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Aer Lingus airline tries to avoid strikes

Aer Lingus Group PLC called mass staff meetings in hopes of avoiding strikes next week.

Dermot Mannion, chief executive of the Dublin-based airline, planned to address most of his 3,700-member work force in a two-day series of meetings at three airports starting Wednesday.

In a statement, Aer Lingus said Mannion would "underline the importance for the airline that all services operate as normal next week. Aer Lingus will not tolerate action that will discommode its customers and sees no legitimate reason why services will not operate next week."

Ireland's largest union, representing about half of Aer Lingus employees, criticized Mannion's move as designed to undermine union authority.

He "would be far better off dealing with the concerns of the workers and negotiating with their unions, than pursuing a zero-sum game in which Aer Lingus only makes money at the expense of its employees," said Michael Halpenny, national industrial secretary of the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union, or SIPTU.

The union announced Monday night that its members would mount four-hour work stoppages, staggered at different times of day from department to department, on Nov. 20 and Nov. 23 at Ireland's three major airports in Dublin, Cork and Shannon.

The union said its threat was in reaction to an Aer Lingus move to bind temporary workers to new contracts that require longer hours for less pay.

But SIPTU and other unions are in a much bigger, slower-burning confrontation with Mannion over Aer Lingus' year-old plan to trim 20 million EUR(US$29 million) annually from expenses by reforming the entire work force's terms and conditions, particularly a heavy bill for overtime pay.

Unions have refused to accept that plan, and last month, Aer Lingus froze planned pay raises totaling 7.5 percent in retaliation.

Aer Lingus has suffered mounting labor tensions since September 2006, when the government floated most of its stake in the previously state-owned airline on the British and Irish stock exchanges.

Since then, Aer Lingus' cutthroat budget rival, Ryanair, has mounted an audacious but unsuccessful takeover bid. Aer Lingus, seeking to compete with Dublin-based Ryanair and underpin shareholder profits, has repeatedly told employees they must endure reforms designed to bring Aer Lingus' cost base closer to the Ryanair model.

Last month, Aer Lingus narrowly defused a showdown with its 480 pilots over its plan to open a new hub in the British territory of Northern Ireland. Pilots opposed the move because new pilots were being hired under new British contracts rather than existing Irish union-negotiated terms.

Mannion threatened to suspend any pilots who refused to cooperate in recruitment and training of the new pilots, effectively grounding the airline, and the pilots relented after winning minor concessions.

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