Monday, January 14, 2008

The eyes - watch the eyes. Bureaucracy sell out again

On 3rd January SIPTU shop stewards agreed to a €20 million cost-cutting programme being sought by Aer Lingus management. Aer Lingus Branch Organiser Teresa Brannick said: "We are committed to the process, which has already identified some €10 million in savings in the areas where SIPTU has members."

Yet in October, when Aer Lingus management demanded the cuts and imposed a freeze on pay increases agreed under the ‘Towards 2016’ partnership deal,” SIPTU National Industrial Secretary Michael Halpenny had said:

“Aer Lingus has sunk to a new low … management has reneged on both local and national agreements between the Social Partners under T2016. Further, it is in breach of commitments entered into prior to privatisation ... Our members are not going to succumb to this kind of blackmail…they are entitled to respect as workers and not have to endure these attempts by management to bully them into submission.”

So how did we get from this sort of forthright opposition to the January collapse? The case is a textbook in bureaucratic manoeuvring – talk tough, threaten action, keep on the move and never left the left hand know what the right is doing.

So the first step was to ‘consult with other unions’ and promise members that industrial action ‘was not ruled out’. Aer Lingus were so overcome that they issued sacking notice to temporary staff and called for contract changes and wage cuts for those remaining.

In response the union balloted for strike action. “The justification for this relentless attack on the living standards of workers on, or near the average industrial wage, is that Aer Lingus rates are ‘not competitive’ in aviation sector terms. The methodology on which this claim is made has never been disclosed …” In other words the attack could be justified if the airline could prove it needed to be more competitive!

By this time the National Implementation Board (NIB) – SIPTU and ICTU officials in partnership with bosses and government – were stepping in to resolve the dispute and by mid-November had issued a report that called for the suspension of strike action wothout any guarantees from management and organised an independent report into Aer Lingus claims of financial misery. In time the report concluded that yes – if Aer Lingus could cut costs then it would make more profits.

That was enough for SIPTU. They agreed to ‘suspend’ strike action. "We expect the airline to involve itself in the process in good faith. Our objective in this process is to ensure an alternative solution can be explored which does not involve reducing our members’ pay and conditions of employment," said SIPTU National Industrial Secretary, Michael Halpenny. In other words – we will help organise the cuts!

Despite constant threats by the airline the unions could not be forced into opposition. What we got was militant bluster and practical collaboration. The union threatened action, writing to Congress seeking an all-out picket, while continuing with the process established by the National Implementation board to seek alternative ways of achieving the company’s objectives.

The success of this strategy does not lie in the mesmeric powers of the bureaucracy or the inability of workers to understand the process of betrayal. It rests securely on decades of betrayal that have demoralised union militants. Unwilling to enter battles where they will be isolated and stabbed in the back by their own leaders, they look for what appears the least worst option. In this case they were promised they could keep their current pay rates – as long as they agreed speedup and redundancy to the tune of 4000 euro per worker to pay for the company’s self-sacrifice!

It’s a pattern that has been repeated across public service, with the latest benchmarking report offering pay increases of 0%, an effective pay cut. There will be no cut in demands for speedup and job cuts. The hypnotic powers of the bureaucracy will in future be tested to the limit.

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