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Aer Lingus:  Owing your soul to the Company Store

22 June 2020

The International Airlines Group (IAG) which owns Aer Lingus, British Airways, Iberia and Vueling have put in place plans to lay off 12,000 employees. The object of this callous measure is to shed all 'liabilities' and protect the owners interests.

While benefitting from huge State benefits Aer Lingus has already halved the pay and hours of most staff and have made plans to axe some operations including in Shannon. Their presentation of a Covid 19 'recovery' plan, which further decimated pay and conditions, included a system that required workers to return wages paid out when business was slack and the airline deemed them 'overpaid'. Workers effectively are to be loaned their wages pending increased company profitability and could end up as the old song says owing their “souls to the company store”, remaining in hock to the company for years to come.

In response to this, Forsa, the union that organises cabin staff, decided they were going ahead with a ballot on the so called 'deal' which the workers subsequently rejected by a margin of 75%. At the very suggestion that trade union members should have anything to say on the issue the company decided to dispense with all pretenses of consultation or negotiation and impose the package. Their anger at Forsa's 'unreasonable' decision to ballot its members has now resulted in the production of a plan, which they had undoubtedly prepared earlier, to cut pay by 70% and to impose 500 layoffs.

Unlike Forsa, who recognise the “distain” with which they are being treated, Siptu caved in immediately, announcing that; “the proposals, while not ideal were the best that could be achieved at present”. They then proceeded to deny democratic rights to their membership on the pretext of the health emergency, “ SIPTU Divisional Organiser Karan O'Loughlin ruled out a ballot due to pressure of time and public health restrictions.”

The leadership of the largest most powerful trade union in Ireland is lamely borrowing the excuses used by the State to harrass Debenhams picketers and BLM protesters to deny their members a voice. During their many years in social partnership they have obviously fallen victim to an infestation of their bedfellows fleas!

Aer Lingus is now dispensing with anything resembling consultation, let alone negotiation, with trade unions. The social partnership model clung to by the union bureaucrats for decades is now producing no fig leaf to hide their shame but no evidence exists that there is any will to fight back on the part of any layer of the trade union bureaucracy.

The best of them while presenting some attempt to put the brakes on the capitalists' attacks, Mandate in the case of Debenhams and in this case Forsa's attempts to at least maintain a semblance of workers' democracy, fail to inspire. They lack all imagination! In their memo Siptu said “the unions believed Aer Lingus when it said that it is in an "unprecedented state of peril" due to the collapse of the aviation industry.”

Of that there is no doubt! The airlines are in a 'state of peril' but trade union leaders stating the bloody obvious and accepting the bosses strategy is an appalling abrogation of their responsibility to their members. The appropriate response is to mobilise the one million Irish trade union members to prevent, once again, the price of another capitalist crisis being hung around the necks of the workers. If the billions in funds existed for the banks, then they also exist for air transport workers.

The decades long social partnership outlook among the trade union bureaucracy, now increasingly being dispensed with by big business, has repeatedly sold out workers struggles. Now those leaders who are ideologically tied to a concept of trade unionism which sees trade unions as essential to the survival of capitalism(1) have no answers when its survival requires widespread working class misery.

Workers are now faced with the Siptu leadership's preferred course of remaining passive and bearing the costs of capitalism's economic failures or of fighting back. As part of any fightback it is necessary to demand nationalisation of the IAG fleet and the re-nationalisation of Aer Lingus under workers control. It is most essential to back that demand with independent workers action! We must learn to fight and dare to dream. If trade union leaders cannot even envisage a new society and a clean environment, let alone fighting for it, the task increasingly falls to rank and file workers!

In the immediate sense it isn't just air transport workers that face disaster, its also aircraft production workers. These workers together must fight back, occupy, take possession of the buildings, the infrastructure. It has already been tried in a limited way with some effect at Apollo House and is implicitly threatened by the Debenhams' workers' blockade. Carry this tendency to its logical conclusion! Deny the bosses their ability to sell off, liquidify, and pocket the proceedings of this liquidation. The owners of the airlines, the IAG, that is imposing these conditions is relying on getting back to profiteering. Stop them! They plan to lay off at least 12'000 workers across their operations in British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus and Vueling. Clot up the life veins of capitalism, allow none of them to fly, to transport their people, to transfer their labour, to ship in their parts. Stop everything! Air transport workers in at least three other countries are at this time suffering the same fate as Aer Lingus workers; more when global air travel is included. As the Ryanair workers previously demonstrated this is the material basis for an international response and very effective stoppages. The workers have the power.

