Ireland: “Sold out Aer Lingus workers… [thrown] to the Stock Exchange wolves”

Socialist MP backs Aer Lingus workers 95% vote for industrial action

Below, we reproduce the transcript of a debate between Joe Higgins TD (Member of Parliament for the Socialist Party in Ireland) and the The Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Bertie Ahern, in Dáil Éireann (Irish parliament) over wide-ranging assaults on the income and conditions of workers at Aer Lingus, previously Ireland’s state-run airline until it was mainly-privatised in 2005. This week, Aer Lingus workers voted by a massive 95% in favour of industrial action against the attacks.

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“Sold out Aer Lingus workers… [thrown] to the Stock Exchange wolves”

Dáil Éireann, Leaders’ Questions, 14th February 2007

Joe Higgins (The Socialist Party):

Is the Taoiseach filled with embarrassment this morning over the mess into which, by the privatisation of the national airline, he has plunged Aer Lingus workers who have felt obliged to vote by 95% to take industrial action to repel a very wide-ranging assault on their income and conditions? The Taoiseach refused to invest in the national airline. He and the Minister for Transport made reassuring noises at the time that workers’ wages and conditions would be secure. Only months later, the management of privatised Aer Lingus is arrogantly and unilaterally breaking agreements and imposing wide ranging attacks on workers’ wages and conditions.

Finian McGrath (Independent):

Hear, hear.

J. Higgins:

They have already imposed ‘yellow pack’ contracts on new entrants, to be extended to all existing employees. Only last September, a letter to SIPTU signed by both the chairman and chief executive stated that following flotation, Aer Lingus will continue to adhere to all existing collective agreements and continue with existing consultative and negotiating arrangements in accordance with agreed practice and legislative requirements. The letter also stated that "continuous improvement in efficiency, productivity and cost-effectiveness will be achieved through a process of consultation and agreement between management and the signatory Trade Unions". A few months later, that piece of paper might as well be flying all over Dublin Airport in the slipstream of Aer Lingus jets.

In 2005, when the GAMA and Irish Ferries exploitation scandals were exposed, the Taoiseach at least verbally opposed a race to the bottom in terms of workers’ rights. Now this company, of which he, as Head of Government, still owns 25%, is pushing workers’ conditions towards the bottom and adopting one of the fundamentals of the race to the bottom, which is anti-trade union action without negotiation.

An Ceann Comhairle [Chair]:

The Deputy’s time has concluded.

J. Higgins:

There has not been a word of objection from the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance. The lambs on the Fianna Fáil [ruling party] back bench could not even manage a bleat of opposition. What is the view of the Government with regard to Aer Lingus tearing up these agreements and attacking its workers’ rights and conditions in this way?

F. McGrath:

Hear, hear.

The Taoiseach:

The company is in active negotiations with IMPACT and the Irish Airline Pilots Association, IALPA, in respect of the proposed changes it is seeking to receive. It has not been possible to progress discussions with SIPTU and the craft unions. On Monday, IMPACT commenced participation in a facilitation process at the Labour Relations Commission. The union is participating with the National Implementation Body and it is also understood that the company proposes to write to the LRC to request that the entire matter be referred to the National Implementation Body with a view to avoiding industrial action. Obviously, I hope that can be achieved.

On 1 December 2006, the Aer Lingus unions were provided with a detailed presentation by the company of its plans for continual improvement into this year. The proposed changes in work practices are based on findings of a recent benchmark study, which found practices and costs at Aer Lingus to be outside industry norms in a number of areas when compared with other airlines and that there is a need to reduce staffing and other costs and increase productivity. This is obviously what one would expect the management of a company to be doing for it and one would expect the workers to be protecting their interests. They are involved in negotiations and I wish them well.

J. Higgins:

That is a disgraceful reply. The Taoiseach did nothing more than read what could be the Aer Lingus management’s press statement. How can workers take anything seriously when they are supposed to begin from the point of view of accepting a complete tearing up of agreements and reassurances that were given by the very top management only a matter of months ago? The Taoiseach comes in here and lectures me month after month about so-called partnership. He professes to believe in these mechanisms but when they are torn up by the management which he appointed and a company of which he owns one quarter, he is silent. This is hypocrisy in the extreme.

These workers have made hundreds of millions of euro in profits for Aer Lingus over the past few years. We have a management which now apes the worst features of the Ryanair outfit, namely, an anti-trade union and anti-worker approach.

An Ceann Comhairle:

The Deputy’s time has concluded.

J. Higgins:

If Ryanair will resort in the future to charging passengers a penny to go to the bathroom, which surely cannot be very far off, Aer Lingus management will want to go one better and perhaps charge them for the hand dryer as well. The Taoiseach stands by and unless he replies differently at his next opportunity, he is endorsing this attack on these workers’ wages and conditions. How much profit is enough for the speculators to whom he has given the national airline? Is it not clear that from recent Ryanair examples, that the relentless pursuit of profit by these investors will tragically lead to a very dangerous situation in the future?

An Ceann Comhairle:

The Deputy’s time has concluded.

J. Higgins:

In conclusion, will the Taoiseach at the very least vindicate the workers’ rights under existing agreements, which were reaffirmed only five months ago, or will he now betray those workers over and over again?

The Taoiseach:

Deputy Joe Higgins knows my position on this. Staff in Aer Lingus have done a tremendous job over the past 15 years and the management of the company is also doing a good job. In spite of very stiff competition and opposition, it is trying to maintain a strong company. There are 1,800 members in the company who have been given relatively good conditions which they, obviously, want to hold on to. As I have said, the company is in active negotiations on the proposed changes with IMPACT and IALPA and I hope it can get to the same position with SIPTU and the craft unions. I have already said that the National Implementation Body is there. I do not think anybody in Aer Lingus, be they in the board, management or staff, want to do anything to damage the company. In general, Dublin Airport is receiving far more competition from more airlines coming in and increased activity. The staff rightly wish to hold on to their existing conditions. The company has put forward its presentation and it is a matter for normal industrial relations negotiations.

The company’s proposals apply to revised terms and conditions for new staff from 1 February and for intensive negotiations on revised terms for existing staff from 1 March. Obviously, the trade unions in the company want to have their input and say in that and will not agree to changes they believe are to the detriment of the workers. This is normal industrial relations work between Aer Lingus and the unions. I know the company is expecting to receive strike notice later today from SIPTU, but I hope there can be a realisation by both sides that they must negotiate this matter. Based on the good work they have done in Aer Lingus over the past 15 years, I have no doubt that both sides will be doing their utmost to avoid any difficulties and come to an amicable resolution of their difficulties, allowing the company to protect employment and grow and strengthen itself. I wish them well with this.

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