The low-cost carrier has presented a petition to the European Commission attacking the right to strike.
While in 2021 the pandemic brought a €335 million loss to Ryanair, last year the low-cost airline returned a near-record €1.4 billion profit, which it expects to exceed in 2023 by carrying an unprecedented number of passengers. In 2022 the airline carried a record 168 million.
This summer’s strikes scheduled by French air-traffic controllers (ATC) could however dampen Ryanair’s profit expectations. On June 6th, 400 Ryanair flights—one in eight—were cancelled as a result of strike action. Some 220 flights had been cancelled over the May bank holiday weekend. In a video posted on Facebook, the Ryanair chief executive, Michael O’Leary, decribed the impacts of the strikes by French ATC staff as ‘completely unacceptable’.
Ryanair wants the European Union to force France to allow flights in its airspace when ATC workers are on strike. In March, two executives from the carrier travelled to Brussels to announce the launch of a petition urging the European Commission to mandate French ATC unions to engage in arbitration instead.
When it comes to strikes, there has been a long-running battle between the commission and the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) and the ATCEUC, which represent ATC workers at the EU level. The ETF and ATCEUC rebuff any measures significantly encroaching on the right to strike—article 153(5) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union clearly states that the right to strike is excluded from EU competencies.
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In 2016, Ryanair was central to creating Airlines for Europe (A4E), bringing all the companies together under one association with the principal objective of lobbying the commission on issues such as ATC strikes. Meaningful engagement with its counterparts, such as the ETF, through social dialogue was considered unacceptable and excluded from A4E’s remit. The counterpart of ATCEUC, CANSO, is similarly reluctant to engage meaningfully.
Covering the petition launch in Brussels, Politico wrote: ‘If a petition receives 1 million signatures from seven different EU countries, the Commission is required to officially consider it.’ This is a mis-reference to the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI)—an idea advanced by civil-society organisations which eventually found its way into the Lisbon treaty, addressing the EU’s democratic deficit by allowing civil society to call on the commission to propose legislation on a specific issue. The first to clear all the hurdles was a European Public Services Union petition, ‘Right2water’.
Not only did Ryanair roll out a major public-relations campaign on its petition. Each passenger checking in using the Ryanair app was urged to sign. Aften ten weeks, at the end of May O’Leary delivered the petition, signed by 1.1 million Ryanair passengers, to the commission.
O’Leary referred to the signatories as ‘EU citizens’. But this was not an official ECI: a proxy European consumers’ initiative, it called for ATC unions to issue 21-day notice of strike action and 72-hour notice of employee participation.
Ryanair is mimicking not only the ECI but also the distinctive abuse of political influence by mega-technology firms such as Amazon. These companies—including Uber, Meta, Apple, Google and Microsoft—wield considerable influence over politicians and policy-makers by presenting themselves as defenders of the public interest. The political scientists Kathleen Thelen and Pepper Culpepper have termed this ‘platform power’, which they define as ‘the most significant change in business power in 21st century capitalism’.
Ryanair has jumped on the bandwagon by presenting itself as representative of EU citizens, on the populist pretext of defending the right to free movement. Of course, this is done to exploit political advantages by mobilising consumers in the name of profit. What the commission should do is urge the resource-rich airlines—especially via A4E—and CANSO to pursue genuine social dialogue, rather than masquerading as supporters of concerned citizens.
Darragh Golden is a postdoctoral researcher on the project Labour Politics and the EU’s New Economic Governance Regime at University College Dublin. The author acknowledges funding from the ERC under the Horizon 2020 research programme (grant agreement 725240).