Dáil Éireann - Volume 525 - 26 October, 2000
Adjournment Debate. - Aer Lingus Dispute.
Mr. Higgins (Mayo) Mr. Higgins (Mayo)
Mr. Higgins (Mayo): I wish to share time with Deputy Joe Higgins.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle Rory O'Hanlon
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Is that agreed? Agreed.
Mr. Higgins (Mayo) Mr. Higgins (Mayo)
Mr. Higgins (Mayo): The decision by Aer Lingus clerical staff to withdraw their services tomorrow will paralyse the national carrier once  again and create major problems for up to 20,000 passengers. It is the third successive week that Aer Lingus services have been thrown into disarray. Two weeks ago baggage handlers withdrew their services for two successive days with the result that chaos ensued and with a knock-on effect for several hours even after the staff returned to work. On Tuesday of last week the entire Aer Lingus fleet was grounded because cabin crews withdrew their services.
Tomorrow when the Aer Lingus desks at Dublin, Shannon and Cork should be buzzing with November bank holiday activity, they will be silent and empty because of the clerical staff industrial action. Today comes the announcement that the clerical staff last night decided on a 24 hour stoppage on Friday week. Along with the baggage handlers, 500 Aer Lingus pilots yesterday resumed their work protest by refusing to work on rest days. They are seeking pay increases in line with their peers in the One World Alliance. As this action begins to bite, it will have the capacity to cause absolute havoc over a protracted period. The problems of wages and conditions for catering staff are still the subject of ongoing talks.
If one set out to deliberately create industrial relations chaos one could scarcely have made a better job than the present sorry state of industrial relations within Aer Lingus where five separate disputes are ongoing. The entire Aer Lingus staff of 6,000 is now in dispute with the company. These disputes did not all come crashing out of the clear blue sky. They were simmering and festering beneath the surface for a long period. Instead of addressing the problems on an individual basis, they were ignored in the vain hope that they would go away. The result is that the task of obtaining a successful interlocking agreement with five separate groups is extremely difficult as each group understandably watches the others in terms of the improved wage increases and conditions on offer.
The blame for the present chaos must lie with the company and with the Minister, who owns the company and who did not move in time to address the individual sectoral problems as they arose. Had this happened, the crescendo of chaos with which we are now faced need not have happened. In this era of the Celtic tiger, if the Minister, who owns the national airline on behalf of the people, cannot guarantee that it provides a reliable and efficient service to the people, she should consider her position. I would like the Minister to inform the House about the steps she, her Department and the company will take to end this disruption and humiliation of what was once a proud national flagship company.
Mr. Higgins (Dublin West) Mr. Higgins (Dublin West)
Mr. Higgins (Dublin West): I thank Deputy Jim Higgins for sharing time.
I want the Minister to indicate the action she  has taken since special notice questions were taken in the House in respect of the first strike in Aer Lingus, to make the management of the company see and appreciate that its staff are low paid. It is clear that the management seem more keen on waging a public relations battle than getting to grips with the real problems experienced by the company's staff who made that company what it is now. A total of 97% of clerical workers rejected a previous offer and the company has insulted them by returning with almost the same offer.
The shock at the low pay regime operated by Aer Lingus was shared by everyone when it was revealed in recent weeks. Aer Lingus workers have been hammered in the past ten years when their wages and conditions were pegged back. During the same period no such restraint was placed on house prices in Dublin, Cork and Limerick where the employees of Aer Lingus reside. How can staff on less than £5 per hour afford to live? This is the case with many clerical workers beginning their careers in Aer Lingus. What is the commitment of management to meeting the genuine complaints and needs of its staff, who are the basis on which the company was built? The commitment of management to public enterprise must be questioned. The axemen who boasted of having dealt with disputes in Waterford Glass and elsewhere are not the people to put a genuine public sector company on course for development and growth. I question the company's commitment to public enterprise and wonder whether the privatisation of Aer Lingus, which the Minister is contemplating and planning, is what it is thinking about in relation to the low pay strategy and so on which it is currently enforcing on its staff. I also wonder whether its failure to deal with that low pay regime was determined by an effort to keep money in the profit account rather than rewarding the workers who made these profits possible, so that when the Minister shamefully puts the company on the market, the price paid by the vultures waiting to move in will be greater than might otherwise be the case. These are the questions with which the Minister should deal.
