Fórsa’s first strike

Fórsa, the biggest public-sector union, is in existence since January 2018, but already workers’ rights are under attack.

The CEO of Roscommon County Council launched the attack on the issue of flex time. This is not a simple local issue but a challenge to trade unions and workers’ rights in the most unionised work force in the country.

The misinformation campaign has already begun among right-wing commentators, who seek to misrepresent the situation. We have Brenda Power in the Sunday Times (24 June), in an article headed “Flexitime is just bending the rules,” bending the facts. She states that trade unions claim that “workers should be allowed to work flex hours whenever they wish to build up extra time off—adding almost a fortnight to their annual leave. But management in Roscommon is ending a 20 year practice whereby according to county manager Eugene Cummins, staff were working hours ‘without permission or purpose’ in order to bank some free time. This head on crash has been a long time coming.”

According to this version, the workers are running Roscommon County Council, and only the brave manager is standing up to them. This will be reassuring for the coffee-table Dublin 4 bourgeoisie who populate RTE chat shows and the bourgeois media.

She is totally incorrect. But before dealing with the specifics it is worth looking at the origins of flexi time. It goes back to the 1960s and the Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm aerospace company in Munich. The company employed an office and R&D staff of about three thousand. These workers had fixed starting and finishing times: the classic 9 to 5. This created bottlenecks, with everyone trying to start at the same time. Some people were late starting, others left early to avoid bottlenecks on exit.

This mess affected productivity and morale, and meant lost time for everyone. The management decided to deal with the problem by doing some research. This led to a situation whereby the starting time was staggered, so that instead of everyone starting at 9 a.m. they could start at any time between 8 and 10. Likewise, finishing time was changed from, say, 5 p.m. to any time between 4 and 6 p.m. There was also a core time of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., which everyone worked, and flexible lunch breaks between 12 (noon) and 2 p.m. Workers could take a lunch break of a minimum of 30 minutes up to a maximum of 2 hours.

You still worked the due hours per day, but now you could work a shorter or longer day some days, so long as you worked the required hours in a month.

As an incentive, workers were able to build up a bank of hours, which they could carry forward and take as flexi leave in the next flex period.

These are all the essential ingredients that are used everywhere that has flexi schemes. They were developed by the private sector to address particular problems of time management. They have shown themselves to be useful to both private and public-sector employers and employees up until now.

In an economy approaching full employment but with a widespread use of zero-hour contracts, it is inevitable that the bourgeoisie will attack anything favourable to workers. This attack is deliberately designed to undermine unions in a highly unionised sector.

Brenda Power is wrong in her claims. First off, flexi can be built up and carried forward. This does not happen willy-nilly. In order to build up hours you have to work the required 7½-hour day first, and that is exclusive of lunch break. Only then can you start to accumulate time, and that is within the constraint of when the flexi hours end. If the spread is 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and you start at 8 and take an hour for lunch, it will be 4:30 before you can start accumulating hours. There is also a cap, usually of 11½ hours, on what you could accumulate in any one period.

Nor can you take flexi leave when you feel like it: it has to be approved by a line manager. In areas such as motor tax there would be rotas, so that there is always cover at lunch time, and offices can be kept open to give service to the public.

The whole operation of flexi time, core hours etc. is enshrined in agreements between managements and unions and more recently in agreements such as Haddington Road and the recent Stability Agreement with the Government. Up to now the county manager of Co. Roscommon has lost every case before the Labour Court, and he is obviously in breach of these rulings and national agreements such as Haddington Road and the Public Stability Agreement.

The silence of Government ministers is deafening. Eugene Cummins should be dismissed, but he is obviously serving his masters too well.

By the time this article appears in July, workers in Co. Roscommon will be on their third strike day. Mandate has also started industrial action against Lloyd’s Pharmacy, seeking, among other things, the end of zero-hour contracts.