Hypocrisy takes off – Aer Lingus shafts Irish workers in move to Belfast
15 August 2007
It’s difficult to know where to start. But let’s start with the facts.
Aer Lingus has decided to move certain operations, including the prized London Heathrow landing slots, from Shannon in the west of Ireland to Belfast. This will lead to new jobs in Belfast and job losses in Shannon. This has led to a massive bout of 26 county nationalism from those dismayed by the decision.
This is where the hypocrisy starts.
Sinn Fein, alongside Ian Paisley, welcomed the development. Junior minister Gerry Kelly claimed that ‘this is another tangible sign that the peace dividend is working.’ But isn’t Sinn Fein an all-Ireland party? Yes it is, but as the last election results in the South show, it is just as much a product of partition as anyone else.
Fianna Fail TDs, including a government minister from Limerick, Willie O’Dea compared the Aer Lingus Chief Executive to a ‘letter day Oliver Cromwell.’ Other backbench Fianna Fail TDs also condemned the decision, which obviously has the approval of the Government, the Fianna Fail Government, in case anyone forgot. Not for the first time, and no doubt not for the last, Fianna Fail plays at government and opposition at one and the same time. The non-existence of a real opposition allows it to get away with the disguise.
The government however, having made promises that just such an eventuality would not be allowed to happen when Aer Lingus was privatised, has used the fact that it remains the major shareholder to explain why it cannot intervene to reverse the decision?! The original argument for the government retaining shares was so it could intervene in just such eventualities.
Michael O’Leary, Chief Executive of Ryanair, also a major shareholder in Aer Lingus, and one who, without doubt, has the best interests of Aer Lingus at heart, has offered to form a common front with the Government to attempt to reverse the decision at an Extraordinary General Meeting of the company.
The Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) and US multinationals in the Shannon region who one might have thought would rush to defend the prerogatives of private ownership, the right of companies to freely exploit the free market; to proclaim companies’ responsibilities to their shareholders and not to any outside rent-seeking, market-distorting, political intervention by the dead hand of big government, have called for government intervention to reverse this utterly predictable result of the airlines privatisation which they supported!?
Apparently ‘tourist interests’ are to the fore in the regional campaign to defend Shannon, although I had always been led to believe that an all-island approach to tourism was particularly relevant in this sector and good for both parties.
The ‘Irish Times’ defends the decision but advocates saving the West by increased competition by all the airports.
Finally the local bishops, of all stripes, have condemned the decision. Perhaps flights from Shannon get nearer to God than those from Belfast?
Whatever about all the hypocrisy, as socialists we are not too concerned by the cant or nonsense spouted by Fianna Fail TDs or ministers, by American CEOs of multinationals or IBEC, by ‘Irish Times’ editorialists or Catholic and Protestant bishops.
We are however concerned when such nonsense, reactionary nonsense, emanates from the workers movement and from workers themselves.
It was reported that Shannon Aer Lingus workers heckled the Chief Executive of the company with ‘go back to Stormont’, and this wasn’t an aspersion on that building’s sectarian function. There were no reports that either the trade unions or rank and file workers were preparing a united approach against the plans of the company. On the contrary plans were afoot to unite with the biggest anti-union and anti-worker outfit in Ireland – Michael O’Leary and Ryanair. This too was laced with the prevalent hypocrisy.
So one SIPTU member said that ‘the chances of me standing up and defending Michael O’Leary are nil’ but, ‘If at the end of the day as a result of the Extraordinary General Meeting we can get this decision reversed, well then whosoever supports it, so be it, we are quite happy with that.’
The scene is now set for an alliance of local business, multinationals and unions based on a mixture of localism and 26 county nationalism but without a trace of class content, except that determined by the class interests of the bosses.
Aer Lingus pilots, in a much more positive move, have threatened strike action because pilots recruited for Belfast will be excluded from the protection of existing collective agreements with the company, will not be able to access the company pension scheme, will be ‘offered’ lower basic pay and will lose rights around days off and rest periods between flying duties.
Once again we will see Aer Lingus workers compelled to fight against themselves.
Because this is the root of the problem. The trade union bosses supported and sold privatisation of Aer Lingus on the basis that terms and conditions would be protected and a nice little killing could be made on the shares. Workers could be owners and employees. Workers, through the Employee Share Ownership Trust (including the pilots), could make dividends as well as protect wages and conditions.
