Eoin Ronayne: 'nitty-gritty'

SOCIAL welfare staff have wrapped elastic bands around handsets and turned off ring tones in a bid to enforce a controversial phone ban being rotated around offices as part of ongoing industrial action.

Union officials have said that while staff are not instructed on exactly how to impose a 'rolling' phone ban in offices, the lengths they have been going to are indicative of rising levels of frustration at the ongoing standoff.

Sources told the Sunday Tribune that some office staff are literally securing phone receivers with rubber bands in order to prevent impulsive reactions to incoming calls.

Both counter closures and phone bans are being rotated around social welfare offices – the location of which is kept secret until staff are informed via text message the night before.

"It wouldn't surprise me – the extent that people will go to to impose the ban because of the extent to which people are behind this [action]," said Eoin Ronayne, deputy general secretary of the Civil Public & Services Union (CPSU) in relation to methods employed by staff.

"But from a formal point of view we don't tell them how to enforce the ban. We have simple instructions not to answer the phones. We wouldn't get into the nitty-gritty."

Ironically, it is understood that by reducing the amount of time staff spend dealing with the public, more time has become available to process the backlog of job seekers' claims which had accumulated prior to the dispute.

Meanwhile, the CPSU has failed to respond to foreign affairs minister Micheál Martin's plea to resume normal working at the passport office to help clear the backlog which grew to over 50,000 by the weekend.

While acknowledging the union's decision to keep public counters open last Friday, the minister warned that unless the union lifts its ban on overtime and allows the employment of 50 temporary workers, the backlog will continue to grow.

A department spokesman said that it was not officially informed of the union's move to lift the ban on public counters which it learned from media reports. He added that the department only ever gets notice of public counter closures the day before.

The spokesman also confirmed that the minister's threat to dock the pay of those who refuse to operate counters still stands.

While the queues largely disappeared last week, this has raised fears that the dispute could erupt again.

A spokesman from the Department of Finance, which maintains strict control over the dispute as it affects all departments, said that it was consulted before Martin issued his threat to dock pay.

The spokesman also said that the union's failure to cooperate with temporary staff deprives 50 people of a job which would probably last until autumn.

Speaking at its annual conference in Galway, a CPSU representative in the passport office said it told management at the office it would "not be prudent" for the union to cooperate with the temporary staff as this would frustrate its industrial action.