Closing airports - Action is selfish and unacceptable

ALMOST 30 years ago – August 3, 1981 – more than 12,000 of America’s air traffic controllers walked off the job, setting off a chain of events that would change labour relations in America forever.

Republican President Ronald Reagan immediately issued one of the defining statements of his presidency. He said the air traffic controllers were breaking the law and if they did not return to work within 48 hours he would fire them all. He carried out his threat.

In the face of today’s threatened closure of the country’s three main airports because of action by air traffic controllers it is tempting to call for a similar declaration. It might be good for a testosterone rush and get a cheer from the boys in the back bar, especially the Ryanair executives if they are allowed any time off, but it is not the kind of response the country can endure right now.

Neither, by any stretch of the imagination, is the disproportionate, selfish disruption planned by the air traffic controllers’ union, IMPACT. Dublin, Shannon and Cork airports will shut down between 2pm and 6pm as controllers attend mandatory union meetings.

To put the plight of the controllers in context it is fair to point out that each controller is paid approximately €115,000 a year. As they – unbelievably – pay no pension contributions the IAA pays 30.5% of their salary on their behalf. This brings their package up to around €160,000. The European average is €200,000.

Yesterday Spain’s government said it aims to cut air traffic controllers’ €334,000 average pay by 40% to help stop losses at the national airport operator.

Though IMPACT say the strike is in response to the suspension of 15 controllers for refusing to co-operate with new technology projects the IAA insist that these are not the central issues.

Rather, they suggest that IMPACT is pursuing a 6% pay increase agreed under Towards 2016 and are trying to avoid making any contribution towards their pensions in line with all other public sector staff.

Against the background of collapsing air passenger traffic, huge restructuring in a sector fighting for survival – and 426,700 people out of work – it is hard to feel that the controllers are getting a raw deal.

They are not the only well-paid cabal to threaten disruption if their generous conditions are not improved.

Hospital consultants – €175,000 to €240,000 – say they will only accept pay cuts if money they are owed under new contracts is paid. Adding to the Alice in Wonderland atmosphere some have initiated an action against the Government to secure back pay.

Equally, significant pay awards for bank workers were inappropriate in our circumstances. Action to try to have pay cuts reversed by lower paid civil servants was anticipated from yesterday and the threat of widespread disruption from all public sector employees hangs over the country.

Though they are symptoms of the anger generated by a feeling of unfairness it is difficult to see what can be achieved by these disruptions other than a worsening of our already precarious economic circumstances.

The country is still in great economic jeopardy and we should all consider what sort of industrial action is appropriate in these dangerous times.

If we do not develop a sense of realism and proportion that reflects our circumstances we are likely to have plenty of time to regret our impetuousness.

More in this section