Minister of State Damien English told the Dáil Éireann on Wednesday that he would not personally intervene in the ongoing dispute between workers and management at the Premier Periclase plant in Drogheda, leaving Sinn Féin TD Imelda Munster to say that the Minister should “have it within him to stand up for workers rights.”
Labour TD Ged Nash told the Dáil that he blamed the ongoing dispute in Drogheda on the “intransigent management and an operation that appears to be hell-bent on busting trade union activity and presence at the plant.”
Workers have been on strike at Premier Periclase for 25 days now, with 40 union members holding a picket line on the Boyne Road outside the plant at Stagreenan. The company proposes to lay off staff or put them on reduced hours while transferring work to non-union labour and retaining contractors on site.
“Respect for our industrial relations institutions should be a cornerstone of workplace democracy but management instead gave the two fingers to our institutions and the workers and failed to engage meaningfully in any real negotiations,” Deputy Nash said.
“No worker ever wants to be on strike but the workers at Premier Periclase simply have no choice. They have to defend their hard-won rights and I stand with them.”
Both he and Deputy Munster urged Minister of State English to intervene in the dispute by engaging with management at the company, owned by RHI Magnesita, to encourage them to come to the table with union representatives at the Workplace Relations Commission.
Union representatives resumed talks at the Workplace Relations Commission earlier this month, but while management did commit to sitting down with the WRC once again, they did so separately.
Workers on strike at the plant, operated by RHI Magnesita, reacted angrily to a development late last month which saw the company deliver letters to the employees home by taxi.
The letter stated that the collective agreement between parent company RHI Magnesita and workers at the Premier Periclase plant was ‘no longer valid’. The letters were returned to the company in a move described as a “clear rejection of the company’s threats and its proposal that they return to work on unclear and undefined terms.”
“This letter is an insult to those workers who have given loyal service to the plant over many decades. It was threatening in the extreme and stated management would not negotiate with workers on strike action and would not deal with the workers’ established unions of choice,” Deputy Nash said.
Deputy Munster added: “I would have thought the Minister of State’s first gut instinct would be to say we must protect workers’ rights in this State and that he would certainly write to the company to ask it to engage with the State apparatus that is in place to resolve these disputes, that is, the WRC. That is what I would do were I a Minister.”
She said if this practice by RHI Magnesita were allowed to pass by unchallenged by the state, it would lead to a “race to the bottom for workers rights.” She called Minister English’s reluctance to involve the State directly in the dispute “not surprising, but extremely disappointing.”
Workers at Premier Periclase also say the company have suspended their sick pay scheme and their failure to meaningfully engage has lead to the strike action – originally proposed for July – going ahead. That strike was deferred after parties agreed to the first set of talks with the Workplace Relations Committee.
Minister of State English said Ireland’s system of industrial relations is voluntary in nature and responsibility for the resolution of industrial relations issues lies ultimately with employers, workers and their respective representatives.
“Our laws do not try to impose a solution on parties to a trade dispute but rather are designed to support the parties in resolving their differences,” he told the Deputies.
While I have no direct role in these matters, I stand by the professionalism of the industrial relations machinery of the State that are always available to facilitate solutions where both parties are prepared to work with those institutions.
“There has been some engagement in this case, although I am not privy to the detail of that. I ask that this engagement should continue to try to get a resolution to this issue. I encourage all sides to make every effort to reach a resolution by agreement between companies and workers with the help of the industrial relations machinery of the State.”