A unified transport system under workers control would not advocate any return to environmentally damaging levels of waste in the airline industry but would plan for a cleaner more efficient air transport system and a switch to cleaner, expanded and transformed rail and maritime transport. To save us from environmental catastrophe we must stop the destruction caused by fossil fuels. They can and must be superceded at a much faster rate than the pathetic window dressing demanded by the Green Party. Profit hungry air transport companies are not going to invest the necessary resources in finding how to do this, especially if clean transport means a switch away from air travel by even a small percentage. Fast hydrogen/electric trains are already in production and increasingly clean methods of hydrogen production are already in their infancy in Ireland. Massive expansion of the rail system and its integration with similarly transformed European and British systems is possible, the Victorian rail system dwarfed todays remnants, and this would require the skills of aviation transport workers, builders, engineers and an expansion of engineering production.

Switching to a socialised mode of transport of people and goods as a service instead of a cash cow is not a tall order, only two decades ago CIE workers were using free ferry and rail travel throughout Europe. The technology is now available for clean travel but the profit motive prevents its rapid expansion and indeed we already can see how social distancing rules is causing existing transport providers profits to crash, threatening further contraction in transport provision. Again capitalism has no answer but a socialised transport system with clean vehicles providing a more frequent service where social distancing rules can be obeyed could provide a necessary service with vastly reduced environmental damage.

This pandemic that has stalled national and international travel is merely a prelude to an even greater environmental catastrophe, the task of addressing this falls to the working class! In the current atmosphere of workers' walkouts over unsafe conditions and spontaneous revolt among youth against racism the world is a rapidly changing place. Air transport workers are not alone in their plight. We must call on all other workers facing a similar fate to fight back against the capitalist system that oppresses us all in diverse ways; call on the youth who are being denied a future to mobilise for free tertiary education and work. Call on all BLM activists and anti racist workers to bring the fight against racism into their unions and demand stoppages over police racism and the expulsion of the police state from the labour movement. Call on the health workers whose self sacrifice during the worst of the Covid 19 crisis means nothing to the plotters planning their privatisation right now in the Dail, call on all public transport workers threatened with privatisation and lay offs for support and the myriad other grievances produced by the last decade of austerity; everything from pension cuts and two tier pay to homelessness and eviction.

Solidarity is what trade unionism is all about but a leadership that is accepting that trade union members must pay the costs of declining profitability and are condemning trade unions to standing on the sidelines of working class revolts has long forgotten this. There must finally be no more social 'partnership' with those who so brutally condemn workers to penury. Take possession of the tools of all our trades; we need education, we need health care, we need food, we need pensions, a clean safe climate, homes, we need good clean efficient and environmentally friendly transport and we need to save the planet we all live on. Capitalism is in its death throes but threatens to take the entire world with it as its decay progresses week on week and Siberia soars to 38 degrees centigrade. This is not a rehearsal! What we do not need is mega profits, shareholder bonuses or off-shore bank accounts for mega rich individuals and corporations like IAG.

Only a revolutionary socialist society can provide the necessary change but it will not fall from the sky. As Marx long ago pointed out no ruling class in history has voluntarily relinquished power; we must fight to wrest it from them! All class conscious workers and socialists must stride towards that fight with the clear view that the seizure of the means of production and workers resistance must at first mean dual power, not partnership, in the workplace. Every effort to ruin working class lives must be confronted, every attack fought with practical steps of resistance including occupation and seizure. We have a world to win and the future must be ours! The alternative is repression, poverty, environmental catastrophe and ultimately, war.


(1) Jack O’Connor, Irish Water and the Troika, SD Bulletin  January 2015 (Includes quote from Jack O Connor speech)

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