I recently raised the matter of the cabin crew strike at Aer Lingus with Minister Varadkar during Topical questions in the Dáil.
Since the issue of the upcoming strike was raised in the House yesterday, Aer Lingus has, at the eleventh hour, invited the unions in to talks. I am not sure whether those talks have commenced. There was no indication earlier of when they might take place, but it is late in the day and follows on from the company’s utterances yesterday more or less threatening workers that, should the new roster regime suggested by Aer Lingus cabin crew be brought in, the company would have no alternative but to shut its operations in Ireland and locate some of its bases in North America, with a loss of jobs.
The reality is that on Friday, hard-working, dedicated cabin crew, members of staff in Aer Lingus who no more want to join a picket line than the Minister or I, will be faced with no alternative but to do so. I ask the Minister to step back from this situation and look at the bigger picture, because there is no doubt that in recent weeks considerable and costly propaganda by Aer Lingus management has been meted out against its staff and the staff trade unions, in which the company sought to blame the unions for what it deemed as unnecessary strike action. It claimed that staff were looking for 32 extra days off and that the unions’ suggestion of a trial of new rosters would significantly add to costs. Not only was it undermining its staff publicly; internally, it was engaging in vicious intimidation of those workers, organising and gearing up for the strike, writing to passengers in a way that was derogatory to the staff, cancelling flights, lining up hire-ins and so on.
We must be clear on this issue. Aer Lingus management has consistently refused to engage with its staff over three years. It has refused to attend the Labour Court on six successive occasions and, indeed, the court has written to say that it is flagrantly ignoring its recommendations, something that would not be tolerated on the workers’ side. This issue is not about rosters. It is an attempt to beat the staff into submission and break the union. That is from a management that has already brought the other union, SIPTU, to court. That is the real agenda.
When Christoph Mueller came to Aer Lingus I attended a meeting at which he spoke about cabin crew. He said that cabin crew was once a job that people joined in the position of courier before progressing through the ranks, getting promoted and so on, but to his mind, across Europe and internationally, the job was being done by students on a casual and part-time basis. Workers could be hired and fired at will with no progression or security.
It is clear that the rosters Aer Lingus management is seeking to impose are an attempt to push workers out of the company.
There can be no other rationale for it. The workers are only seeking the same arrangement that exists for the pilot group and staff of all other airlines in Ireland and across Europe. All they are asking for is certainty in their work-life balance. Why would a company impose on workers a regime that provides for changes to their rosters with two, three or four hours notice? In other words, a person rostered to start work at 9 a.m. could at short notice be required to start work at 5 a.m. and a person due to finish work at 6 p.m. might have to stay until 10 p.m. Also, no scheduled meal breaks are provided. This is a pressurised work environment. Staff have reported severe fatigue to the IAA. The Minister is aware that their flight hours are capped by legislation. Staff are not seeking to work fewer hours. All they want is to be able to work in a more family-friendly environment.
There is no reason Aer Lingus management could not have discussed this issue with the staff. The Government’s shareholding in Aer Lingus when combined with the staff shareholding equates to the largest shareholding in the company. What does the Minister propose to do in terms of holding management to account on this matter? I note the Minister’s statements that the strike is regrettable. Nobody regrets it more than the staff. However, the cause of it is management. When does the Minister propose to call them to heel?
Leo Varadkar (Minister, Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport)
First, industrial relations issues are primarily matters for the company. The State’s 25% shareholding does not allow it to interfere in the management of the airline. The largest shareholding is held by Ryanair and the staff and State shareholding is not combined. It is often the case that the interests of the State and staff differ.
IMPACT’S Aer Lingus cabin crew members recently voted overwhelmingly in favour of industrial action up to and including strike action on two separate industrial relation matters, namely, to achieve agreement on the dispute with Aer Lingus on the IAS pension scheme and the failure to agree the implementation of revised rostering arrangements for cabin crew. The cabin crew branch of IMPACT served notice of industrial action on Aer Lingus on 13 May in regard to the rostering dispute which concerns the implementation of a revised roster for short-haul services and implementation of acceptable time-off arrangements following long-haul flights. The statement from IMPACT states that all cabin crew will engage in a 24-hour work stoppage this coming Friday, 30 May. Cabin crew members will place pickets at Dublin, Cork and Shannon airports for the duration of the stoppage. The outcome of the ballots and IMPACT’S decision to serve strike notice on the company for action on Friday is regrettable, particularly as it comes so soon after the last threatened strike action over St. Patrick’s weekend.
I was pleased to hear yesterday that IMPACT had accepted an invitation from the company to talks. I strongly urge both parties to make every effort to address the issues at the heart of this dispute so as to avert the proposed action on Friday and the potential further action to which IMPACT has alluded, although I understand that no formal notice of any further action has been served on the company. Even if Friday’s action is called off at this stage, significant damage has already been done to the company’s reputation, forward bookings and profits. This is not in the interests of staff or shareholders, such as the State, whose interests are clearly linked to the financial performance of the company.
