New airline still faces a boycott

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Low-fare carrier Wizz Air has backed away from some of its harsh criticism of trade unions and promised to follow labour regulations in Norway, after facing boycott threats that even Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservative Party supports. Wizz Air’s founder and chief exeutive had claimed Wizz “is an airline without labour unions,” and had called the boycott threats “childish” and protectionistic.

Wizz Air quickly taxied into trouble after announcing plans to enter Norway’s domestic airline market. PHOTO: Wizz Air

“I think it’s bad when a country gets so nationalistic and protectionistic,” Wizz Air CEO József Váradi told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) earlier this week. He had made it clear that labour unions were not popular at Wizz Air, claiming that his company has its “own culture” of internal dialogue. “Management speaks with the employees and the employees speak with management,” Váradi said. “We listen and address challenges together. We don’t want to have to depend on a third party (trade unions) to do that.”

He claimed that airlines with employees organized in labour unions have suffered and haven’t managed to grow. “They’ve become dependent on state aid and the taxpayers’ money,” Váradi added. “Do you think that’s a success story? I don’t.”

Wizz’ chief executive also claimed that labour unions “have their own interests … and are only concerned with themselves. They’re not concerned with what’s best for the company or the employees.” Now based in Geneva, his airline has created more than 4,000 jobs since its founding in Hungary in 2003, claims it pays “market-level” wages and remains one of Europe’s largest and fastest-growing airlines.

Rough landing
His anti-union sentiments, however, did not land well with Norwegian labour or government officials, and several newspapers editorialized against flying on the airline that now plans to launch domestic routes between several Norwegian cities in November. “Stay away from Wizz Air,” warned the headline on newspaper Dagsavisen’s editorial, which also noted how all three of the airlines already flying within Norway are deeply troubled after being mostly grounded by the Corona crisis. They need support, not more compeition, the paper argued. Dagsavisen called Wizz Air one of the “worst” of the low-fare carriers because of its opposition to organized labour.

Several large trade union confederations had already reacted to Wizz Air’s entry, urging their members not to patronize the newcomer that’s offering one-way fares as low at NOK 199 (USD 22) between Oslo and Bergen. Both the Conservative and Labour parties reacted as well.

Wizz Air CEO József Várdi,was accused of failing to understand the labour market in Norway. PHOTO: Wizz Air

“It looks like Wizz Air’s boss doesn’t recognize or understand Norwegian worklife,” Labour Minister Henrik Asheim of the Conservatives, told DN. “His view on labour unions is, to put it mildly, very foreign.”

MP Hadia Tajik of the Labour Party agreed, calling Váradi’s statements “old-fashioned and employee-unfriendly.” She added that he exhibited “a complete lack of understanding for Norway’s successful labour market model.” Hans-Christian Gabrielsen, head of Norway’s largest trade union federation LO, called Váradi’s comments “disrespectful” and “an attack on workers and their rights.”

Prime Minister Solberg also joined the verbal assault on Wizz Air, making it clear that the airline cannot prohibit employees from organizing in Norway. She also supported the boycott calls.

“I won’t fly on an airline that won’t let workers organize,” Solberg said on the floor of Parliament Wednesday, calling it “unacceptable for me to travel with airlines that don’t have orderly relations with their workers.” Only the conservative Progress Party objected to a boycott, arguing that Wizz Air can boost competition in Norway and offer new routes.

By Thursday Wizz Air seemed to call a truce, with its so-called “Chief People Officer” Johan Eidhagen stating that Wizz Air was being accused of things in Norway that weren’t correct. Wizz Air, he insisted, follows all applicable laws and regulations in the countries where it operates. He also said Wizz Air would fully respect the Norwegian model of negotiations between workers’ and employers’ organizations.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund