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Strike action: A longer-term perspective April 2010 Download PDF

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Acommon frustration for managers is their incomprehension that some staff are willing to contemplate strike action at a time when their airline is in serious financial trouble. British Airways, Finnair and to a lesser extent Lufthansa are all facing such threats at the moment. For hard working managers, probably deeply embroiled in trying to deliver competitive performance with reduced resources, the possibility that one or other group of staff might render all their efforts worthless by closing the airline down may come as a brutal shock.

Even the threat of strike action can cause such bitterness as in an age of 24–hour news and on–line booking forward sales are likely to be lost, and competitors will be quick to offer keen prices and advantageous loyalty bonuses to poach, and then retain, other airline’s customers.

The causes of strikes

Such feelings are not new, nor are most airline staff like lemmings wishing to hurry to mutual self–destruction. Aviation is an industry in which most employees do care about the end product, and still regard working for their airline as having a certain social value. Reasons for strike action vary enormously and even after the event reviews struggle to identify the real causes. In some cases the power of trade unions is cited, backed with accusations of intimidation and political agendas. These factors were certainly seen in the strikes that preceded the privatisation of Air France in the 1990s and in Italy. More recently some Aer Lingus unions have followed an overt political agenda believing that they will be better served with the Irish government as a major shareholder than under the direct ownership of Ryanair.

In other cases the threat of large scale job losses is a trigger, especially when outsourcing is proposed. This is a major factor in the current unrest in Finnair – another airline currently facing severe financial problems. The perception of moving jobs offshore is another major factor for groups of staff who either feel they cannot move – such as maintenance staff – or fear that their positions are too mobile – such as flight and cabin crew. Finnair pilots seized on clauses in a proposed new agreement that they believe would have enabled the airline to increase wet–leasing. Fear of job losses is also a major driver in the political opposition of some US Congressmen to global alliances and their ability to invest in US airlines.

As airlines consolidate, further unrest often results from integration. There is the fear — and reality — of the reduction of jobs as one company takes over a function for both. There is also often quite complex integration of terms and conditions for specific groups, especially when seniority is affected – such as with pilots. Lufthansa continues to face difficult discussions about such issues as it manages its portfolio of airlines.

Safety is often seized upon by the media as it makes a potentially dull story about industrial relations more engaging for the public. Rail unions are adept at playing this card when increases in working hours — thus leading to the risk of tired workers — or the replacement of train guards by technology is proposed. Airline people are usually much more circumspect about making such claims. Issues of pilot hours are constantly reviewed by regulators and in detailed discussions backed by serious research. The corollary of whether pilots actually fly enough “hands on” is also discussed as in the current review by the US Department of Transport. Only in rare cases do pilots speak out on a safety issue. Some individual Ryanair pilots have voiced concerns in the past and more recently Air France pilots have argued that they wish to be included in the reviews of the recent loss of the Airbus over the south Atlantic and have indicated that they might strike over this issue of involvement.

Pay and recognition

Cabin crew and ground passenger handling employees have long been regarded as volatile groups. Both are in direct contact with passengers and bear the brunt of explaining delays, product changes or mishandling. British Airways is going through a high–profile strike at present, as did Air France and Iberia last year, and Lufthansa in 2008. Even easyJet and Virgin Atlantic — where cultural norms of being ‘new’ airlines are strong — have faced strike threats by their cabin crew in the last three years. Apart from such a web of causes there are usually two other causes of unrest waiting to trigger industrial action. The first is pay – usually associated with “conditions”. Arguments may be based on inflation, parity with colleagues, efficiency achievements etc, or simply on perceived non–delivery of promises – as was the case with bmi staff recently. These claims are often complicated by the airline needing to adjudicate between the conflicting demands of different functional and professional skill groups – and still achieve an economically sustainable workforce capability. This is the traditional management /union battleground, although rather complicated of late by the very large differentials paid to very senior management in many airlines, especially in the US, and compounded by a perception that often top managers are more highly rewarded for failure than for success.

The second is lack of ‘recognition’. This is the most intangible of all management–staff relationships and yet is probably the most important factor in the leadership of people, especially in adverse circumstances.

One of the most damaging of the pre–privatisation strikes that affected British Airways was triggered by the airport staff receiving their staff newspapers late. As a result some special travel offers had all been booked by ‘head office’ staff. Once on strike issues of job security, shifts, lack of uniform and equipment, overtime payments, internal promotion, car parking, restrooms and out of hours catering emerged and the strike lasted weeks. In the review afterwards a dominant theme was the lack of respect and recognition shown to ground operations staff over the years, and a belief that management simply did not understand what it was like to work on the ramp in all weathers. The days of Jan Carlson, Colin Marshall or Jurgen Weber walking around listening to staff seem in some cases to have been replaced by video conferences and blogs. Some such messages also appear to be overly goal rather than vision driven.

