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Reportage. In 2005, a union organizer tried to get Ryanair employees to sign up. Now that Ryanair is facing a labor crisis and pilots are suing, this was a problem of its own making.

Why Ryanair employees never unionized

Like Valerio Mastandrea in Your Whole Life Ahead of You chased after the call center operators, so union organizer Marco Sala chased after Ryanair’s stewards and hostesses in 2005. “I was working at the ramps at Orio al Serio airport, and after work I passed around the business cards of the European Transport Union, the ETF, inviting workers to organize themselves under the airplanes,” he said.

No one can explain better than Sala, who today is secretary of the Filt-CGIL union in Bergamo, why none of the employees of the Irish airline joined the trade unions and why not even the pilots and employees can come together to claim decent rights and wages — not even now, when the Ryanair scandal is under everyone’s attention.

“The contractual clauses explicitly prohibited employees from joining the trade unions,” he said. “The climate of fear was very strong. As soon as they saw their workers talking with us or if anyone asked for some improvement, they were relocated to the farthest hubs: Romania, Norway.

“Furthermore, in the company there has always been a clear separation between pilots and flight attendants, and they have never had any ground staff or administrative offices in Italy. Those desperate few who came asking for help needed to understand Ireland’s contractual and fiscal rules. The pilots, on the other hand, have organized a class action lawsuit in Ireland with their lawyer, and they did not want to contact the union.”

For the last few years, the Orio al Serio airport has serviced Ryanair almost exclusively. There are about 170 stewards and hostesses based there.

“They have to be available, and therefore they all have a home within 50 miles of Bergamo. But many are foreigners and not from the city, so approaching them after work is impossible,” explains Sala. As far as today, “we hope that now that Ryanair’s bubble is bursting, and the fact that we know it very well and made efforts to report it to the press, it will lead to a rethinking of a model that has shamelessly lowered the standards of labor rights. EasyJet and Norwegian are also low-cost airlines, but they respect trade unions and sign union contracts,” says Sala, who still keeps those 2005 business cards in his drawer.

Back in 2016, when Ryanair was first summoned by the Ministry of Transportation to discuss respect for maternity protection and safety regulations, Michael O’Leary’s company replied with a letter announcing that it would not attend the summons simply because it “did not acknowledge trade unions.” For that reason, FIT CISL organized a strike — repeated on Feb. 23 — and in response, Ryanair made a statement announcing to the press that “its flights schedule would go on in full,” because none of its employees would join the strike.

“Since then, however, we’ve been able to get in touch with many flight attendants,” says Emiliano Fiorentino, FIT CISL’s national secretary. “This is a delicate moment, we are making a job of raising awareness among young people, who are often 22 or 24 years old. We trust we can get some results shortly,” he said.

“We have tried to unionize Ryanair employees in every way, but we have not succeeded,” says Francesco Staccioli, national leader of the Air Transport USB union. “ENAC [the Italian Civil Aviation Authority] and the government are largely responsible for this situation; they deliberately closed their eyes to the failure to respect the most elementary rules. State laziness traded the entire air transportation sector for the low-cost model.”

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