It may be premature to declare victory for Ryanair’s pilots

For the airline, there is the key issue of ‘who’ and ‘what’ is to be recognised?

It is conceivable that Ryanair is in a position to readily afford the payroll implications of developing harmonious relations with its pilots. However, other aspects over which pilots might want to exercise some influence may prove more costly, Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

It is conceivable that Ryanair is in a position to readily afford the payroll implications of developing harmonious relations with its pilots. However, other aspects over which pilots might want to exercise some influence may prove more costly, Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

 

Has Michael O’Leary, Ryanair’s chief executive and the bête noire of Irish and European trade unionism, been brought to heel by his own staff?

After three decades of successfully fending off employees’ attempts to seek union recognition, last week’s announcement signalling the airline’s intention to concede to its pilots’ demands was a remarkable volte face, or so it might seem.

A centre-piece of Ryanair’s business model was its insistence that it would remain a non-union company. Let’s not beat about the bush here: Ryanair was – and perhaps remains – among the most ardently anti-union companies in Ireland.

Its strategy for avoiding unions involved a mix of sophisticated and crude elements. The carrots included paying pilots well and offering to pay them more if they desisted from seeking union representation. Other managerial practices have been more stick-like with the injunction that if staff persisted with seeking union recognition they would lose preferential roster arrangements, be denied promotion opportunities, and forfeit the prospect of generous wage increases. Tying these various elements together was a managerial insistence that the independent representation of staff’s interests was undesirable and unnecessary.

These past weeks and months must have been difficult for pilots as they considered and worried how long their dispute with the airline would last, and at what cost. It is very unlikely that they would have foreseen it end in this fashion and with such a dramatic and sudden change of heart by the company’s management.

But has it “ended”? I think not. Some big questions will only now be addressed by management, the pilots and their representatives.

Competitor airlines

For the airline, there is the key issue of “who” and “what” is to be recognised? Will it recognise an organisation of employees or union members, and at what levels and for what purposes? While Ryanair has indicated that it is prepared to accede to the pilots’ demand that it negotiates with the Irish Airlines Pilots Association, it is likely to have difficulties dealing with IALPA as presently constituted. A number of its senior officers fly for competitor airlines. This is something that Michael O’Leary has steadfastly been disdainful of; that is, the thought of permitting union officers of “legacy airlines” a say in determining the terms and conditions of “his” employees.

This objection to “external interference” in the company’s right to manage “their” staff will likely continue. The pilots, for their part, are likely to remain ever-vigilant to ensure that they are afforded independent union representation and that no attempt be made by management, either overtly or covertly, to foster the establishment of some form of internal structure of representation, which in effect would come to operate as a management-dominated company union.

The closely allied question of whether the company will negotiate with pilots at a local base level, or at a centralised company level with a unified European pilot representative body – as the pilots have campaigned for – also looms large. The latter would obviously maximise the pilots’ influence over the company negating any attempt it might make to play one base off against another.

But the biggest issue is likely to be, what rights and standing will be bestowed by the company to any new representative body. The public persona of Michael O’Leary, and one which he has actively cultivated, is of a brash assertive manager. In turn, he and his managerial colleagues have jealously defended the inviolability of their managerial prerogative.

Challenge its authority

To put it simply, the airline will now have to come to terms with dealing with a collective body that will challenge its authority on the basis that it enjoys the support and legitimacy of its members, ie, the airline’s staff.

In coming to some kind of an accommodation with the pilots’ representative body, it is conceivable that Ryanair is in a position to readily afford the payroll implications of developing harmonious relations with its pilots. However, other aspects over which pilots might want to exercise some influence may prove more costly, particularly if they include contractual arrangements, and matters in regard to working time and health and safety.

So, defining the bargaining terrain is likely to be hotly contested between the parties.

There must be another greater fear within management. What if a desire for union representation leads to the mobilisation of cabin crew and ground staff? And what if any such campaign was supported by the pilots? Were this to happen – and there are certainly early mutterings of such – and were it to be successful, then, it is very conceivable that the cost implications for the airline will be very considerable indeed.

In all of this, however, a truism of industrial relations must by now have struck the management of Ryanair. If the present collective campaign by pilots was perceived as a threat deployed against management, that same collective entity now provides the basis and the precondition – certainly as far as the pilots themselves are concerned – for the creation of sustainable, co-operative management-employee relations.

Whether both parties can devise a modus for the development of such harmonious employment relations and of a form that characterises South West Airlines – the unionised US airline whose business model provided the original template for Ryanair – remains to be seen.

John Geary is Professor of Industrial Relations and Human Resource Management at UCD’s College of Business

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