Ten years ago Air Canada was caught by surprise when the pilots grounded the airline for 12 days. Not only were they surprised by the totality of support – disproving their previous view that any unrest was largely a product of a small group of activists. They were also surprised by the ruthless onset with aircraft grounded at airports around the world, leaving passengers and cabin crew to their own devices. The airline thought they had an agreement that all aircraft would return to base first. Such behaviour by the pilots was the first indication that this strike did not have a simple monetary cause. Indeed in a review of the strike the importance of money was rapidly discounted. The pilots had achieved high earnings in the previous two years with additional hours and flights to service unprecedented demand. What emerged was a patchwork of individual grievances: one birthday too many missed, one standby duty too far; the mechanisation of catering in the simulator block and simulator hours being extended into the night; uniform replacements being delayed; too many late schedule changes; too many leave requests denied; too much pressure on junior pilots because the senior ones were better able to play the system; perhaps also too little management presence in the duty rooms and layover hotels.

In both these examples what also emerged was that the local and middle management knew the strength of feeling, but felt powerless to intercede. Over the preceding months the managers had become conduits of company policy carrying the missives about the competitive challenges and the need for ever greater efficiency as a result of which all in the airline would benefit. Other service functions under similar pressure had also adopted less sensitive approaches whether the junior clerk manning the standby desk or the facilities manager responsible for maintaining rest rooms. So loaders and pilots perceived that the system was more important than meeting their individual needs. What had been lost was the human recognition that individual effort was valued and sufficient perceived upward fight for resources and practices on their behalf: the individuals, whether pilots or aircraft cleaners, increasingly felt they were mere numbers. In the end they had enough. The strike was about them and how they felt not about the airline. They felt they had given enough and nobody had listened. In such a mood the fate of the airline became secondary to the need for someone to recognise that they were also “the airline” and in an example of reverse logic some actually argued that by taking such drastic action they were the only ones actually trying to save the airline.

Different perspectives

So we return to the early days of 2010, at a time when virtually every European airline is facing financial threat. Managers, especially middle managers, may need to rethink their role. The support for industrial action, especially when activists are leading the charge, just might be mitigated by constant and consistent small acts of recognition. Relatively small improvements in upward communication might also help reduce some irritation. Another paradox of leadership is that sometimes the inability of a manager to gain agreement to changed practices or additional resources — but who is now better positioned to explain why — is more highly thought of than the manager who loyally holds the company line without question. So in this likely turbulent world of 2010 when one or more airlines is predicted to go bankrupt and others may be merged, how might the world look to three typical staff groups?

Pilots will remain only too aware that in their job mistakes are not tolerated, whether in the air or on simulators. For serious errors there are no second chances. Air traffic control and airport congestion will not make their work any easier, and the constant tailoring of capacity to demand will likely impact in more flying hours, perhaps more type training, and tighter scheduling. The days of the pilot as the officer class within the airline after the second world war and of social equity with barristers and surgeons — professions where you are only as good as the last case or operation, are probably over (certainly in terms of remuneration). The sense of responsibility for an aircraft and its passengers and crew has not changed, however, nor the awareness that the gold or silver rings make the holder very visible. In large airlines and even larger alliances the need of the individual to be recognised as a professional will probably increase and a familiar challenge for leaders will be how to maintain direct human contact with a workforce that by definition is largely unreachable at work.

Cabin crew will likely see other perspectives. As at the moment probably every flight will be full as yield management systems seek to minimise losses. With fewer crews and market driven scheduling there will probably be more standby duties. The crew will likely also face more passenger complaints about mishandled baggage or queues at check–in (because of cost savings elsewhere in the system). On network airlines they may also face more pressure to explain how formerly free services are now the subject of ancillary charges. As they make the announcements on each flight many will also constantly hear that they are part of a very large and powerful alliance. Yet in this tumultuous and demanding world they hear that the airline is still struggling financially. Just maybe they may wonder if anyone really appreciates what they do?

Ramp and ground operational staff will see the world from another perspective. As passengers buy tickets and check–in online fewer of them will have direct contact with their customers other than a few rushed minutes at a baggage drop or gate boarding desk. Security procedures will likely become more demanding and result in increased pressure on airline staff to complete their processes in even shorter time. The need to work with colleagues in service companies will increase in importance and yet the details of contracts may hinder adaptive working, especially when service recovery action is needed. Despite technology many ramp jobs will still need to be completed in sun, ice, wind and rain. Despite technology heavy bags will still need to be lifted, cramped restrooms cleaned, and cumbersome catering trolleys docked in tight spaces. Face–to–face communication and reinforcement that efforts are recognised by managers from beyond the narrow world of terminals and the ramp can help bridge potential gaps – especially if leaders do believe that their colleagues should have the tools to do their jobs and are willing to listen.

There will probably still be strikes this year. Possibly some may fatally weaken airlines and be viewed as betrayal by colleagues. On the other hand sometimes industrial relations need the release of built–up emotion through a major dispute. Sometimes, however, small actions and behaviours by leaders at all levels can obviate these, so it might be worth checking that these are taking place.

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