Mrs. O'Rourke Mrs. O'Rourke
Minister for Public Enterprise (Mrs. O'Rourke): I thank the Deputies for their contributions and for encouraging and endorsing this debate.
I deeply regret the inconvenience caused to Aer Lingus customers as a result of ongoing industrial disputes in the company. I am very much aware of their implications on tourism, consumer and business sectors in the economy.
The dispute tomorrow relates to the SIPTU clerical staff who are planning a stoppage of four hours from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Dublin, Cork and Shannon airports. Aer Lingus has prepared contingency plans in the event of the four hour stoppage tomorrow. It is expected that more than  80% of flights from the normal schedule will operate. Thirty five flights of the 260 scheduled for Friday have been cancelled. Flights departing before 10 a.m. are expected to operate normally, while flights scheduled to depart after 3 p.m. will be subject to delays.
Contingency plans announcing a revised schedule for Friday have been widely communicated by Aer Lingus on its website, in the national newspapers and through the travel trade. The objective is to minimise disruption to customers by maximising the use of available resources. Priority has been given to those customers travelling longer distances. I am closely monitoring the situation and I have been in regular contact with the chairman whom I met yesterday for a further update. Deputies will recall that in response to Private Notice Questions early last week, I urged on management and unions an intensification of efforts to resolve the various matters at issue, making full use of the State's labour relations machinery. I also acknowledged, and do so again, that there is a low pay issue which has been addressed. I appreciate that there has been an intensification of efforts on both sides.
Aer Lingus has told me that in recent negotiations with SIPTU representatives of the clerical staff, the company made an offer that marks a significant advance on the previous offer which was recommended by the Labour Court, having been through conciliation in the Labour Relations Commission. That offer was rejected. It is Aer Lingus's view that the clerical committee's counter proposal, if accepted, would significantly jeopardise future profitability at the airline. Aer Lingus continues to be available for talks at any time to progress this issue to a resolution.
In addition to clerical staff talks, there has been a series of discussions and negotiations with the baggage handlers, middle management, catering staff and cabin crews either directly or under the auspices of the Labour Relations Commission. In relation to baggage handlers, the staff are now considering an offer from the company. Talks continued with the catering staff yesterday evening and middle management talks will resume following an adjournment, once a new date has been agreed.
Having attended the Labour Relations Commission with the IMPACT cabin crew representatives last week, the company returned last Tuesday, 24 October, with SIPTU cabin crew at the request of the commission. The LRC has invited all the parties to attend talks on Tuesday, 31 October 2000.
Aer Lingus has accepted that there is an issue of low pay for certain sectors of the workforce and has indicated its willingness to settle the pay and other claims in a fair and equitable manner, having regard to the viability of the company. These claims can only be addressed through discussion and negotiation. It is in no one's interest  to have continuous disruptions to the airline's operations which impact on the innocent public and the economy and which would ultimately undermine the viability of Aer Lingus. I urge all parties concerned to continue their direct talks to achieve a resolution to these disputes and, if necessary, continue to use the State's industrial relations machinery.
It has been acknowledged on all sides of the House that adjustments are necessary in pay and conditions for certain sectors of the Aer Lingus workforce, having regard to the sacrifices and restraint which were called for from the staff in order to save the airline six years ago. I have made it clear to the Chairman of Aer Lingus that I strongly share that view, while confirming to him that the Government's mandate to the board continues to be the maintenance of the commercial viability of the airline going forward. I believe it is possible, through negotiation, to find the balance between those imperatives, which I do not believe are mutually exclusive.
The situation which appertained in 1992, 1993 and 1994, and with which the then Fianna Fáil-Labour Government wrestled and settled through the Cahill plan at the end of 1994, imposed very real restraints on staff, followed by a three year cycle of very rigorous pay restraint. We must not return to that situation because, if we do, the airline will not be viable. If the company is not viable, the Government cannot invest money in it by virtue of EU diktat. Therefore, a balance must be struck between the very strong needs of the low paid and the equally strong needs of the airline to remain a commercially viable entity. I cannot emphasise enough the seriousness of the matter.
Dáil Éireann 525 Adjournment Debate. Aer Lingus Dispute.