Socialists argued that the interest of shareholders (bosses) and workers are not compatible, and that inevitably and inescapably the former would attack the latter. Now the union head of the Employee Share Ownership Trust wants workers to unite – as shareholders - with the Government and Ryanair (?) to fight the decision. Unity with the bosses led to this situation in the first place but absolutely nothing is learnt or understood - unity with the bosses will get them out of it!
Now workers will be striking against a company they are supposed to own, damaging their interests as shareholders while defending their interests as workers. They will do so as part of a wider campaign in alliance with the same forces of free market capitalism that has brought about the threats they want to defeat. How on earth could this possibly succeed?
The ‘Irish Times’ columnist Fintan O’Toole has obviously gotten very angry at the hypocrisy surrounding this whole situation. His message is blunt, ‘You get what you vote for’, is the title of his column, pointing to the very large majorities in the Shannon region who voted for the parties that privatised Aer Lingus, with the now very predictable results.
Socialist Democracy in part articles has noted the huge majority that voted in the last general election for this free-market, capitalist agenda that is now probably only equalled by the majority in Shannon against the results of this capitalist agenda. But the difference ends there. For where O’Toole can only breathe contempt and scorn on the local population, they ‘should accept responsibility for their choices they themselves made when they went to the polls’, for us it is the likes of O’Toole who deserves the scorn.
Why did workers vote for Fianna Fail? Why is there no mass alternative? We gave an answer, and it wasn’t the innate gullibility, irresponsibility or stupidity of the Irish people. It is a result of many, many defeats in class struggle that have enervated what class consciousness existed and stymied development of new working class awareness. The answer to this was to develop new strategies to fight back, to mobilise workers not only against the bosses and government but against the leaders who lied to them and betrayed them.
But, as we have said before, it is tempting to say that liberals like O’Toole are right on all the issues and wrong on all the struggles. O’Toole is as opposed to all out resistance by the working class as much as the reactionaries he continually has pops at. His anger is borne out of frustration and isolation because his project of a nice capitalism has no foundations. Where O’Toole wants to re-elect the people we want to elect new working class leaders.
There is no future in an alliance to defend jobs and conditions with US multinationals who are only in Ireland as a result of undermining jobs and conditions of American workers. It makes no sense to unite with Irish business that has demanded privatisation of Aer Lingus precisely in order to advance this agenda. Alliance with Fianna Fail which has created this situation is simply crazy.
The cant and hot air over the bright new future of the North and all-Ireland co-operation now that the Stormont assembly has been reinstalled has given way to narrow 26 county rivalry. But what has just happened is precisely what this whole all-Ireland agenda is about – expanding the reserves for exploitation by US multinationals and indigenous business. Lower wages are what brought firms from the US to the South and what may outweigh higher corporation tax in the North to bring companies there. This is an agenda the trade union leadership has signed up to every step of the way, from tax breaks to multinationals, to refusing to organise workers in the multinational sector and to endorsing the Northern peace process and its reactionary social and economic agenda. Workers cannot break free from any particular demand of this programme without breaking from it all.
Of course this is no reason for Shannon workers to meekly accept their lot or for new workers in Belfast to accept lower conditions than those in the South, but they cannot fight back on the basis of defending the profitability of US multinationals without someone pointing out – what about the profitability of Aer Lingus?
Pilots are right to fight the lowering of their conditions. If it can be imposed on Belfast then the company will seek to extend this to the rest of the company. Shannon workers are right to oppose the ripping up of their lives by a company they must now know does not belong to them. They should demand protection and relocation to acceptable alternatives with no loss of rights or conditions. They should start to demand the only real ownership that will prevent such turmoil in their lives in the future, and this isn’t aping the ownership of their bosses. Its collective ownership under control by the workers themselves. It means the reversal of privatisation and an Irish air service that really does put the interests of the Irish people first.
To pose such an alternative is to immediately
face the realisation that this agenda is just as much an international
one as that to which Aer Lingus now dances. A social agenda would
immediately clash with the free market, profit driven regulations of the
EU. It would require the co-operation of other countries, but just
as someone must lead the race to the bottom so someone must lead the race
to the top, and someone must start it. Opposition to the machinations
of Aer Lingus is a good place to start. Let’s get rid of the hypocrisy
and nonsense first.