosanct about the internal machinery in the ESB whereby if it did fall down, as it so manifestly did on this occasion, it was open to the Minister to intervene, as provided for in the Act, and to cause, as he has power to do, the Labour Relations Commission or indeed any other person to conduct an inquiry into the dispute. The Act states that where the Minister is of the opinion that a trade dispute is of special importance, he may request the commission, the court or another person or body to conduct an inquiry into that dispute and furnish him with the findings. It seems that should have been done when faced with the present crisis.

The workers concerned must observe a sense of proportionality about this dispute. They have made their point. We cannot justify thousands of low paid workers being thrown out of employment. Their point is now well established. There is no reason why strike action should continue. The dispute can be suspended and discussions continue if the formula being hammered out at this moment does not prove immediately acceptable to both sides.

It is rare, as Deputy Spring remarked, for all parties in this House to speak with one voice, but we are doing that this evening in supporting this motion. I hope the workers will take appropriate notice of this fact and see their way to suspending action to allow restoration of power and the use of all available procedures to settle the dispute.

I would like to thank speakers from all parties in the House for their support for this motion. We can now say that the people of the country have spoken by the statements made by the various parties, and I thank the Members of them for their contributions. They will certainly help the discussions which have been going on continuously under the auspices of the Labour Relations Commission since 12 o'clock yesterday. As I said at the outset, the amount of damage and disruption being caused to all sectors of the community, domestic, essential services, agriculture and industry is far beyond what is involved in this dispute. Perhaps even the parties involved believe that. I hope that when these talks are completed tonight or tomorrow there will be a resolution to the problem.

The Labour Relations Commission played their role during the last few days to my full satisfaction. This House has always believed that industrial relations are based on the process of free collective bargaining. I know Deputy Rabbitte would be extremely quick, as he has been on most occasions in the past, to criticise my intervention if it was one minute earlier than desirable, but today he put forward a different view. The Labour Relations Commission have worked extremely hard in the last few days. I assure the House that they, and all the other machinery involved, have been working flat out to try to bring this major dispute to a resolution. I thank the speakers and the House for their support in trying to resolve the dispute.

Question put and agreed to.