IT IS ONE OF the axioms of Irish industrial relations that the hardest strikes to end are those which arguably should never have started. For many people the Aer Lingus strike fits that category . Over the years the airline management had acquired a reputation for caving in to union demands at the last moment. With St. Patrick's Day and the Easter week-end looming, the leaders of the current strike may have thought the airline would buy peace at any price so as to be operational for the start of the new tourist season.
That the airline did not do so reveals the first flaw in the leaders' thinking; they appaarently thoughtthey were dealling with a 'management which had total autonomy - something our semi-state bodies have rarely had, and certainly not the arival of the currrent series of national agreeements in this decade. When you're sure of a capitulation and plan your strategy accorrdingly, you find yourself in serious 'trouble when the hunch fails to payoff. This may explain why the strike leaders apparently' failed to allow for two factors which made their strike a resoundding failure.
Firstly, they were either ignorant or foolhardily dissdainful of the management's plans to operate a large-scale alternative service using airrcraft leased from abroad.
Secondly, they failed to ensure that if going out on the street themselves, they could close down the airports totally in the process. This would have meant getting, in advance, guaranteesof full support from the pilots, reefuellers, loaders and the horrdes of technicians who certify aircraft as fit to fly in accorrdance with exacting interrnational air safety req uireements. That this support was neither sought, nor secured in advance, says little for the tactical planning; it meant that the strike committee (and later the union executive) committed twelve hundred clerical and administrative workers to a strike which, at best, would be only partially effective in its impact on flight schedules and in the leverage it could corresponddingly exert on negotiations. Worse again, the union leaddership involved twelve hunndred other colleagues in the same union - including hosstesses and various operative grades - in support of this dubious action.
The final indignity came when the Workers Union of Ireland sought what they should have ensured before ever stopping work - an ALL OUT picket. Spectacularly few of these have ever matterialised since official picketting procedures were changed by Congress delegate resoluution in 1970. On this occcasion, support for the appliication came from only a minority of the employees still at work and the strike leaders had to opt instead for a return to the Charlie MeeCarthy peace talks. This was despite the fact that the McCarthy package had been accepted by only 98 votes out of 951 at a highly emootional turnout the previous night in the Francis Xavier Hall. And despite the fact that its provisions had been scathingly condemned by most speakers (though McCarthy's personal contribution as a mediator was warmly commended).
The apparent tactical short-sightedness of the strike leadership can only be explained by a belief on their part that the strike would never materialise; that the threat alone would once again bring Aer Lingus to heel. But to believe that was to believe that the company had the autonomy of any private enterprise facctory, department store or building site. On the contrary the nature of the demand for an unspecified but apparently large sum additional to the minimum terms of the all important national agreement ensured that it would come under the closest surveillance from Government.
One aspect of the threeefold claim was a non starter from the word go - the deemand for "cost-of-living commpensation" for which Nationnal Agreements were specificallly designed to cater. The second aspect, productivity, demands long-drawn-out barrgaining in an actual working situation (witness the recent such settlements in' the Gas Company and the ACC). Very few workers go on strike in support of producctivity demands. The third aspect - upset relativities `was rejected out of hand by the Labour Court. And while Aer Lingus employees are as entitled as anyone to reject a Labour Court recommenndation, such rejections norrmally come en route to a strike - not after it, when salaries are being lost.