Ryanair: Airport closed down but SIPTU leaders run away from victory


MARCH 7th saw Dublin airport closed down. Clerical staff, loaders, fire fighters, mechanics, catering staff, cabin crews, computer operators, even the airport police walked off the job. When the 39 Ryanair baggage handlers who have been fighting for recognition of their union, SIPTU, were effectively locked-out; thousands of workers from all the different airport companies came out in a great display of solidarity. Taxis, buses, An Post, delivery vans refused to pass the pickets. The airport was completely shut down, for the first time ever.

The Ryanair workers had been taking part in short stoppages for nine weeks. This resulted from the company's refusal to negotiate on pay, working conditions and safety matters. The dispute was well known and there was tremendous public sympathy for the baggage handlers. Hardly anyone was taking the side of the 19th richest person in Ireland, practically everyone was on the side of the workers.

At the airport there was a real fighting spirit. Ryanair was going to be shown a thing or two. And other airport bosses would be shown that they had better not think that workers would just roll over every time they were asked for further concessions.

Newspaper editors who had been fairly reasonable in their coverage of the dispute changed tack in the blinking of an eye. Bosses' organisations were outraged at this return to real trade unionism. It was as if they had believed that legal restrictions and over a decade of 'social partnership' had killed off any fighting spirit in workers.

SIPTU and ICTU leaders were just as eager to put a stop to this tremendous expression of solidarity. It was upsetting their cosy routine of 'conciliation', 'arbitration', 'compromise' (and sometimes outright defeat as at Nolans Transport, the Three Lakes Hotel, and Pat the Baker).

Ryanair's Chief Executive, Michael O'Leary, was paid a bonus of £17 million. That's as much as a baggage-handler would earn if he went on working, full time, at current rates, not just to the end of the century but to the end of the millenium, the next millenium. In fact, for more than 1,130 years.

When the news broke on March 8th that the airport was going back to work and there had been a deal, more than a few delighted union members thought that Ryanair had given up and recognised SIPTU. Then confusion set in. The baggage handlers had been reinstated but Ryanair had not recognised the union - the strike had achieved no more than a return to the situation earlier that week.

It was such a squandered opportunity. Keeping the airport shut for just a little longer would have totally defeated Ryanair and given the rest of us the most spectacular victory in years.

People who saw the result of their solidarity - nothing - won't be in a hurry to repeat it. What came out of it? ...an inquiry. What's there to inquire about? A long tribunal so that everyone would forget about the Ryanair dispute.

The pickets were no sooner off the gates than Ryanair was saying that they would never recognise the union. On March 23rd they stuck the boot in by letting three baggage handlers go just before the end of their probationary year.

The union confined itself to to "lodging a strong protest" with the inquiry team. I'll bet that scared Michael O'Leary. Not. On April 5th he told the Sunday Tribune that "I'm confident that the 39 workers won't go on strike again, no matter what the inquiry finds".

And who is on this inquiry team? Dan McAuley, the former chief of the Federated Union of Employers; and Phil Flynn, ex-chief of the ICTU who was given the chair of the ICC Bank as a reward for his services to the ruling class. You don't need a suspicious mind to think that the main role of the inquiry is to recommend a 'code of practice' whereby the airport is never closed down again. The rights of the Ryanair workers will be secondary, and disposable.

SIPTU is the biggest union in the airport, it is the biggest union in Ireland. It is also one of the most conservative and bureaucratic. Desperately trying to be 'responsible social partners', the top officials hate conflict. That is why we had only part-time stoppages, no pickets, no question of an all-out picket, no blacking, no sympathy action. Instead we were offered reliance on government intervention, being seen as 'reasonable' in the media, and appeals to take 'partnership' seriously.

Winning by militant trade union methods seems to be more threatening to the characters from the top floor in Liberty Hall than failing to protect union members in Ryanair. Connolly and Larkin must have migraine from all the spinning in their graves.

This article is from Workers Solidarity No 54 published in June 1998