Workers in Otis Lifts, members of the Technical Engineering Electrical Union, are now into the second week of their strike action. The strike was undertaken as a response to the companies’ refusal to accept a Labour Court recommendation with regard to redundancies within the company. Initially the company sought thirteen redundancies and eleven workers were prepared to volunteer.
The union wanted ‘Last In First Out’ to be the mechanism used to decide the lay offs. This did not suit the company, who twisted the Labour Court recommendation by included time served as an apprentice in the company and prioritising installation engineers for redundancy.
Otis employs lift engineers to carry out both installation and service of lifts. The workers within the company argue that there is no major difference between the skills necessary to carry out either job. The attempt to target workers in the construction sector is in reality an attack on the union organisation in the company. Workers in the company are well aware of the managements’ determination to break the union.
This intention is highlighted by the companies’ refusal to accept the Labour Court recommendation or even negotiate over the small gap that existed. Otis then notified more workers that they were to be laid off. Otis workers voted for strike action but delayed the start for a week to allow for negotiation. After three meetings the company refused to budge.
Otis has service contracts in many large and important businesses. The major installation contract the company is undertaken is in the new Dublin airport terminal T2. Eleven workers were on the site, which is due for completion in November, when the strike started. Six of these had been targeted by the company for lay offs. They were tricked off site, been asked to attend a meeting in a hotel, there they were told they were being sacked and their site entry passes were rescinded. They were not even allowed back on site to collect their tools. The Otis workers picketed the site on Monday 12 July, the first day of the strike. Over 500 workers, of the 1000 or so on site, refused to pass the pickets. This enraged the Dublin Airport Authority management.
On Tuesday 13 the DAA sent a solicitors’ letter to the TEEU stating that the airport is private property and demanding that the union remove the pickets to the perimeter. The company threatened to sue the TEEU for any losses incurred due to the strike. Unfortunately, the union leaders gave an undertaking to do so and instructed the official involved to tell the Otis workers to remove their picket to the airport perimeter.
Understandably, the workers find it extremely difficult to understand why they can’t picket their place of employment. This was confounded by the fact that contracting electricians picketed the same site for a full week last year, supported by the Otis employees, without sanction. The TEEU recently won a High Court case, taken by Dublin Corporation, which allowed striking workers from Pickering Lifts to picket in Ballymun, despite the fact that the company has walked away from the contract. The TEEU should have contested the DAA vigorously and continued to picket at the site. This issue has arisen several times in the airport and elsewhere, for example in some shopping centres. It should be a basic right for workers to be able to picket their workplace.
The withdrawal of the picket caused confusion, and some anger with the union, on the site. This was fomented by management. TEEU members on site sought information from the union and were unhappy and angry with the lack of direction and leadership. Despite this, some 150 electricians on site decided not to go to work for the rest of the week.
For the moment, the strikers have withdrawn the picket to the roundabout and will picket every morning, and they will also use mobile pickets through out the day. While maintaining the official picket on the perimeter some individual workers, without picket signs, have approached workers within the airport complex to inform them that there is still an official picket on the site, regardless of its’ current situation. Incredibly, the TEEU leadership is warning off workers from carrying out even this minimal activity. The airport picket is an important weapon in the workers armoury that they should consider escalating at some point, but there are many other points of attack that must be utilised.
A key issue at the moment is the import of at least four scabs from Britain. Through union contacts with Unite members the workers were aware that the company was attempting to recruit scabs. One management scab was discovered in Cork and was left in no doubt that his presence was not welcome.
Lifts break down everyday. Otis is one of the biggest lift companies in the state. They have many important maintenance contracts and these customers that will not be happy if the lifts break down. Any Otis lifts that break down, apart from hospital lifts, will not be repaired unless it is by strikebreakers. Anyone, whether working in a building or visiting a shopping centre that comes across an Otis lift being serviced should contact the strikers.
The Labour Court has now intervened in the dispute and both workers and the company are going to attend the Court on Wednesday 21 July, separately. Ostensibly this is to clarify the terms of the Labour Court recommendations, which the workers feel there can be no doubt about. Given the behaviour of the company to date, it seems unlikely that they will come any distance to meet the workers.
Otis is part of a major transnational corporation, United Technologies Corporation, which is hugely profitable. Their treatment of workers in Ireland has been disgraceful. Attempts should be made to contact fellow workers in other countries to help win this dispute but also to build solidarity for the future. This dispute has important ramifications for union organisation in the lift industry. The Otis workers are fighting a determined battle and deserve the support of workers everywhere.