For years, mere talk of a strike like tomorrow’s would have been inconceivable at Ryanair. Michael O’Leary, the company’s CEO and founder, once famously quipped that he would bargain with unions only “when hell freezes over.” But union recognition finally came last year after a scheduling crisis triggered widespread flight cancellations, and signaled that the company might be struggling to retain staff. Over the past several months, negotiations have led to enhanced benefits for longer-tenured Irish pilots. Ryanair also cut two other deals covering pilots and cabin crew in Italy, the latter of which included a promise to eventually transition to local contracts (exactly when remains unclear). Negotiations have produced little beyond that.
Unions in continental Europe, in particular, have had little success at the bargaining table. They’ve called on Ryanair to immediately ditch Irish labor contracts and have demanded changes to a host of other labor practices, including the company’s heavy reliance on third-party staffing agencies rather than the direct employment of crew. Some have also called for changes to what they consider an anti-union culture.
Sarkis Simonjan, 31, is a former flight attendant for Ryanair and a union activist with Belgium’s National Employees’ Union (CNE). Like many Ryanair employees, Simonjan, a Belgian citizen who lives in Brussels, not only worked on an Irish labor contract: He was never even technically employed by Ryanair. Instead, he said, his paycheck came from Crewlink, a Dublin-based staffing agency that describes itself as “the leading recruitment agency for Ryanair.” On July 25, Simonjan participated in the Europe-wide flight-attendants’ strike with his union, joining dozens of his colleagues on the picket line at the Brussels airport. “Even today, I can still clearly see the image,” he said. “We could express ourselves—to tell them they can’t treat us this way.”
In response to his activism, Simonjan alleged that Ryanair began to formally reprimand him, leveling accusations of unjustified work absences that he said are false. On September 20, Simonjan was summoned to Ryanair’s Dublin headquarters and fired by Crewlink representatives. The CNE is challenging his dismissal in a Belgian labor court, alleging a breach of union rights. In an email, Ryanair said the accusations are “completely untrue” and that Simonjan was “terminated for poor performance.”
Organized labor’s growing class divide
Ryanair’s attitude toward unions has drawn stern criticism from the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF), an umbrella labor organization tied to the ITF. Both have played key roles in bringing together different flight-attendant unions, publicizing their demands, and putting pressure on the company to lift labor standards.
“For decades now, Ryanair has held itself completely unaccountable to its workforce through the traditions of collective bargaining. That’s been a purposeful and intentional business strategy that they have been on record deploying,” Liz Blackshaw, a campaign coordinator with the ETF and ITF, told me. “What’s happened more recently is … workers are starting to fight back.”