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Aer Lingus privatisation exposes folly of partnership
As the government moves to flog off another public asset, the trade union movement has failed to take effective action
Once again, the dogmatic urge of the current FF/PD government to sell off another publicly owned company has reared its ugly head. In parallel to this, we see our trade union leadership do nothing but pay lip service to the concerns of the workers involved, showing an abysmal failure to tackle the government head-on in opposition to its plans.
The trade union movement has ample evidence at its disposal to oppose privatisation, and public support if mobilised could prevent any attempt at asset-stripping a vital public service. The experience of Eircom privatisation is very fresh in people’s minds. When that company was floated many ordinary citizens invested in the company, only for them to lose their money very quickly.
The board of directors even had the audacity to pay themselves large and unjustifiable salaries and bonuses. The limited availability of broadband on a nationwide basis is also a direct consequence of privatisation. Thousands of secure jobs were lost, working conditions too suffered, with many workers in the company now working as sub-contractors with little or no real job security.
The economic argument being made for the privatisation of Aer Lingus has no basis in fact. In its most recent annual report Aer Lingus was reported to have made a profit of 100 million euros. In various viability plans the unions and workers went to great lengths to ensure the company’s sustainability. 3,000 jobs were lost, wage increases frozen, and working conditions drastically altered.
Yet still management and government have continued to pursue even more stringent cuts to an already demoralised staff, with attempts by management to alter the pension benefits of workers and targeting of areas where they could drive workers out of their jobs. The government too stood back and refused to invest adequate capital to ensure continuing profitability, and made false claims that they were prevented from investing in the company by EU legislation.
By appointing an institution like the A.I.B. to be part of a consultation group on the future of Aer Lingus, the government has effectively put a wolf in charge of a flock of sheep. How can an institution that has been proven to have high levels of corruption in its financial affairs be trusted with carrying out such a study?
The government and management have, in their lack of openness with the unions at Aer Lingus, proved that any consultation process with the unions is meaningless and futile. After all, the Minister for Transport Martin Cullen has already said openly that Aer Lingus will be sold off.
The leadership of both trade unions organised within Aer Lingus must be brought to account for their complacency throughout this whole affair. Impact, the union that represents the majority of pilots and cabin crew and organises 49% of union members in the company, does not oppose the privatisation plans. In fact they are merely seeking negotiations on the very short-term benefits privatisation will bring in financial terms for their membership.
This position is in direct contrast with that of SIPTU. SIPTU mainly represents clerical, cleaning and ground staff, and cabin crew – this amounts to 51% of the workforce in Aer Lingus. SIPTU have balloted throughout the company for strike action. A total of 98% of staff have agreed that if the sell-off begins, it will take industrial action.
IMPACT must be directly challenged by SIPTU's leadership and called upon publicly to oppose privatisation. SIPTU must show strong leadership and unconditionally withdraw from any potential new social partnership agreement (if indeed such a concept actually exists). The evidence is clear: social partnership is a process that absorbs the trade union movement so deeply into the capitalist economy that its strength to fight governments who are hostile to the working class and hostile to concepts of public ownership is neutered. It loses its ability to defend the very principles it was originally founded to uphold.
During the 18 years of social partnership, we have seen our public health service decimated, house prices soaring, increases in double taxation, and wage levels barely keeping in line with inflation. We have seen the selling-off of our telecommunications network and the threat to part-privatise Dublin Bus. Each day, new evidence emerges that employers are exploiting vulnerable workers.
Even before the new talks began the government announced the selling off of the Great Southern Hotels - a publicly owned company - and the job security of 800 employees in that company is now under threat. The race to the bottom is clearly heating up: GAMA, ESB in Moneypoint and Irish Ferries are clear examples of this. Employers are unashamedly pursuing this race. It is being facilited by a government that refuses to punish rogue employers.
The trade union movement must defend workers from the threat of privatisation. Privatisation leads to outsourcing of work that results in loss of job security, working conditions, and pension rights - and even union recognition itself. Social partnership has done nothing to stop this onslaught on very basic workers’ rights.
It is time the unions withdrew from social partnership and returned to what really matters: protecting workers from such attacks .We must free up workers to take action themselves in the workplace. It is only by building grass-roots trade union networks amongst the radical left and shop-floor activists with a clear and shared rejection of social partnership that this battle can begin to be won.