Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

When Dublin Airport closed on Saturday, 7 March, trade unionists, depressed by weeks of appalling passivity cried 'at last! at last!' and made a holiday in their hearts. That 'at last!' feeling was even more intense for those activists who not only watched the Ryanair dispute with heavy hearts, but who had soldiered through the recent dreary years for trade unionism waiting for the clouds to break. And when it shone, how the sun burst through.

Alongside some tolerant media coverage, business, commentators and editors freaked at this return of trade union power with a vengeance. Some seemed to have really believed 'social partnership' had zombified organised workers. It seems too that some at the top of the unions were equally as eager to put the genie back in the lamp.

When on Sunday 8th, the news came through that the Airport was back to work and there had been an agreement, many of the above happy activists naturally assumed that Ryanair had caved in a little sooner than we'd expected and recognised SIPTU. Shock, confusion and dismay followed hurried consultations of Aertel. The action had been called off, not because the baggage handlers' trade union rights had been recognised but because, they had been reinstated! A whole bunch of senior SIPTU officials had laboured long and hard during the close-down for this settlement and for a re-opening of the Airport on the basis of this settlement. Return to square one.

Worse than return to square one. Just when a little more, a very little more, would have produced the most sudden and spectacular victory for Irish workers in recent times, the whole movement was demobilised. Defeat was snatched out of the jaws of victory. Yes defeat, because it was worse than back to square one. The airport workers and the many others who refused to pass the Ryanair pickets had been seized by the moment - moved to anger by the lock-out of the baggage handlers. That moment cannot be conjured up again.

People who saw the miserable outcome of their magnificence - square one - won't be quick to repeat it. Not least a consequence of the haste to withdraw was the demoralising fact that Ryanair resumed flying on the Sunday (due to airport management scabbing) and could have been stopped if the action had been kept up and escalated.

Worse than square one. Because what came out of it? ...an inquiry. An inquiry? What's there to inquire about? Kicking to touch that's what it was. A long tribunal so that everyone would forget about the Ryanair dispute. One month later to the day as we write, the Inquiry hasn't reported. The placards were no sooner down than Ryanair was saying they wouldn't be moving from their principle of non- recognition.

On 23 March, just in case somebody missed the message, Ryanair let three probationary baggage-handlers go. A Godsend. The demobilised troops just might be rekindled to respond to this one. Not a bit of it. "The union is unlikely to resort to industrial action at Dublin Airport while the inquiry team continues its investigation. The union has lodged a strong protest with the inquiry team". (Irish Times, 24.3.98). Wow!

Then in an interview with the Sunday Tribute (5.4.98) O'Leary stated "I'm confident that the 39 workers won't go on strike again, no matter what the inquiry finds." Either a) he's spoofing, b) he's a better reader of the battlefield after the battle than the SIPTU leaders, or c) he knows something we don't know. If there was a secret protocol agreed when the Airport was re-opened, and even if it was communicated to the baggage- handlers, it cannot rescue what was thrown away that day.

Worse than square one. The one thing we'd going for us, the high moral ground, was severely damaged when the closure (called off with nothing to show) opened the door for the media to intone 'Ryanair was wrong, but SIPTU was wrong too to close the airport'.

We do not wish to use exaggerated language or unfair denunciations, but we have to put it plainly to the leadership of SIPTU, which includes a new intake with visionary aspirations (..or so we were told): you have, very consciously it seems, conducted the Ryanair dispute as a textbook case of 'non adversarial' industrial relations (part-time stoppages, no all-out picket, no pickets, no use of blacking or sympathetic action in the face of strikebreaking and with vast union power on your doorstep; reliance on Government intervention, appeals to 'partnership' and reliance on being the 'good guys' in the media); you have thrown away, like an unwanted fag end, the unforeseen and unbeatable force of solidarity that coalesced on 7th March (and the positive effects it would have had for union recognition and trade union strength in general).

If SIPTU fails to achieve recognition at Ryanair out of this dispute, it is not just your policies that should be questioned, but your very competence to run an industrial struggle, and the Union should call you to account. Unofficial bodies of bricklayers have made a clean sweep at Cramptons, Zoe and Arch (Limerick) with a fraction of your resources.

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