People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 38

September 20, 2009

 Five Day Strike of Jet Pilots


                                                                                          M K Pandhe


THE stoppage of work by over 400 pilots of Jet Airways hit the headlines of all the national newspapers on the question of summary dismissal of two leading pilots for a mere crime of formation of National Aviation Guild, union of Jet pilots. The pilots reported sick every day leading to cancellation of over 200 flights of Jet Airways and estimated loss of Rs 200 crores of earnings of Jet Airways. The Jet management terminated services of three more pilots after commencement of the strike.


The strike commenced on September 8 and settled on September 13 when the management agreed to take all the victimised pilots on duty.


The union labour ministry issued a notification more than three decades ago characterising civil aviation pilots as workmen under the Industrial Disputes Act 1947 and they have every right to form a union. The Indian Airlines and Air India have already permitted their pilots to form unions and negotiate with them on their service conditions.


It is reported that N Goyal, chairman Jet Airways when he signed a deal for borrowing money from a Singapore Company, there was a clause in the agreement that the Jet Airways would not allow any union to be formed in the company. The matter was reported by Umraomal Purohit, general secretary, HMS, in a national convention of workers held in New Delhi on September 14, 2009.  Even otherwise Goyal was against any union activity in Jet Airways.  He had taken stern action against employees who tried to form a union in Jet Airways.


All the central trade unions namely, INTUC, CITU, BMS, AITUC, HMS, UTUC, AIUTUC, AICCTU and TUCC in a joint letter to Wolfgang Prock-Schauer, chief executive officer of Jet Airways on September 8, 2009 stated, �you are pursuing a highly provocative anti-union course of action.  We demand the immediate revocation of termination notices served to the two pilots and that Jet Airways management recognise the National Aviation Guild (NAG).


The joint letter stated in the end, �please be warned that we stand solidly behind the pilots of Jet Airways and we will be calling upon all our trade unions to rally solidarity support�.


Praful Patel, minister of state for civil aviation could not find time to meet the pilots but he met Jet Airways chief N Goyal and discussed the question of application of ESMA against the pilots and even engaging foreign pilots to break the strike of Jet Airways pilots.


It should be worth noting here that all the eight airline companies formed a cartel and decided to go on strike on August 19, 2009 to press the demand for reduction in price of aviation fuel.  The former secretary of department of civil aviation became the secretary of the newly formed cartel which clearly proves the nexus between the bureaucrats and the private airlines.  It is also surprising to note that the government of India had allowed Air India to join the cartel and the call for strike.


The minister of state for civil aviation outwardly gave a threat to the private airlines but had a friendly meeting with them and assured that he would take up their demand with the department of petroleum and natural gas.  In the past he permitted private airlines to defer their oil bills and airport charges for a period of six months.


When the daily passenger traffic of Jet Airways came down from 21,000 per day to 14,000 and several passengers were stranded, the minister of civil aviation did not direct the Jet Airways management to reinstate these victimised pilots and restore normalcy.  On the contrary, he refused to intervene in the dispute and failed to make any attempt to settle the issue according to law.


According to code of discipline, if there is a single union in the industry, the management has to accord recognition to the union.  In absence of this it would be treated as violation of the code and the government has to take action against the management.  However, the chief labour commissioner�s office carried forward fruitless negotiations without giving a clear-cut directive to the management to reinstate the victimised employees and to recognise the National Aviation Guild.  It is clear that the chief labour commissioner�s office was acting under pressure from Jet Airways management.


What is strange in this regard is the fact that registrar of trade unions, Mumbai registered the National Aviation Guild after verifying all their documents and the union completing all the formalities.  After giving the NAG registration number and registration certificate again due to the pressure of the Jet Airways management, the registrar of trade unions issued a show cause notice to the union with a view to deregister the union.  This arbitrary step of the registrar of trade union is a clear violation of the trade union Act 1926 and the ILO convention concerning freedom of association.


The Jet Airways did not allow any union to be formed among the employees.  However, during the strike of the pilots, the management engineered a demonstration in the name of a non-existent union to show that the Jet employees were against the pilots.  In the past, there was no evidence of the Jet management allowing any union activity among the employees.  Even when Jet Airways reduced wages of employees no demonstration could be organised by the employees for fear of losing their jobs.


The media and the press were fully supporting the stand of the Jet management.  Some editorials were written by the daily press criticising the action of the pilots but no support was visible in the media in support of the demand for reinstatement of the victimised pilots.  The media was focusing on the stranded passengers and blaming the pilots for not reporting for duties.


The pilots of Air India and Indian Airlines supported the struggle of the Jet Airways pilots but such support was not forthcoming from the pilots of other private sector companies.  The private sector companies took the advantage of the strike and tried to get more market share of the passenger traffic.  Some private airlines increased their airfare to take advantage of the developments.


The unity and determination shown by the Jet Airways pilots for five days ultimately forced the management to settle the dispute and find out a via media to satisfy the pilots.  The Jet management earlier during the negotiations agreed to take back the victimised pilots provided the NAG is dissolved.  However, pilots were not prepared to surrender their right to form their own union.  Ultimately, the management had to come down from their ivory tower and agreed to take back all the victimised pilots on duty and form a joint committee to discuss all the issues raised by the pilots.  The committee would consist of two senior officers of the company and two representatives of the pilots.


The pilots have joined their duty on September 13 and normalcy has been restored.  However, the Jet management is trying to get the NAG deregistered by manipulating the registrar of trade unions office by resorting to flimsy objections. Some Jet Airways pilots visited the CITU office to inform the matter and CITU assured them all help in taking up their issues with the government.


The trade union movement in India will oppose any attempt on the part of registrar of trade unions, Mumbai to help the Jet Airways management in their vile designs.


About 150 employed pilots in India have also formed a union with a view to make efforts to get jobs in India.  The civil aviation ministry is not taking a helpful attitude towards their problems.


There is a public perception that pilots are highly paid and they should not be allowed to form a union.  There is however urgent need in civil aviation industry that employees of all categories should form a common industry wise union.  In many countries, in the world there is a common organisation from pilots to unskilled workers.  However in public sector, we have category wise organisations which is reducing the bargaining power of the employees with the management.


In private sector civil aviation companies there is no job security while majority of the workers are either casual or working under contractors.  Their wages are low and defined working conditions are absent.  The ministry of civil aviation is encouraging these malpractices and has not taken any step to introduce uniform working conditions in the entire industry.


It is only through a joint movement that civil aviation employees can improve their working conditions both in public and private sectors.


The Jet pilots strike has focused the attention of the country to the anti-labour attitude of the private sector civil aviation companies.  The trade union movement of civil aviation employees should rise to the occasion and unite their ranks in a common organisation which alone will give them decent working and living conditions and trade union rights.