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Ryanair: Uprising above the clouds

27 September 2018

This article fist appeared on the German website Marx21

The cabin crew at Ryanair are defying the regime of fear. Paul Severin on a courageous workforce that has set out to bring the all-poweful airline to its knees.

When an American sociologist conducted a study of Delta Airlines cabin crew in the early 1980s her interviewees were on average 35 years old and 40 percent were married. The contrast to the Ryanair workforce could hardly be greater.  The employees are young, inexperienced, mostly single and almost without exception from Southern or Eastern Europe.

The job at Ryanair has little to do with the jet-set aura that once clung to the industry.  It's a precarious occupation because the job hardly enables a person to establish a sustainable existence.  Accordingly, the turnover within the workforce is enormous.  Those recruited by Ryanair usually work there for a few years, either on a temporary basis or on an Irish employment contract that grants hardly any rights.  A regime of repression and fear has so far been able to keep workers submissive.

Ryanair cuts every corner

There is a world of difference between the work of a stewardess in the 1980s and the situation of the cabin crew at Ryanair today. The downgrading of this group of workers is the result of a relentless price war following the deregulation of the airline industry in the 1990s.  Ryanair became Europe's largest airline during this period because of the radical savings made at every turn, most notably in the wages of cabin crews whose work was transformed into that of a flying corps of pushers of snacks and scratch tickets - a major source of revenue for the airline and an essential criterion for promotion.

In order to reduce costs, the airline is exploiting the plight of young people in Southern and Eastern Europe. During the euro crisis, Italy, Spain and Portugal in particular experienced a wave of emigration due to high youth unemployment. Young and often highly qualified migrant workers are welcome cheap labourers in the catering trade, in delivery services - and even in the aviation industry.  The wage of around 1200 EUR per month at German Ryanair locations seems generous at first glance, as it is twice as high as an entry-level salary in the countries of origin.  However, what many of the young workers do not include in their calculations is the cost of living in the countries in which they are stationed without a say in where they want to go.  The dream of independence quickly fizzles out when the only housing option is a small shared flat near a remote airport. Local social security contributions also have to be paid.  Meanwhile, Ryanair's profits have exploded - tripling between 2014 and 2016.  "Ryanair acts cleverly in the interests of its shareholders", says a Polish flight attendant with many years of experience with the company, "but it's all on our shoulders".

The reign of fear wobbles

All this makes the first strike by cabin crew on 12 September all the more remarkable.  It was caused by the turbulence that has affected the airline since 2017.  Numerous flight cancellations due to staff shortages and poor planning provided a good opportunity for a campaign to organise the Ryanair workforce, which was launched internationally by the European Transport Federation. National collective agreements, significant salary increases as well as respect are demanded - an end to the management's harassment and contempt for employees.

In Germany, ver.di has been working since the end of 2017 on building trade union organisational power - with remarkable success.  Within a few months, it was possible to organise the majority of the workforce in some locations.  The rule of fear is wobbling: recently in Berlin Schönefeld and Tegel dozens of workers were joining the trade union every week in order to go on strike.  For many, the organisation of the strike is the first priority, because there is a realistic chance of forcing the all-powerful airline to its knees.  New members have even been recruited on board planes by colleagues who confidently display the union's lanyards and badges.

No ritualized sausage eating*

The young workers impressively displayed their courage and determination during the strike.  They defied the repression of the management, who photographed the pickets and unlawfully issued a warning to all strikers for unauthorised absence.  They fought for every single person who wanted to work on a scheduled basis and managed to persuade many to join the strike.

The Ryanair strike was not ritualized sausage eating* by a secure workforce, but a fierce and heroic struggle by a group of workers who work almost half of their probationary period at many locations and face the acute risk of dismissal without notice.   Many of the strikers had tears in their eyes as the strike day drew to a close, their emotions swaying between fear and courage, success and disappointment (if flights could not be prevented).   "Today we have shown a degree of unity that we cannot live out in our daily work - because Ryanair is putting us in competition with each other," concluded one of the core activists, 26 years old and himself only unionised for a few months.

International strike of cabin crew

The strike on 12 September was a remarkable success in demonstrating the ability of the workers to strike.  However, there were some weaknesses.  Through blackmail and false promises Ryanair was able to use a minority at every base as strike breakers to operate many of the flights that were not cancelled in the first place.  There is still work to be done to win the tough arguments and many members are getting cold feet in the face of the repression.

But a tailwind comes from other countries in Europe.  On 28 September, the Ryanair pilots in Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands will strike together with the cabin crew - possibly with the participation of their colleagues in Germany.  The pilots at the German locations have already confirmed their participation in the strike, while the decision of the cabin crew is still pending.  Ryanair may be baring its teeth in the usual manner, but the days of its reign of fear are numbered.

*German phrase meaning tokenism

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