October 8, 2008

Union Believes It Can Ground Aer Lingus’ Job Cutting Plans

By Anne-Marie Walsh

THE biggest union at Aer Lingus may invoke employment law in the Republic that has never been used before in a bid to scupper plans to axe 1,500 jobs.

SIPTU, which represents the majority of staff affected by the airline's outsourcing plan, will see if legislation on "exceptional collective redundancies" can prevent it going ahead.

The act was brought in under the last national pay deal, in the wake of a dispute at Irish Ferries, to prevent the replacement of large numbers of workers with employees on lower pay.

If the union is successful in making a case, which can take up to 60 days, it could stall the progress of management's tightly- scheduled plan to outsource over a quarter of its staff.

Management has given a strict eight week deadline for agreement with unions on its plans to outsource ground handling operations at Dublin, Cork and Shannon Airports and close cabin crew bases in Shannon and Heathrow before March next year.

Otherwise, it will impose compulsory redundancies and forge ahead with its plan on December 1.

SIPTU said it will first ballot members for all-out industrial action before testing the protections the legislation may offer to Aer Lingus workers.

The act relating to exceptional collective redundancies enables a panel of employer and union representatives, chaired by a National Implemenation Body nominee, to examine whether a redundancy plan contravenes legislation.

If it agrees there is a case, the Labour Court has 16 days to convene a hearing in a dispute and up to 60 days are allowed for the adjudication process.

"We believe Aer Lingus staff are covered by the act," said a SIPTU spokesperson. "It is unchartered territory and nobody will know until it is tested, but we are prepared to find out."

Aer Lingus said it had no comment to make on the prospect of legal action. However, it insisted last night that any possible industrial action by SIPTU members would not affect flights to or from Belfast International airport.

The legislation, The Protection of Employment (Exceptional Collective Redundancies and Related Matters) Act, is uncharted territory. Under its terms, collective job losses can be referred to the panel to determine whether they are 'exceptional' redundancies.

This would mean the job losses were compulsory and carried out in order to replace employees with workers on lower pay, or less favourable terms and conditions.

In addition, the work offered to new employees would have to be essentially the same.

If the court accepts this is the case, the employer is obliged to enter consultation with unions to consider if there are any alternatives to the redundancies.

It will not get a rebate on any lump sum payments to workers, who can take action for unfair dismissal.

Meanwhile, the other main union at the airline, Impact, which represents cabin crew and pilots, has revealed it will only hold a ballot on industrial action as a "last resort".

Yesterday, its Deputy General Secretary, Shay Cody, visited the Labour Relations Commission (LRC) to kickstart negotiations with management.

Last night, it said it expects the LRC may have to intervene as the pay freeze proposed by Aer Lingus may affect two pay increases due under the terms of the draft national wage deal.

Under the terms of the deal, the airline would have to prove it was unable to afford the pay rises in order to get out of making the payments.

Cabin crew representatives met with staff in Shannon last night and will consult with staff at the Cork base tomorrow and Dublin on Friday.

Staff are outraged that they will have to move to other bases or face redundancy. The 280 cabin crew at the Shannon base, and roughly 20 in Heathrow, can locate in Cork or Dublin, although the union believes their pension arrangements may worsen.

Although it has no immediate plans for a ballot, Impact said it would oppose "attempts to export Irish jobs during the recession" by hiring US crew on transatlantic flights.

Union official Christina Carney said the management proposal "asks too much".

"To export jobs during a recession is unacceptable, and we will fight any attempts to do that.

"That fight begins by talking with management," said Impact official Christina Carney.

Originally published by Anne-Marie Walsh in Dublin.

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