19 June 1997 Edition
Workers in struggle
A gas story
What is the measure of a successful company? Is it increased profits or a growing market with an increasing customer base? Well, on all of these measures Bord Gais Eireann, the 26-County semi-state company, performs excellently. Last week Bord Gais published its accounts for 1996 which showed a 22% increase in profits to £82 million, with a growth in sales of 12%, not to mention 17,000 new householders as subscribers and 650 additional companies joining up to the gas network.
Borrowings at Bord Gais were also reduced by £58 million to £149 million. However, that is not the only thing the company plans to reduce. Not content with increased profits and a growing customer base the company also wants to cut job numbers from 730 to 600, while also introducing a range of changes in work practices.
Bord Gais have already begun talks with trade unions at the company to discuss their new document Response 2000. The impetus behind the job cuts is a now familiar one. Bord Gais have a state monopoly and must now ready itself for competition as demanded by the European Union.
There are two crucial issues. The first is the loss of jobs caused by EU policy. Consequences such as this were hardly ever hinted at by the pro-treaty parties during the 1992 referendum campaign. It was only after the Maastricht Treaty was ratified that the EU's diktats on forced market competition became compulsory.
The second issue is the amount of public money - taxpayers' money - that has gone into building and modernising the gas network over the past decade. Did this all happen just so some private sector company can make profit at our expense?
It seems that we are losers both ways; losers in jobs and losers in sharing the benefits of the gas network we paid for. Is this what competition means, profits for the private sector, losses for the public?
EU Treaty sham
The heads of state of the European Union took another step, albeit hesitantly, this week towards being a European free market superpower when they finally agreed the terms of the fourth EU treaty since 1957. This treaty was supposed to lead to the reform of the European Union, to set the conditions for the introduction of a single currency in 1999. They were also supposed to agree the defence policy of the new European super state.
The end result of the summit is that in fact none of these things really happened. There was instead a number of slickly executed compromises.
The one that most grabs attention is that achieved by the newly elected French prime minister Lionel Jospin. His price for agreeing to the new treaty was a new Europe-wide job creation programme. The French wanted extra spending on public works and other job creation schemes. Jospin won a commitment from the other EU leaders to do this. Whether it actually happens is another question.
He also struck a crucial blow against the faceless bureaucrats who hold so much power within the EU. The EU leaders agreed that they would not cede total control of the single currency to the unelected EU Central Bank.
At one level these changes seem very cosmetic. However, they do show that the political tide is turning against the right in Europe. It also shows that even the smallest level of real resistance to the EU free market agenda can achieve a positive outcome. It also exposes the failure of successive Dublin Governments when negotiating within an EU context. Jospin's compromises can benefit us if they are actually implemented. The core issue now is, will the new coalition break the trend of past governments and refuse to blindly say yes to the EU super state project? That would really be putting people before politics.