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Ryanair’s Humble Pie

One of Europe’s most notorious anti-union companies has been forced to recognize a union — and its workers aren’t done yet.

A Ryanair jet prepares to land. (Credit: Alamy)

Could 2017 get any worse for Ryanair? In September the low-cost airline was forced to cancel 40 to 50 flights a day as a miscalculation of rosters and pilots’ holidays stranded tens of thousands of passengers across Europe. This month the company is embroiled in official strike action — and has even been forced to recognize a union for the first time.

These crises are not “random misfortunes,” as the International Transport Workers’ Federation noted. They are connected by Ryanair’s “aggressive and cost-cutting business model.” The mismanagement of pilots’ rosters followed a longstanding refusal to deal with its workers collectively — a problem compounded when it responded not by entering negotiations but with a take-it-or-leave-it offer of bonuses to pilots willing to waive days off. It was a transparent effort to break solidarity and dissuade unionization and, to make matters worse, the offer was time limited.

In October, Ryanair Captain Imelda Comer penned a letter to her fellow pilots. “When the company offers nothing except money,” she said, “they try to break our will to negotiate collectively.” With major bases, such as Stansted, rejecting Ryanair’s offer, Comer implored O’Leary to engage with the recently established European Employee Representation Committee (EERC). Comer herself was in the process of leaving the airline — a fact which made speaking out in the intimidating atmosphere less costly — but her role as a conduit for her fellow pilots’ collective demands was important and symbolic.

It’s unlikely that Capt. Comer, or anybody else for that matter, anticipated the subsequent sequence of events. Ryanair has tried everything to avoid dealing with unions. Despite common problems facing the company across its network of bases, management always insisted on dealing with individual bases, individual ERCs and individual pilots. For years this approach appeared to work for the company, as it undercut wages elsewhere in the industry and secured exponential growth with cheap flights. But against a backdrop of increased competition for pilots from rivals such as Norwegian Air and a European Court of Justice ruling which prevented the airline imposing Irish labor law on all of its employees, the balance of power shifted.

The Strike

On the 11 of December, the Irish directly-employed pilots overwhelmingly backed industrial action (94 percent). The vast majority of these were captains without whom planes could not leave the ground. Strike notice was issued for December 20th on the grounds that Ryanair management “failed to recognize the EERC” or the Irish pilots’ union (IALPA). The initial response was predictable: Ryanair pledged it would meet any industrial action “head on.” But the pressure was mounting. Italian pilots were due to conduct a four-hour stoppage between 1 pm and 5 pm on December 15 while Portuguese and German pilots unions endorsed taking industrial action only stopping short of setting dates. Facing transnational coordinated action Michael O’Leary had a stark choice: engage with the European ERC or face considerable disruption.

The pilots’ demands were straightforward. They wanted two things: the establishment of a “genuine dialogue” between a collective body of Ryanair pilots and the management, rather than unilaterally-imposed one-way communication; and permanent direct contracts governed by the laws of the countries they lived in and worked from. These would provide a footing from which all other aspects of their working conditions could be negotiated.

But Ryanair’s great fear about unionization has always been that it would lead to benchmarking pay and conditions with other airlines. Indeed, it has often presented unions simply as spies or saboteurs for rival companies. Accordingly, writing to pilots unions in Ireland, the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal, Ryanair stated that union recognition was possible “as long as unions establish Committees of Ryanair pilots to deal with Ryanair issues.” “Ryanair,” they said, “would not engage with pilots who fly for competitor airlines.”

This position either displayed how little Ryanair understood trade unions or how much it held them in contempt. Unions, of course, are typically occupation-based rather than company-based. In addition to full-time staff, union roles are also carried out by representatives that come from competing companies. These representatives are the lifeblood of the union movement. Certainly, information is exchanged but this exchange permits one of the key objectives of collective bargaining: namely, to take wages and working conditions from the field of competition.

