Comment: Ryanair now hit by strikes that plagued Aer Lingus

In 2011, Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary warned Aer Lingus about the stark consequences if it gave into its trade unions in a rostering dispute that was going on at the time.

“If management roll back on this, Aer Lingus will be destroyed”, he warned the rival airline of which Ryanair was a shareholder at the time.

“If they blink and go back into the useless ‘machinery of the State, Impact will keep them there for months on end.

“As soon as Aer Lingus gets itself out the financial crisis, the unions start screwing around. It is a legacy of the Bertie Ahern era that needs to be dealt with,” he said.

It was the latest in a line of attacks from Mr O’Leary on trade union involvement in his industry and others.

How times have changed in the intervening seven years. Impact trade union has become Fórsa but is still representing airline workers and is now a thorn in the side of Ryanair much more than Aer Lingus.

Mr O’Leary’s airline’s decision to now recognise trade unions has, as a result, left it facing into three days of strikes in the next three days, the first of them tomorrow when its directly employed pilots here stage a third 24-hour stoppage. They are in dispute with the airline over pilot transfers and other associated issues.

Then on Wednesday and Thursday cabin crew in key European tourism destinations will stage two days of stoppages. Cabin crews from across Europe have published a list of 34 demands, including “a fair living wage”, improved sick pay, and employment contracts in their own language, based on local rather than Irish laws.

Whereas the impact of the pilots’ strike here has been cumulative, the cabin crew stoppages will be immediately very disruptive.

The airline has managed each of the three pilots’ strikes by cancelling flights well in advance and confining the cancellations to UK-Ireland routes on which passengers can more easily be rebooked or refunded and ensuring family holiday plans aren’t as badly affected.

Over the three stoppages, only 70 flights have had to be cancelled and many passengers will have been re-booked onto other flights.

However, the two days of cabin crew stoppages will affect 100,000 people, many of them families going on their annual holidays to Belgium, Spain or Portugal. Certainly there will have been transfers onto alternatives to the 600 flights that have been cancelled.

However, this is the summer schedule, the most important for airlines. The reputational, not to mention financial, damage is huge when that many people are impacted.

There were always going to be teething problems when such a publicly anti-union organisation gave in and allowed its staff to be represented by the bodies so pilloried by Michael O’Leary. However, now that it has it is going to have to work very hard to heal the existing rifts or these strikes, or at least the threat of them, are going to become a lot more common and a lot more damaging.

Look at Aer Lingus. Its reputation suffered significantly from a decade of strike threats which left passengers wondering if it could be relied upon. Ironically, as Ryanair suffers, there appears to have now been quite a prolonged period of industrial peace in Aer Lingus.

As Fórsa communications director Bernard Harbor said at the end of last week over the transfer of pilots which is at the root of the action tomorrow: “They [management] have been very reluctant to move off the system they already have. There is a bit of ‘we have always done it this way’ coming across the table.” There are going to have to be compromises from both sides, but the dialogue between them needs to move away from the megaphone diplomacy that we are witnessing currently.

For example, in relation to the pilots strike here, Fórsa has repeatedly sought the intervention of a third party.

The question is will Michael O’Leary be willing to let his team enter a process in the “useless machinery of the State”?

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