Ryanair turned a limited action into national dispute

 

Last November, a clear majority of Ryanair's baggage handlers approached SIPTU. They asked the union's assistance in having their grievances addressed. These centred on low pay and matters of health and safety. Their approach to SIPTU followed a series of fruitless attempts on their part to have Ryanair deal with their grievances.

However, all attempts by SIPTU to meet and engage with the company were similarly rebuffed.

Even a request by the baggage handlers that Ryanair utilise the services of the Labour Court to resolve the issue had been rejected. The company then compounded the problem by refusing to attend a Labour Court hearing on the dispute. Subsequent pleas from the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, the Tβnaiste, Ms Harney, and the employers' body IBEC were treated with similar disdain.

Incredibly, the company chose instead a deliberate strategy of escalation when it arbitrarily withdrew the baggage handlers' security passes and mandatory insurance. In effect, Ryanair locked the staff out. The only apparent "crime" committed by the 39 baggage handlers had been to request that the company deal seriously and fairly with their obvious grievances.

What had been a campaign of low-key, limited industrial action now became a serious national dispute. It is worth speculating what would have transpired had it been the 39 baggage handlers who resisted and frustrated all efforts to arrive at a negotiated solution. Legal sanctions in certain circumstances can be, and are, imposed on unions that do not engage with our industrial dispute resolution machinery. No such sanctions exist for aberrant or ill-disciplined employers.

We may never know why Ryanair adopted such a provocative strategy, nor from where the company drew inspiration for this piece of industrial recklessness. Certainly, it was not from the modern era of negotiation and accommodation of diversity.

The impact of Ryanair's bizarre action was felt immediately. Hundreds, then thousands of airport workers refused to pass the baggage handlers' pickets.

Having pushed matters to the brink, the company then pulled back, albeit with some obvious reluctance. Its decision to co-operate with the inquiry established by Ms Harney was, it appears, only taken following the direct intervention of the Taoiseach.

Even then, the company did not desist from making public pronouncements on the issue, in effect prejudging the determination of the inquiry team. In so doing, the company clearly contravened the request from the inquiry team, which asked "all sides to refrain from public comment that could make their task more difficult".

Last week's comments, reported in The Irish Times, by the Ryanair executive Conor McCarthy similarly disregarded the inquiry team request.

Thus, it is only with the greatest reluctance that SIPTU has availed of this right to reply, exercised with the full knowledge of the inquiry team.

Our belief is that this dispute is far too serious a matter to be thrashed out in newspaper columns. The right and proper forum for such comments is within the ambit of the Government-established inquiry. The Ryanair workers who have asked SIPTU to represent them will not be deflected by Ryanair from achieving their aims. Provocative statements and payments of ú700/ú350 "tax paid" to those who worked through the strike will not distract them.

Despite being silenced by their contract of employment they have found a voice through their union. All they ask is that their employer accepts their right to be professionally represented in negotiations with their management.

Through these negotiations the Ryanair commitment set out in a company minute of December 11th, 1997, "to pay the GHAs (ground handling agents) more than pay rates negotiated by any trade unions in the airport for equivalent staff' will be honoured.

SIPTU sincerely regrets difficulties experienced by the public as a result of this dispute. We must stress, however, that none of these difficulties would have occurred had the company adopted a normal, reasonable approach to industrial relations. If Ryanair could only have had the foresight to agree on Friday evening to what it agreed to on Sunday night, it could have saved thousands of people a lot of misery.

It is also worth noting that SIPTU did not target Ryanair. The Ryanair workers approached SIPTU. Their employer was written to with the workers' grievances in the same way as other employers had been written to. Other employers accepted the rights of their employees to be professionally represented. Ryanair chose a different path.

It is also important to correct the view that SIPTU wants in some fashion or other to "coerce" each and every Ryanair worker into union (SIPTU) membership. That is patently false. SIPTU's interest lies in representing the 39 baggage handlers who, of their own free will, have sought, union representation. That is their right. They are determined to see that right recognised.

Paul O'Sullivan is a negotiator with SIPTU