by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: 桃園市機師職業工會 (公開網頁)/Facebook
A WEEKLONG STRIKE by China Airlines pilots over the Lunar New Year holiday came to an end yesterday, after negotiations on Thursday between China Airlines management and the Taoyuan Pilot’s Union that is representing the pilots. Despite its name, China Airlines is a Taiwanese airline, not to be confused with Air China, a Chinese airline. The Lunar New Year is one of busiest times of the year for airlines, seeing as many Taiwanese travel during the holidays. The strike was only declared late into the Lunar New Year holiday, however, despite the fact that it was long anticipated.
Over 30,000 passengers were affected by the strike, with over two hundred flights canceled over the past week. The strike is thought to have cost China Airlines over 500 million NTD. Approximately 900 of China Airlines’ 1,400 pilots went on strike, with over 500 turning in their flight certificates as a sign that they would not fly during the strike. Nonetheless, the company operated at 90% capacity during the strike, suggesting that the company may have overworked non-striking workers.
China Airlines pilots struck because of the fact that pilots are overworked, with the existing staff made to work long hours, and management evidencing a lack of interest in hiring more workers to fill up manpower shortages. For example, cases were raised of pilots working 63 hours over 12 days, resulting in the pilot in question collapsing from exhaustion. As such, China Airlines pilots cited that this was a potential risk to flight safety.
The set of negotiations which ended the strike lasted for close to eleven hours. These were the fourth set of talks between the Taoyuan Pilot’s Union and China Airlines management. The Taoyuan Pilot’s Union demanded that talks held Wednesday begin at 1 AM and last for at least eight hours, in order to demonstrate the sorts of hours that pilots work and how exhausted they are.
In the end, China Airlines pilots were able to secure most of their demands. China Airlines workers called for increases on the number of pilots for flight routes both over seven and twelve hours. Pilots were successful in increasing the number of pilots that serve on flight routes over seven hours long from two pilots to three pilots and on flight routes over twelve hours long from three pilots to four pilots. Likewise, pilots secured a yearly bonus equivalent to one month’s pay, as is standard practice for China Airlines competitor EVA Airlines, as well as a promise by the company not to retaliate against striking pilots, and promises by the company to hire and advance Taiwanese pilots preferentially over foreign pilots, although foreign pilots living in Taiwan would be exempt from this requirement.
At the same time, some have taken the view that this may actually be a defeat for the union, rather than a victory. For one, the Taoyuan Pilot’s Union also agreed not to strike again during the period in which this collective agreement is in effect, which will be for the next three-and-a-half years, limiting the power of the union for the next few years. Some have also suggested that the energy of the strike was spent before the demands were agreed to by management.
Either way, the strike made labor history in Taiwan, as the first strike by Taiwanese airline pilots in history. This followed suit on how the 2016 China Airlines flight attendants’ strike was the historic first strike by not only Taiwanese flight attendants, but in Taiwan’s airline industry as a whole. The momentum behind the China Airlines pilots’ strike largely grew out of organizing in the years since the China Airlines flight attendants’ strike.
Close coordination took place between the Taoyuan Flight Attendant’s Union that was the driving force behind the 2016 flight attendant’s strike and the Taoyuan Pilot’s Union, as well as with Taoyuan-based labor unions that have been highly militant in past years, such as the Taoyuan Confederation of Labor Unions, an instrumental force in protests against the Tsai administration’s changes to the Labor Standards Act in late 2017 and early 2018. The 2016 China Airlines flight attendants’ strike galvanized labor organizing in Taiwan’s airline industry as a whole, leading to an uptick in labor organizing in EVA Airlines, leading to a strike in early 2018, as well as in Taiwan’s transportation industry as a whole, in which issues of overwork are an endemic problem.
Nevertheless, in comparing the 2016 China Airlines flight attendants’ strike and the recently ended pilots’ strike, one observes that society appeared more sympathetic to the flight attendants’ strike than to the pilots’ strike. One factor could have been greater sympathy to flight attendants on the basis of their profession, with the rather misleading view that pilots have a simple job operating airplane controls. Another factor could have been that China Airlines pilots did not stage any dramatic form of direct action as took place during the 2016 flight attendants’ strike, with flight attendants camping out in front of China Airlines headquarters for days on end in a manner that drew public sympathy, though this was contemplated with a possible sit-in outside the Ministry of Transportation and Communications.
Indeed, Taiwan has seen an overall increase in labor activity since the 2016 China Airlines strike. This can not only be observed in the high-intensity of labor demonstrations in late 2017 and 2018 against changes to the Labor Standards Act but also with regards to how unions from a number of industries rallied in support of the Taoyuan Pilot’s Union. These included the Taiwan Railway Union, Taiwan Postal Workers’ Union, Taiwan Radical Nurses’ Union and Taiwan Dispatched Workers Union, Taiwan High Speed Rail Industry Union, Taoyuan Flight Attendants’ Union, National Association for Firefighters’ Rights, Taoyuan County Electrical Industry Union, the Taiwan Freight Warehousing Industry Union, North MRT and EMU Driver Union, Taiwan Higher Education Union, Taipei Doctors Union, Sales Worker Union, and Taiwan Media Workers Union. Clearly, solidarity among Taiwanese unions is on the rise.
As such, one observes that business interests have also become more proficient at attacking labor unions. For example, the Taoyuan Pilot’s Union was criticized with the accusation that their strike was the result of DPP factionalism, and that because the Taoyuan Pilot’s Union represents both EVA and China Airlines pilots, the strike was conducted at the behest of EVA to sabotage China Airlines. To this end, airline managements have also engaged in redbaiting against union organizers and rallied their supporters against the union.
Similarly, pilots were labeled as greedy and many were outraged at the social disruption caused by the strike, seeing as the strike lasted much longer than the China Airlines flight attendants’ strike, which only lasted several days. Calls have been on the rise for laws to be passed that strikes need to be declared in advance, never mind that this measure would greatly blunt the effectiveness of strikes as a means to pressure company managements.
One observes, too, that Taiwanese media was decidedly much more unfriendly towards China Airlines pilots than they were towards China Airlines flight attendants, including from center-left publications such as the Liberty Times and its English-language sister publication, the Taipei Times. Namely, in the years since the 2016 China Airlines flight attendants’ strike, media workers and journalists have also begun actively organizing unions within their companies, and the hostility of media companies towards their internal unions spills over into hostility towards unions as a whole—particularly because media workers unions such as the Taiwan Media Workers Union were in support of the strike. Taiwanese unions will have to be highly cognizant that Taiwanese media as a whole is generally anti-union in how they conduct media outreach.
Consequently, in the aftermath of the China Airlines pilots’ strike, perhaps what is best kept in mind is what the strike reveals about the current issues facing Taiwanese labor at this juncture.