'United We Bargain, Divided We Beg'

By Capt. Evan Cullen, President, Irish Air Line Pilots’ Association

Consider this: After drastic pay cuts, lost pensions, and continually working to the regulatory flight-time limits, an airline creates an internal job market that effectively encourages individual pilots to bid against each other for work. Bid too high and you risk not getting any work and income. Your contracts can be effectively terminated with no notice. And if you raise a concern too vociferously, you can be moved to a different base with little or no notice and no compensation. Ryanair pilots faced this in the past—and this is why the Irish Air Line Pilots’ Association got involved in representing them.

In Europe, we don’t have one labor law—28 different countries fall under the EU, each one with its own view. In the U.S., pilots in Alaska and Florida work under the same legal framework. But pilots in Greece and Ireland don’t have that advantage. While Europe does have a single aviation regulator, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), we also have 28 national aviation authorities interpreting and implementing regulations with subtle but significant variations. The general framework of EASA regulations is, for all its faults and weaknesses, a considerable benefit compared to the fact that all social legislation is purely a national preserve so that, for example, the law on taking industrial action varies widely from country to country.

These differences make it easier for airlines to create atypical employment models like the one at Ryanair—nearly half of the pilots work under complex individual contracts, allowing management to whipsaw pilots individually and by base. Also, under European law an individual can’t take action in one EU country that may stop a business opportunity in another EU country. As a result, Ryanair pilots in different countries couldn’t strike to support each other despite working for the same management.

These differences benefit management while making it difficult for Ryanair pilots to develop a cohesive and collective plan of resistance. For example, pilots in Germany must give 24 hours’ notice of a strike but can’t strike on seniority, while those in Ireland must give seven days’ notice but can strike on seniority.

Despite these challenges, Ryanair pilots persevered. Following the pilots’ efforts involving unassociated individual strikes in multiple countries, Ryanair agreed to recognize unions. But even this accomplishment was complicated because “recognizing” unions means different things in different EU countries. Nonetheless, the hard-won recognition is only a first step in what will likely be a thousand-mile journey.

So what are the lessons we’ve learned that are important for our fellow pilots in the U.S. and Canada to know?

First, the Railway Labor Act (RLA) is an incredible asset for pilots in the U.S., as is the Canada Labour Code for pilots in Canada. Both laws are probably the best pieces of legislation that any pilot anywhere in the world has. In the U.S., you need to build on the RLA; there are people who’d like to undermine it and see airline workers broken up. In Canada, you need to protect what you have and not let other interests water it down.

Second, unity among all airline pilots in the U.S., Canada, and the world is extremely important. Throughout the Ryanair struggle, we knew that Irish ALPA had the support of ALPA, International. It’s clear that ALPA understands that the world for pilots is bigger than any country, any EU union, or any U.S. or Canadian union. More than ever, transnational pilot unity is the only answer.

It’s vital that U.S. and Canadian pilots learn from Irish ALPA’s Ryanair experience because more atypical employment models are coming. The pilots in the U.S. dodged a bullet with Norwegian Air International’s (NAI) flag-of-convenience scheme this time due to its operational and financial difficulties. But now there’s a vacuum in international long-haul, and someone else will fill it. It might be a rebuilt NAI, Ryanair, or an upstart like LEVEL, another new low-cost, transatlantic airline. But it’s coming. NAI’s economic instability has presented us with a strategic opportunity to shore up our defenses and mount an offense, if necessary.

We’ll all need to lean on our unity and present a strong front to stop airlines with atypical employment models from succeeding. If the world’s airline pilots don’t get it right on atypical employment models, we know that we won’t be bargaining, we’ll be begging. However, as ALPA has always done for us, your brothers and sisters at Irish ALPA stand shoulder to shoulder with you in this fight.

This article was originally published in the May 2019 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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