Employee voice in Ryanair

John Geary, University College Dublin

This paper examines the quest for effective employee voice in Ryanair. Ryanair is a fascinating case. It’s a case of a company that has uniquely manipulated variations across regulatory labour market regimes to its advantage. It has prospered enormously. Key to its success has been its ability to determine without union involvement the terms and conditions upon which its employees are recruited and managed. This strategy worked for decades. Now it looks like it has come undone following a campaign by its pilots and cabin crew in pursuit of union recognition and subsequently by management’s ostensible volte face to cede to their demands. This paper focuses on the pilots' organising campaign.

Ryanair stood as an outlier in the international airline industry for decades not only for its dramatic success and growth as a low cost airline, but for determining unilaterally the terms and conditions upon which it employed its staff. Unlike virtually all other European airlines, there was no union recognition and no collective bargaining. It is a case par excellence of a company that manipulated a permissive regulator regime for its own ends. Despite having aircraft located all across Europe, flying to all parts of Europe and further afield, and recruiting and locating its staff across 87 bases, all of its employees are considered Irish staff. That is, under employment legislation, their workplace is ‘located’ in Ireland. This is, or was at least, permissible under European and Irish law. This has afforded Ryanair considerable advantages in terms of maintaining low recruitment costs, sustaining flexible working arrangements, and maximising particular working hour structures. Key, too, to this model of employment was its ability to evade union recognition.

This employment relations model would now seem, ostensibly at least, to be in tatters on foot of ceding to a pilots’ campaign for union recognition. However, early fieldwork findings suggest that the matter is far more complicated and that union recognition has been ceded by the company to disable and weaken the pilots’ cross-national organising campaign. At the outset, the pilots sought a voice in management decision-making at the level of the company. Union recognition, as ceded by the company, ensures the pilots ‘return’ to their national pilot federations and negotiate at a national level thus reducing the likelihood of any concerted co-ordinated European-wide collective bargaining effort.

The paper traces the airline’s employment relations strategy, employees’ response, the manner in which the pilots sought to organise against the company, the obstacles they faced, how they were overcome and how the company responded.

There is a rich literature on how companies resist union organisation and how workers are or are not able to overcome such managerial objections. The paper investigates if these factors hold in this case. In most cases, however, prior research has looked at individual workplaces, companies or sectors, all of which are located within one nation state. This project is original in its attempt to examine union recognition in the context of a ‘multi-national’ company with subsidiaries (bases) in many European countries, operating in a complex and fluid regulatory environment.

Data is being collected currently principally through in-depth interviews with pilots’ activists/representatives, union organizers, pilots, legal representatives and management.