Industrial disharmony in need of tuning

Commuters again face disruption as an Aer Lingus strike is on the cards.

In the absence of an adequate resolution body, disputes loom large, says Stephen Rogers.

AN Aer Lingus ballot for strike over the gaping hole in the company’s pension scheme is expected to yield a resounding vote in favour of industrial action later today, just as it did in the Dublin Airport Authority yesterday.

Yet again, tens of thousands of people face the very real threat of their flight being cancelled or severely delayed because of an industrial relations impasse between management and employees.

The two sides have been through the industrial relations machinery of the State on multiple occasions in the three years that the pensions dispute over the almost €800m hole in the Irish Airlines Superannuation Scheme has been rumbling on.

Various formulae have been advanced to resolve the impasse, but none have gained traction with both sides.

In years gone by, the Government may well have asked the National Implementation Body — considered to be the ultimate in third-party conciliation — to step in at a much earlier date to seek a resolution. In 2008, it was NIB which successfully staved off strike action at Aer Lingus over cost-cutting plans being sought by the company at that time.

But, as this newspaper reported as far back as 2010, in the post-social partnership era, the Government has stopped taking on that role in the private sector, and NIB in its former guise has disappeared into the ether.

At the time, this newspaper forecast that, in the absence of the Government taking these issues in hand, it was almost certain that the number and severity of strikes in the transport sector would increase.

In the last two years, there has been industrial disharmony in Dublin Bus, Bus Éireann, and Irish Rail, as well as Aer Lingus and the DAA. Away from the transport sphere, there has also been the spectre of strikes at ESB and by the country’s 6,500 electricians.

In almost all cases, apart from Irish Rail, there has been either disruption — or fears of disruption — to services.

However, the Dublin Bus dispute showed the significant value of a resolution body beyond the Labour Court and Labour Relations Commission. In that case, employer and employee were at loggerheads over cost-cutting plans. Savings proposals from the Labour Relations Commission had been rejected and strike action was drawing closer.

However, a body was then thrown together involving Department of Transport secretary general Tom O’Mahony, Department of Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation secretary general John Murphy, Ictu general secretary David Begg, and Ibec chief executive Danny McCoy. After they discussed what was at stake, they asked former Siptu organiser Noel Dowling and management consultant Ultan Courtney to make an in-depth report on the situation.

The resulting proposal was accepted by the National Bus and Rail Union, which represents a significant proportion of the drivers. While Siptu rejected the terms, its members also voted not to press ahead with strike action, paving the way for management to start implementing the measures.

Yesterday, Siptu leader Jack O’Connor said he had been lobbying “wherever I can get people to listen to me” for what he described as a “sophisticated mechanism to deal with complex and difficult disputes”. He said what was needed was a body like the old Employer Labour Conference or, more recently, the NIB. In spite of his union rejecting its proposals, he also praised the initiative employed in the Dublin Bus dispute.

“The reason I am arguing for it is that I don’t think workers should have to run the gauntlet on all the suffering and all the danger that engaging in industrial action or strike action would entail to protect their pension schemes or secure their entitlements otherwise,” said Mr O’Connor.

There would appear to be an acceptance of the need for a body on the employers’ side. However, the question appears to be the nature of a process which would facilitate the creation of the entity. Would employers want it wrapped up in an overarching “national agreement” which would also sets wage level across sectors?

Not as far as Siptu is concerned. The union is adamant that it does not want a national agreement involving what was referred to at the weekend as an “incomes policy” which would place restrictions on the level of wage increases which would be sought by workforces who had borne the brunt of the recession.

The Aer Lingus ballot today will almost certainly force management and unions back into some form of process. Will that process be doomed to failure without NIB 2?

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