Predictably, the pilots rejected these terms. With little runway left Ryanair issued a press release on the morning of the Italian work stoppages stating that it “agreed to recognize pilots unions to avoid widespread customer disruptions.” It was a historic moment. Ryanair, whose union-baiting CEO Michael O’Leary once said “hell would freeze over” before the company recognized unions, was being forced to do just that. And, what’s more, the pilots weren’t alone — the company also said it would recognize the unions representing cabin crew, who had been organizing for years without as much publicity or success. Europe’s labor movement, it seemed, was not the “busted flush” O’Leary claimed it was.

For a number of days after the announcement, it drew more questions than answers. What explained the volte-face? Was it the return of Peter Bellew as the chief operations officer? The increased competition for pilots? The spate of cancellations? And then there was the question of what union recognition meant.

First Steps

On Thursday IMPACT, representing the Irish-based pilots, announced that it had received official notification of recognition from Ryanair. It said it would meet the company on January 3rd “to agree a comprehensive agreement that will establish collective bargaining procedures in the airline.” This, it said, would have to be concluded quickly to allow negotiations on the substantive questions of pilots’ pay and conditions to commence. But in other places Ryanair held out — in Germany the strike planned by pilots’ trade union VC went ahead, the first such strike by flight crew in the company’s thirty-two year history. Although it failed to stop flights outright owing to company rostering maneuvers, it did manage to delay nine of the thirty-six flights scheduled to take off on Friday morning.

Questions remain about how the company’s recognition process will shake out. It is unclear what its intentions are for its existing ERCs, or whether it will try to force unions into observer status in these meetings rather than direct negotiation. And what will its stance be on union representatives from other airlines? Will this be abandoned altogether? The devil will be in the detail at IMPACT’s January meeting — and much of the unions’ success will depend on their ability to forge transnational working relationships, the absence of which Ryanair will undoubtedly exploit.

But for the moment it is clear that this month marks a major step forward in the long-running battle for workers’ rights in Ryanair. Only four years ago the company was embroiled in its most high profile labor dispute — sacking Captain John Goss for appearing on UK TV station Channel 4 raising questions about safety and fuel policy. Goss was instrumental in the creation of the Ryanair Pilots Group (RPG), an online forum through which pilots with passwords could pseudonymously discuss their concerns. Ryanair’s management reacted with hostility by suing the RPG for comments posted on its platform. Fortunately, the judge presiding over the case said Ryanair’s motives “bore the hallmarks of oppression” and raised questions about the integrity of its management team.

Other cases have been resolved more favorably. This year marks a decade since Ryanair’s landmark Supreme Court victory in its native Ireland, a decision that drove a Boeing jet through collective bargaining rights in the country. The judgement entitled Ryanair to reject independent union representation in favor of company unions. This voided the constitutional provision which entitled workers to join a trade union of their choice for the purpose of collective bargaining and made effective bargaining legislation almost impossible. It was a victory greeted with glee across Ireland’s business community.

So, in return, should Ryanair’s latest defeat be celebrated by workers of all stripes. Because Ryanair is not just a company like the others — the “no-frills” airline that beat the big boys. For over two decades it has been a symbol of capitalist triumphalism: an evangelist for the worst kinds of labor practices, a preacher for the most obnoxious excesses of the market. Understanding that class struggle extended beyond the workplace, it regularly intervened in politics: publicly mocking local government officials who didn’t toe its line, allowing its CEO off the leash to call for austerity to be imposed by dictatorship and even, incredibly for an airline, whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment.

Forcing a company like that to retreat is no insignificant achievement. But the workers in Ryanair, and the unions representing them, will know that it is not a final victory either. In the meantime their years-long struggle deserves public recognition. Because, as their union IMPACT noted, it is not just about one company but the “thousands of workers elsewhere who want independent workplace representation but whose anti-union employers had been encouraged and emboldened by Ryanair’s previous antipathy.”