Ryanair dispute report charts course through troubled waters

While it was mainly the actions of SIPTU members in other airport-based operations that led to the closedown of Dublin Airport on 7-8 March 1998, "primary responsibility" for the situation rested with both SIPTU and the management of the Ryanair airline. This was one of the main findings of the government-commissioned "Flynn/McCauley "report into the events surrounding the dispute between Ryanair and SIPTU, published in July 1998.

A special two-member government-appointed enquiry into the trade union recognition dispute between the independent airline Ryanair and fewer than 40 members of the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU) employed as ground-handling agents (GHA s - ie baggage handlers), which led to the closure of Dublin Airport on 7-8 March 1998 (IE9803224N), has found that primary responsibility for the events that occurred lay with management of the company and the trade union's leadership. It was the first occasion in almost 60 years that an industrial dispute had caused widespread disruption to the operation of the airport.

The enquiry was carried out jointly by Phil Flynn, a former president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) and Dan McCauley, a former director-general of the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC), and submitted to the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. The Report of enquiry into the industrial dispute at Dublin Airport was issued in July 1998. It criticises both parties for not showing due regard to the public interest and suggests that if the dispute had continued, freight services would have been severely disrupted with possible consequences for jobs and industry generally.

Dealing with Ryanair, the report says that management contributed to the development of the crisis in that it:

  • made no meaningful attempt to resolve the issues in dispute with either SIPTU or directly with its employees engaged in industrial action;
  • refused to participate in a Labour Court investigation;
  • rejected invitations from the government to cooperate with the independent enquiry into the dispute before 7-8 March;
  • failed to respond to an urgent request from the enquiry to meet with it on 7 March when the opportunity existed to restore normal operations; and
  • believed that the strike would be short-lived and would collapse if there was no outside intervention.

Regarding SIPTU, the report finds that it was the union's actions which ultimately led to the closedown of the airport. In sequence, it is stated that SIPTU:

  • engaged in industrial action involving a relatively small number of employees;
  • created confusion and uncertainty, deliberately or otherwise, among its members on the reasons and purpose of the strike;
  • failed to consult or communicate effectively with its members in Ryanair. Left itself open to allegations that it had a wider agenda;
  • underestimated the strength of opposition by Ryanair management to trade union organisation; and
  • failed to discourage SIPTU members in other airport-based companies from leaving their work without notice to support the strike, including cases where the union had negotiated agreements which precluded this kind of activity

Instigated and encouraged

Having regard to the events which preceded the 7-8 March crisis, the enquiry formed the view that the escalation of the dispute was not a spontaneous development but one which was instigated and encouraged by SIPTU activists in airport-based companies. According to the report, a trade union should not encourage or support members who withdraw their services en masse without respect for agreements, normal procedures and so on.

GHAs and other Ryanair employees who worked during the dispute had to tolerate conduct and behaviour from those on strike and others which most people would regard as unacceptable, says the report. There was no evidence to show that SIPTU made any attempt to persuade members to desist from such activities.

Strong advice

Dealing specifically with Ryanair, the enquiry stated that it "would hope that the company, notwithstanding the fact that there is no legal obligation on it to recognise a trade union, would see merit in an arrangement which, while falling short of giving full recognition and negotiation rights to a union, would allow employees at their own request to be represented by a trade union official ..."

Such an arrangement could be on the basis that the final stage of the procedures would provide for binding arbitration, thus precluding the possibility of an industrial dispute taking place. In the event of SIPTU seeking recognition on this basis, Ryanair should grant it, the report recommends. In its review of personnel policy, the company should re-examine and clarify its policy and attitude to state institutions and organisations concerned with industrial relations matters. It appeared to the enquiry that management "has an aversion to the intervention of third parties, other than those of its own choosing."

Ireland's image

SIPTU has been in the forefront of economic and social developments which have made a significant contribution to the expansion of the economy, according to the enquiry. Therefore, the union should have appreciated that the dispute "could have seriously undermined the image of Ireland as a location for business and the image of Irish trade unionism.".

The union's industrial dispute ballot paper did not, it is found, set out clearly the issue on which the members were required to take a decision. It should review procedures relating to the conduct/approval of industrial action and give serious attention to the question of picketing and the organisation of demonstrations during an industrial dispute. Demonstrations by striking GHAs on 5 March 1998 "should have been prevented by SIPTU officials or at least condemned by the union, states the report."

Union recognition

On a national basis, the report says that there should be an examination of the possibility of adopting a more selective and flexible approach to the question of union recognition (IE9803114F) and negotiating rights where union members are in a minority position. Full negotiating rights might be justified in certain cases, but in others a union may simply have the right to make representations to an employer on behalf of its members about grievances or other matters which are dealt with on an individual basis.

"The enquiry considers it also possible to envisage situations where limited representational rights could be afforded to a trade union on the basis of binding arbitration and/or a commitment that in the final analysis would be resolved without resorting to strikes or other industrial action. Agreements containing such arrangements could be registered at the Labour Court to give them legal status and ensure that proper procedures exist to deal with any disputes or grievances which may arise."

There is a case for ensuring that employers and trade unions utilise the services of the state's dispute-resolution institutions when an industrial dispute of "special importance threatens the public interest." These would be determined by the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the report concludes.

Commentary

The report defers to the general thrust of the Partnership 2000"high-level group" report on union recognition, published in early 1998 (IE9802141F), which advocates the continuation of a voluntarist approach to the problem. This is a sensitive issue in the lead-up to talks on a new national agreement to follow the current three-year Partnership 2000 agreement (IE9702103F) at the end of 1999. Trade union activists are demanding legislative change, but the trade union leadership has cautioned against moving too far away from Ireland's voluntarist industrial relations tradition.

The new report is unlikely to have any immediate impact on the relationship between Ryanair and SIPTU, but if it is taken on board by the Government and social partners, it could help to enhance Ireland's improved industrial relations environment. This would help to maintain Ireland's attractiveness as a location for investment, a factor which the authors will have been conscious of, given the vital strategic importance of Dublin Airport. (Brian Sheehan, IRN and John Geary, UCD)

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