There is little doubt that if the proposed industrial action on Friday goes ahead and if further threats of action are made, this will be damaging to Irish tourism as we enter the peak tourism season. It will cause disruption not only to Irish passengers travelling abroad on business and to visitors on hard earned breaks but also to the many tourists scheduled to travel here on Aer Lingus flights. Only a few short years ago the financial position of Aer Lingus was precarious and its future uncertain. In a recent trading update to the Irish Stock Exchange, Aer Lingus reported positive trading for April 2014, substantially ahead of the previous year and significantly ahead of management’s expectations. However, management’s current assessment is that the adverse effect of the strike called for 30 May will offset the potential gains which would otherwise have been realised by Aer Lingus. It is important for all parties to bear in mind how easily these recent gains could be lost and how volatile the aviation sector is. As Minister with responsibility for transport and tourism I am making a formal request to both sides in the dispute to work intensively today to find a resolution to avert Friday’s action and to continue that work to avoid further threats of industrial action. The LRC and the Labour Court remain available to them.
On the pensions issue, which is the second issue on which IMPACT has balloted, I again point out the importance of reaching agreement on this long-standing dispute. The resolution of the funding difficulties in the scheme is a matter for the trustees, the companies participating in the scheme, the members of the schemes and the pensions authority. However, following consultations between the Departments of Transport, Tourism and Sport and Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, IBEC and ICTU, an expert panel was established on 3 March 2014 to carry out an investigation of how the industrial relations issues relating to the scheme could be resolved. The expert panel has reported to the two Departments, IBEC and ICTU on two occasions, on 31 March and, most recently, on 11 April and is due to report again shortly.
I continue to urge the parties to put all their efforts into engaging with the expert panel. It is important that the panel’s work be allowed to continue, notwithstanding the current dispute. In expressing my concern about the proposed strike action, I do so not only on my own behalf but also on behalf of both the 200,000 people employed in the tourism sector and the tens of thousands of passengers potentially affected by the proposed action.
The Minister’s response is a bitter disappointment. It indicates to me that he and his colleagues have not listened to what the electorate had to say over the past number of days.
The reality is that the State shareholding when combined with that of the staff equates to a 40% shareholding, which is the largest shareholding. In this instance both interests should be at one. However, it appears from the Minister’s response they are not. The Minister has sought to blame the staff for the situation. While everybody regrets the inconvenience caused to passengers, unfortunately that is a consequence of the intransigence of management over the past three years. While the Minister has welcomed that IMPACT has agreed to return to talks he made no reference to the desperate attempts over the past years to secure talks and engagement with the company, all of which were blatantly refused. The only conclusion one can draw from this is that the blame for this situation rests with management. What other option is there for people? Does the Minister believe it is acceptable for women and men in a modern economy to be required to go to work and not know at what time they will finish, to not have legitimate breaks and to work to a roster which takes no account of their need to care for their children and families?
All the staff are seeking is the putting in place of a structured arrangement similar to that which is available to their pilot colleagues and staff of other airlines. If the result of this is an inconvenience to passengers and a loss of revenue for the company, the question that must be asked is why then is management pushing it? The only conclusion that can be reached is that this is a management seeking to break a unionised workforce. The chief executive of Aer Lingus sits on a pension pot which the Minister has deemed excessive and voted against paying him bonuses. The chief executive therefore has a cheek to inconvenience passengers and, more importantly, workers in this situation. The reality is that the Minister can do something about this. He can send out the message that it is not acceptable for managers, particularly those of companies in which the State has a shareholding, to treat workers in this way.
Leo Varadkar (Minister, Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport)
I am not blaming management or the unions for the current situation. As is the case in all industrial relations disputes there are two sides to every story. It appears to me that Deputy Daly is the one not listening. Based on her contribution, it would appear that she has only heard one side of the story, that of the unions, and has decided to repeat it here in this Chamber. The Deputy should listen to both sides involved in the dispute. She might then have a more balanced and nuanced opinion than that which she has expressed here today.
In the Deputy’s initial remarks she called on me to step back and look at the bigger picture. I do look at the bigger picture. The bigger picture to the Deputy is always about a conflict between capital and labour. When I look at the bigger picture, I see the impacts on citizens and the economy. The impacts on citizens who want to travel this weekend and on the economy are negative. That is the bigger picture to which the Deputy should have regard.
This is a dispute about rosters and it should be resolved bilaterally in talks between the unions and management. I now understand that talks are due to happen soon. I see no reason that the strike should not be called off. If for some reason the parties cannot agree bilaterally, they should go to the LRC. I call on Aer Lingus to make use of the LRC. I certainly call on unions, be they representing workers in Aer Lingus or Irish Rail, to go along with the recommendations of the Labour Court. I hope the Deputy will join me in calling on unions, irrespective of the sector they are in, to accept recommendations made by the Labour Court. I hope she will join me in asking for the strike to be suspended because of the talks that are under way. That is what the electorate to which I am listening wants to happen.