Legal action threatens future of trade unions - political protest response needed

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Events in the High Court over the course of a week in the middle of March, and the lack of any real response to them, should be of huge concern to all trade unionists here.  Effectively a declaration of war against trade unions and trade union organisers has been made – and the response from the trade union side has been somewhat less than overwhelming.

On Wednesday 12th March High Court judge Paul Gilligan issued an injunction to the Dublin Airport Authority restraining SIPTU members from holding a 4-hour stoppage which had been planned for Friday morning (14th March).  The stoppage was planned as part of a campaign by workers in Aer Lingus and the Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) to force their employers to deal with a huge deficit in their pension scheme.  80% of SIPTU members in Aer Lingus and 89% of members in the DAA had voted for strike action – a vote that was described by SIPTU as a demonstration that staff are“…angry, disillusioned and frustrated that an acceptable resolution has not been found to the pensions crisis.” 

Airport and Aer Lingus workers are right to feel angry, and are right to demand that something be done about the pension issue.  They have, after all, been campaigning to have the deficit addressed for several years now.  However when the injunction was granted on Wednesday, the only response of the trade union was to meekly announce that they would be complying with the order of the court and “consulting with our legal advisors with a view to developing a strategy to enable us to exercise our right to withdraw labour …..” 

It was over a week later – Friday 21st March – before a statement was issued by SIPTU saying that they “resolved to support any, and all, industrial action necessary ….” in furtherance of the dispute.  Unfortunately though, that support was heavily qualified by the inclusion of the phrase “and within the law”.  “The law”, as has been proven just a week earlier, is used to shackle and nullify industrial action.  The might of a union and of workers organising together is our collective action, we should not and cannot rely on “the law” to facilitate our actions.

Damages

Worse was still to come from the courts, however.  On Friday, 14th March, Aer Lingus served legal proceedings on SIPTU seeking “multiple millions” in damages “for breach of contract, for unlawful interference with its business, and for inducing a breach of contract with its customers.”   In other words, the legal action was for SIPTU doing what a trade union is supposed to do – organising industrial action.  In this case, however, the action had not even gone ahead but Aer Lingus is claiming that it “had already incurred significant losses to revenue as well as additional costs as a result of the planned dispute.”  SIPTU’s response was to announce that it would be “…consulting with our legal advisers over the next number of days and we will be vigorously resisting this action in the courts.”

Even more worrying though was that Aer Lingus also issued legal proceedings against a named SIPTU official, Dermot O’Loughlin.  This attempt to sue a union official in a personal capacity for doing his job in representing his members is even more sinister than the anti-trade union and anti-worker move of suing the union.  If Aer Lingus is successful in this action, it will have huge implications for the ability of shop stewards and union representatives to adequately represent the members who elect and/or appoint them.  It will effectively leave organisers – be they at shopfloor or head office level – vulnerable to being sued personally for arguing for and/or helping to organise industrial action.

It is perhaps ironic that just as the trade union movement ends a period of commemoration of the events of the Dublin Lockout of 1913 it faces perhaps the greatest threat in the last 100 years to its continued existence, with hardly a murmur of protest and certainly no sabre-rattling or threats of action to defend our ability to organise collectively.

Clever legal arguments?

It seems that SIPTU (and ICTU too presumably) have decided to rely on the courts to rule on this issue.  SIPTU’s “legal advisors” must be rubbing their hands with glee.  Do the leadership of SIPTU genuinely believe that the courts – which have ruled against the trade union movement again and again – can be won over by clever legal arguments?  The “legal advisors” will of course advise that the legal route is the way to go.  However it should be clear to anyone with a minimum of knowledge of how the court system works that the only way in which those clever words will be listened to will be if they are backed up by feet on the streets and the threat of very serious disruption across the entire economy.

There appears to be no inclination whatsoever from the leaderships of SIPTU or ICTU however to organise the sort of campaigns of protest that are necessary to defend the very existence of trade unions and to provide the political climate that will force the courts to rule in favour of the union side.  The sad reality is that if they don’t do so we are facing a situation whereby trade unions as we know them will effectively be so hamstrung by legal rulings that their ability to do the job of defending workers through organising and engaging in industrial action will be almost completely nullified.

If the union side had any lingering doubts about the extent to which the courts are not on our side, these should have completely disappeared as a result of the events of Wednesday 19th March.  Just a week after granting the injunction to prevent the industrial action, Justice Gilligan was back in the High Court to award costs against SIPTU to both the DAA and Ryanair – even though Ryanair’s injunction application had not even been proceeded with.  (Ryanair has also said that it is “considering its options” with regard to instituting its own claim for damages against SIPTU, and of course Ryanair is a significant minority shareholder in Aer Lingus).

Reaction

Many trade union activists quite rightly have no time for the leaderships of SIPTU and ICTU and an initial reaction to this threatened legal action could be to note that they are effectively reaping what they have sowed.  For the past 30 years, they have preached the politics of ‘compromise’ and ‘partnership’.  And for the past 5 years, that has been taken even further with ICTU officials and the leaders of most of the trade union movement effectively endorsing the politics of austerity and cutbacks.  ICTU marches against austerity have been more about opening a valve to let off a little bit of steam than about organising resistance.  And when groups of workers such as those in Dublin Bus and Irish Rail (or public servants in the case of the Croke Park II deal) have voted against imposed cutbacks and changes to working conditions, they have been forced by their ‘leaderships’ to vote again and again until they have given the ‘correct’ result.

But this legal action must be seen by all of us as a threat to the very existence of our unions.  And no matter what we think of the leaderships, it is crucial that we all, no matter what unions we are members of, organise to resist it through political protest.  If SIPTU are beaten in this instance it will hand the initiative to the most conservative elements in all unions allowing them to argue against ever taking any action. Anyone who is involved in organising in their own union will be only too well aware that it's already hard enough to win over the middle ground from these conservatives elements - which include most of the leaderships of most unions. That difficulty will be multiplied if a company can successfully sue a union for even threatening to take action.  And if an individual official can be sued, the multiplier effect will be even greater.

And if a semi-state company (in which the government has a 25 percent stake) can successfully take this type of legal action, imagine the confidence that will give to the many anti-union employers across the economy.

There is little likelihood that the leadership of SIPTU will organise resistance to this threat to our movement.  It is up to each of us in our own unions to take up the challenge.  It is to be hoped that a grouping (from within SIPTU or across a number of unions) will emerge to take the initiative and lead a fight on this issue.

WORDS: Gregor Kerr IMAGE: Andrew Flood

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