Pilot Martin Swayne discusses the latest events at Ryanair, where the threat of strike action has brought management to the negotiating table.

In a major U-turn, Ryanair this morning declared it would agree to engage with unions after some of its Dublin-based pilots voted in favour of strike action ahead of Christmas. The low-cost airline claimed it had written to pilot unions inviting them to recognition talks. As pilot Martin Swayne writes, this marks a major victory for the flight crew.

In a major U-turn, Ryanair this morning declared it would agree to engage with unions after some of its Dublin-based pilots voted in favour of strike action ahead of Christmas. The low-cost airline claimed it had written to the pilot unions in Ireland, the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal inviting each of them to talks to recognise these unions as the representative body for pilots of Ryanair.

“If the best way to achieve this is to talk to our pilots through a recognised union process, then we are prepared to do so, and we have written today to these unions inviting them to talks to recognise them and calling on them to cancel the threatened industrial action planned for Christmas week,” chief executive Michael O’Leary said.

Threats and intimidation

This is a significant development and is a clear reflection of the panic that must be raging in Dublin headquarters. It follows a damaging crisis at the airline in the autumn that led to the cancellation of 20,000 flights and prompted a pilot backlash for higher pay and better employment terms

The aftermath of this was empty promises and complicated pay agreements across different bases, followed by more bullying and threats from management about taking away certain benefits and roster arrangements. The culmination was the following gem of a memo from Eddie Wilson, a so-called “Chief People Officer”:

You may be aware that Italian ATC Unions have called yet another strike Fri 15th December between 13:00 - 17:00 local at most Italian airports. We have not yet decided what flights, if any, will be affected.

We have also received a letter (attached) from the Alitalia Pilots Union (ANPAC) threatening industrial action by Ryanair Pilots at our Italian bases, unless Ryanair recognises the Alitalia Pilot Union. This simply will not happen and so any such action is doomed to fail.

If any Fiumicino pilots support this Alitalia pilot organised industrial action, then we intend to meet this head on. If any such action occurs, then we must assume that these Fiumicino pilots - for the moment - no longer wish to deal directly with Ryanair and we will withdraw those benefits which are dependent on our direct dealing collective agreement. This means that these pilots in the Fiumicino base will - until further notice - be frozen with no promotions for FO's or SO's, and no transfers facilitated out of base. The 5/4 roster and the annual allowance (€6,000 for Captains / €5,500 for FO's) will cease immediately as provided for in our Fiumicino Base agreement). We may in due course be forced to look at rebasing some Fiumicino aircraft to lower cost airports elsewhere in Italy or Europe where our pilots continue to deal directly with us but, we will NOT be dealing with Alitalia pilots / unions no matter how much or how long any such ANPAC led action will occur.

A similar note was addressed to Italian cabin crew:

[…]

All Ryanair Pilots and Cabin Crew who are rostered must report for duty as normal on Friday Dec 15 at your crew room for your rostered duty. Any industrial action taken by any Cabin Crew will result in the immediate loss of the 5/3 roster for all Cabin Crew at that base in line with Section 11 of your base agreement. It may also result in the loss of the future pay increases remaining under your base agreement and no transfers or promotions within the base.

Please continue to work your rostered duties as normal.

No wonder one ex-Ryanair pilot who had to deal directly with Mr. Wilson told us that “the only ‘management skill’ he has is intimidation”. These are the management types that Ryanair staff are dealing with on a daily basis.

Ryanair seeking to renege

As explained in more detail previouslyMichael O Leary Ryanair, the airline has over the years carefully crafted a personnel strategy that sees it mix permanent employees with contractors at all of its bases. This divide and rule strategy, combined with the negotiation of terms and conditions separately at each individual base, was designed specifically to sidestep the possibility of collective bargaining.

The fact that Ryanair has now been forced to backtrack and come out with a statement recognising unions is a major victory for the flight crew and should give confidence to everyone involved.

The devil is in the detail, however, and it remains to be seen what this recognition means in practice. Recognition seems to be contingent on trade unions establishing specific committees of Ryanair pilots to deal solely with Ryanair issues. The company’s statement also suggests the airline will insist on dealing separately with unions in each country, rather than staff bargaining collectively across the company.

At the moment, Ryanair already has so-called employee representative committees (ERCs): small groups representing individual airport bases, usually composed of inexperienced, new and scared “representatives” who meet every few years to rubber-stamp whatever deal management comes up with.

The challenge now is to create proper structures that can be the real voice of the workforce, both on the flight deck and in the cabin. In a lot of ways, embryonic structures already exist informally on social media, Whatsapp groups, etc. - but now is the time to formalise and professionalise this with the help of existing unions across Europe.

Stand firm and fight

It is quite possible that out of sheer arrogance, O’Leary and his cronies will change their minds and do another U-turn back to their original position of open contempt for anything resembling a union. With the current balance of forces, however, this would only exacerbate the existing crewing issue, and would be a very dangerous card to play.

As one pilot said on a forum:

“This fight sets the precedent for the whole industry, it’s the labour relations battle that we’ve all been waiting for. If Ryanair management can crush the pilots’ demands when Ryanair is in such a critically bad state in terms of crewing, then it sends a signal to everyone in the industry that the pilots have been defeated and management really can get away with what they like. If, however, the pilots can bring the giant of Ryanair to the negotiating table, management across the industry will realise that they can’t get away with what they like forever.”

This hits the nail on the head. This is a battle of living forces that goes further than Ryanair alone. Low-cost airlines initiated the race to the bottom more than a decade ago. The constant cost-cutting of the accountants has now turned into its opposite and it would appear the tables are finally turning. In effect, this morning’s statement shows how weak the bosses really are when workers are united and willing to stand their ground.

Earlier this year, Thomas Cook’s management were similarly forced to think twice when BALPA pilot members launched a successful industrial action. This experience provides a valuable lesson for other pilots in the industry - and for workers everywhere. Battles against bully bosses are never easy or straightforward. But the only way to deal with a bully is to stand up to them.

To our colleagues in Ryanair we say: hold firm, stay together, and force the management to the table on your terms, not theirs! Now is the perfect time to democratically elect representatives who will put up a serious fight.