During the big rally at Dublin Airport, in support of the Ryanair baggage handlers, it was said from the platform that we could not afford to lose the Ryanair dispute. Well the appalling vista of defeat at Ryanair, and the implications of that for SIPTU, for the trade union movement, and for trade union recognition, must be looked straight in the face. Another addition to the Pat the Baker and Nolans list.
The report of the Enquiry into the dispute and the closure of the airport, together with the Union's response to the report, amounts to a crushing defeat. The report, like the stand-down of the action at Dublin Airport, was a double setback. The report did not deliver union recognition at Ryanair nor anything approaching it. Furthermore it went on to concern itself with measures to preclude a solidarity closure of the airport in future. The detail of the report is no more than can be expected from a banker and a boss.
The spindoctors were really working overtime in Liberty Hall to put the most favourable gloss on the report and the National Executive Council's response to it. Beside a happy photo of officials presenting a cheque to a baggage handler, the 'Newsline' (July '98) headline proclaims: "Ryanair report backs Union's claim on low pay".
The 'Newsline' report call this the "central finding" of the Enquiry and quotes former airport Branch Secretary Paul O'Sullivan as saying, Paul O'Sullivan meanwhile told the Enquiry that "SIPTU members do not seek any change in the flexible work practices that exist in Ryanair" (Enquiry Report, 4.20).
The game was lost when the airport reopened of course, but the NEC's follow up to the Enquiry report, recorded in 'Newsline', sets the seal on it. The NEC will support any industrial action the Ryanair members may decide to take "in pursuit of their claim for fair pay and working conditions." But, "the Council added that it does not believe that the Ryanair baggage handlers should be expected to carry the full weight of the fight for trade union recognition on top of their immediate concerns." That's the recognition issue closed down anyway. (But with whom would the improved pay and conditions be agreed after a successful SIPTU strike?) Of course when the airport was closed down the great body of workers there did not believe either that "the Ryanair baggage handlers should be expected to carry the full weight of the fight for trade union representation".
Since July there was silence on the Ryanair front, even on the handlers' "immediate concerns". Not even a sticker. Until just recently. The High Level Group (still looking up!), set up under P2000 and which failed - like P2000 itself - to secure union recognition, is to be reconvened. The issue threatens to "prevent the negotiation of any further national wage agreements" ('Irish Times', 13 November). A breakthrough is expected "within the next two weeks". The ICTU had warned that any further delay would lead to a renewal of disputes "like that at Ryanair".
Then the Dublin Public Sector Regional Conference was told by the Regional Secretary, Brendan Hayes, that the Ryanair dispute "remains unfinished business that SIPTU will not let die" ('Irish Times', 16 November). Echoing the NEC position, he said that the 'campaign' (sic) in support of the workers' rights to rates of pay and conditions comparable to other airlines would be "stepped-up" in the run-up to Christmas. Now it's the airbrush for the recognition issue!
Perhaps the Ryanair debacle is 'unfinished'. Perhaps the defeat is reversible. But only by a new approach. This defeat was wholly predictable and avoidable. It stems directly from the conscious abandonment by the SIPTU leadership of old trade unionism, of struggle.
When the Russian army was surrounded and routed by the Germans at Tannenberg in 1914 the Russian Commander, Samsonov, though it wasn't really his fault, had the sense of honour to slip away into the forest and shoot himself.