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A pilot's testimony: The militant majority

In any business that relies on the price of a barrel of oil, the example of a 40-gallon steel barrel may be the ideal metaphor. Immensely strong when it is full and used right, or it may be damaged and crushed if you empty it. It is just like a Ryanair. 

If an employee kicks the boss’s barrel, it gets damaged. If the boss spins the barrel to hide the damage it may not be visible, but it still exists. The boss can tell the media all he likes about the absence of the damage, the public may even believe this to be true, but in the end, when both sides look across that table both sides know the damage is there, and they both know how big it is. 

What does it really mean when the boss implies the pilots on strike are just a ‘militant minority’* and tries frantically to downplay publicly the support for industrial action?

Let’s presume a situation where almost ALL of our pilots support positive change. Well, then how does the boss prevent that majority from achieving it? 

The first way to knock out half of your employees from their own defence is for them not to be employees at all

The first way to knock out half of your employees from their own defence is for them not to be employees at all. Take away their labour rights by asking them to set up a limited liability company to work via an agency to subcontract their “services”. Done! Approximately half of the Pilots in our company are hired through a broker agency and/or ‘self-employed’ (I put it in inverted commas because a European Commission study found that 93% of all self-employment in European aviation is actually fake). This is not happening in our company alone, there are now airlines operating in Europe whose entire body of line pilots are so-called ‘self-employed’. However, just because their right to fight is stolen does not mean their desire to fight is lost.

So that’s the pilots’ defence slashed in half. But what else can the boss do to disarm the discontented masses. Oh, I know – good old Probation. When you have short employment contracts, and long probation cycles and so repetitive in any single career, even reappearing after a promotion or contract change within the same company, your chances to act are limited: the boss can simply let you go without reason, especially if you participate in industrial actions. This would mean that the remaining number of those who still can strike can be halved yet again. So now the pilots are both halved and quartered. Reality is, however, that the discontented crews are still there even if they are silenced. 

Let’s think like a union buster for a while. There must still be more we can do. Oh, I know – move pilots outside of the national boundaries of their Union during strike days, and hey presto, in many EU countries they cannot strike abroad. 

Let’s think like a union buster for a while. There must still be more we can do?

Spinning that barrel, hiding the damage again and again. Why does our Unity survive after all this? The true answer to this question is that it’s not a militant minority of 25% of pilots who want a meaningful and genuine change. It is closer to 100%. If only 25% can act, and 25% do act then that’s as good as 100% of those who can act that actually do act. Pilots, and by now the public also, have a true understanding of what is going on here. The 25% that can act already have better terms, conditions and rights than all of the other 75%. Clearly, it is on behalf of the silenced 75%, who are worse off, that the 25% must now fight – and do fight. 

So why does all this not break the determination of those who can fight? The answer is – it did for years. For nearly two decades pilots were successfully silenced.  But now it has gone on a year or two too far. The Genie will not go back in the bottle. The pilots are driven by an absolute conviction, they inform themselves, they know the rules, they follow the rules, they are too small a number to win unless they move in step with their colleagues. They know they must also move in step with the ever-narrowing power of our national labour laws. It is not lost on them either how these laws are now so clearly weakened when faced with the ever wider transnational employment arena in Europe. Airline business knows no borders while Unions are still confined by them.

Airline business knows no borders while Unions are still confined by them.

The trouble is that if your boss’s only defence is to spin the barrel again and again, then eventually the dents come back around the other side and there is no good side left to show the mighty shareholder Gods. Whichever way you look at that barrel at this stage the dents are clear to all by now. Maybe a boss who has another idea is called for at this point, maybe a boss who knows that the employees who kick the barrel only seek a voice rather than damage. All our boss has to do is be able to listen. An airline is made of people. Maybe a boss who can listen to people rather than endlessly twisting the damage is called for now. 

If Ryanair seeks to find someone who will listen to the 25% who now roar, they will also need to listen to the 75% who they have silenced. Therein lies an end to this fight. Therein lies the consolidation and success of our Airline. 

The author is an active Ryanair pilot

* Militant minority often refers to few workplace activists who brought militancy and dynamism to unions, who were involved in unions’ day-to-day activities (source: Labour Studies Journal, Micah Uetricht, Barry Eidlin)