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21 May 1998 Edition

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Workers in struggle

Nolan judgement a victory for trade unions

Drivers at Nolan's were on wage rates which averaged between £2 and £2.50 an hour, working 15 hours a day, six days a week.
One of the longest trade union disputes in recent history was effectively ended in the Supreme Court last week when it overturned a £1.3 million award for damages and costs against SIPTU. The High Court had awarded the £1.3 million to Nolan Transport in Wexford in December 1994. A High court judge had ruled that a SIPTU strike at the haulage company was not a bona fide dispute. The dispute was one of the most bitter anywhere in Ireland in the 1990s.

Nolan Transport had used the 1990 Industrial Relations Act as a prop to launch their claim for costs and damages against SIPTU. A loss in the Supreme Court would have led to a flood of other such cases against trade unions involved in contentious disputes. Nolan's had claimed that the ballot for strike action was improperly carried out, therefore the dispute was invalid and SIPTU should bear the costs of lost business as a result of the pickets.

In 1992 when the dispute started drivers at Nolan's were on wage rates which averaged between £2 and £2.50 an hour, working 15 hours a day, six days a week. No allowances were made for unsocial hours or weekend work. Workers had no sick pay either.

Justice O'Flaherty, one of the Supreme Court judges presiding, said in his judgement that reading through the court papers he could not but think he was living in a bygone era such as at the turn of the century. O'Flaherty said ``We have surely advanced from the culture that then prevailed''. He should probably get out more as the Nolan dispute is symptomatic of where trade unionism and workers rights are at the turn of another century.

Labour Court ignored by Health Board

100 nursery school workers and 20 of their managers are being forced into taking industrial action next week by the Eastern Health Board whom they claim has refused to pay them a fair wage.

The nursery workers have been trying for three years to process their claim with the Health Board. IMPACT union official Robbie Ryan told An Phoblacht the background to the dispute. They were he said ``abysmally paid''. This was made all the more worse considering they were qualified workers with Diplomas in Child care, providing ``structured educational programmes as well as professional care''.

Weekly wages in the schools are currently between £165 and £200. Nursery managers get £245 a week. IMPACT took a case to the Labour Relations Commission. The Health Board did not attend. An independent review recommended parity for the workers with set Vocational Educational Committee (VEC) administrative grades. This would mean a wage increase for the nursery workers on a scale running from £215 to £257 a week and up to £363 a week for managers.

A subsequent Labour Court judgement upheld the recommendation of the independent review and ordered another review which will ultimately lead to the nursery workers salaries being pegged to that of higher VEC grades. The implementation date was supposed to be 1 January 1997 but the Eastern Health Board refuses to implement the initial wage increase until January next. They won't commit themselves to the second review either.

Ryan emphasises that the nursery workers are ``extremely disappointed at having to take industrial action''. He said if the dispute goes ahead it will be very serious for the trade union movement as it will mean the government has effectively ignored the industrial relations process it created. Pickets are set to be placed on 27 May.

Unhappy workers wreak havoc

Hospitals were shut down and operations cancelled. Refuse stood uncollected. Parking violations were ignored. Water supply and other local government services were run by management as thousands of craft workers staged unofficial pickets at health board and local authority workplaces over the past ten days.

Craft workers placed pickets in Waterford, Kilkenny, Limerick Clare, North Tipperary, Cork, Kerry, Galway, Cavan, Meath, Louth and this week in Dublin. The result was that thousands of other unionised workers refused to pass the pickets, causing chaos in hospital and local government services.

The strikes began after craft union and SIPTU negotiators sealed two separate deals with health board and local authority management. In total 30,000 general workers and 4,500 craft workers were represented at the negotiations. Balloting on the agreement begins this weekend.

A communications breakdown and some dissatisfaction with the outline terms of the deal hammered out at the Labour Relations Commission sparked the first pickets on Monday 11 May. As the pickets spread through the week it became clear that there are serious problems within some of the craft unions, particularly the TEEU.

SIPTU's chief negotiator Matt Merrgian told An Phoblacht that they had ``urged our members to do their work'' In terms of SIPTU members placing pickets in Cork and then in Dublin last Monday Merrigan said the union was ``unaware there was dissatisfaction''.

The end result of the week's pickets is a trade union movement in disarray, a very disgruntled public and employers let off the hook. Local authority and health board workers do have genuine and legitimate grievances. They need to remember though that the only way to pursue their just demands is within a unified movement. Unity is strength.

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