Recent events in Wizz Air’s Kyiv base demonstrate what such anti-union attitude means in practice. In a workplace already fraught with management’s inappropriate behaviour in the time before COVID-19, the company has been using the pandemic as a handy excuse to get rid of certain workers while waging an aggressive anti-union campaign.
It all started in May, when Wizz Air joined several other European airlines in using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to worsen the working conditions of the staff. Cabin crew were forced to sign new contracts which included a significant pay cut – a 25% reduction in basic salary and sector payments.
In an attempt to protect their rights, Wizz Air cabin crew in Kyiv formed a trade union on 17 May and notified local management on 22 May. Without ever responding to the announcement or acknowledging the union directly in any way, management launched an aggressive anti-union campaign.
Different levels of Wizz Air’s management tried to persuade the employees that trade union membership can only hurt them, that the Kyiv base will close, and that everyone will be dismissed because the company doesn’t allow unions. A lot of this was done indirectly – local management has equipped itself with the strong support of lawyers and made sure that others spread these rumours. It was through figureheads (instructors, line trainers and few employees who are close to the base manager) that management spread lies about the union.
These anti-union efforts escalated on 29 May, when an online conference was held with employees, top management and their lawyers. During the meeting, Diederik Pen, Wizz Air’s Executive Vice-President and Group Chief Operations Officer, said:
We accept, and we even understand that some individuals will be disappointed, frustrated and even angry. And we also accept that some individuals have felt the need to hire lawyers even to start the legal battle and may even take other initiatives. It is their right. But at the same time, the company also has rights, and we will do everything within our power to vigorously protect your interests but also defend the company trust. We will do that in a manner that is just, fair and lawful; this means we may not be able to act immediately but rest assured the company will fight back. The company is legally not allowed to comment on such an initiative. We encourage every employee to be thoughtful and considerate that the company will always act in the best interest of the employees and the business. We have to act in the best interest of both of those together, which is not always easy, but we try our best. We hope that people will not get distracted by initiatives cooked up by shady lawyers and angry people.
It is clear from the way he chose his words that he was briefed by lawyers on what he can and cannot say, and at the same time was trying to make clear that the company does not approve of the union activity. Even more, he decided to discredit everyone involved – the union members and their lawyers – by portraying them as “shady” and “angry” people.
And while Pen held back in what he said to the employees, the CEO József Váradi failed to do so at another meeting in June. Top management and Wizz Air employees were present to receive an ultimatum by Váradi: either you stop the union, or we close the Kyiv base.
Anti-union actions reached their highest point in the end of July, when four workers were dismissed: Yuliia Batalina and Hanna Teremenko (head and deputy head of the union), Artem Tryhub (union council member), and Andriy Chumakov (union member). All of them had been Wizz Air employees for years. They were all hard-working crew members, as proven by their past evaluations and involvement in the company activities.
All evidence points to the same conclusion - Wizz Air is trying to use COVID-19 as a convenient excuse to worsen working conditions and unfairly dismiss unionised workers.
This is not the first time the company has tried to get away with discriminating against trade-unionists. In June 2015, the Romanian National Council for Combating Discrimination found Wizz Air guilty of dismissing 19 staff members due to their affiliation with a trade union. In its decision, the Council stated that the termination of the labour contracts of the union members was discriminatory and more importantly, this discrimination had the intention to stop the union movement, which is a grave offence. In July of the same year, the court ordered the reinstatement of the cabin crew members dismissed by Wizz Air. Additionally, in March 2019, the Supreme Court in Romania ruled that Wizz Air was discriminating against workers based on their trade union membership.
The Romanian case proves that Wizz Air is not above the law. Workers united in their struggle for their basic rights have won before, and they will do so again.
ETF and ITF stand by the dismissed trade unionists in their fight for the right to organise. We call upon Wizz Air to reinstate the trade-unionists to their previous jobs, recognise their union, and enter into dialogue with workers’ representatives.