When the levee breaks


Air India and its unions need to rethink what they want to do with each other

Ashim Roy

THE FIRST round of confrontation between the unions and the National Aviation Company of India Ltd (NACIL) ended with 58 employee contracts terminated, 24 employees including 15 engineers suspended, two unions derecognised and their offices sealed, 138 flights cancelled, 13,000 passengers affected and a loss of Rs 10 crore.

It is time to take a look at the terrain of the new round that is sure to come. Will it be fought by the two unions —separately or in alliance, or at the industry level? Is it a sign of a new round of unionisation, or is it just a destruction of old unions? For unions in general and the aviation industry in particular, it is time for reflection, development of new strategies and building of newer and broader alliances.

Illustration : Ashish Naorem

The results of the review of passenger safety in India, an issue of prime importance, by the International Civil Aviation Organisation gives extremely poor ratings (2/10) to qualification and training of technical personnel. It was raised by YV Raju, the General Secretary of the All India Aircraft Engineers Association (AIAEA), when he questioned the competence of the Kingfisher Airlines engineer who certified the illfated Air India (AI) Airbus for take-off from Mangalore on May 22. Instead of addressing this issue, AI decided to take action against the union leaders on the basis of an internal memo that prohibited them from making damaging statements.

Safety is too serious an issue to be left to private hands. External regulation and recruitment of safety officials is not enough. An internal agency with political capacity is needed. Who better than unions to act as the conscience of consumers? Unions too need to view this as an intrinsic value, not just a bargaining chip. We need to convince the public of our sincerity, consistency and capability. The need to protect a company’s reputation must never be allowed to override safety concerns. The responsibility of developing an internal mechanism and institutional culture, that maintain a balance between them, lies with the Ministry of Civil Aviation. In the absence of a transparent and credible mechanism, it is natural for such concerns to spillover into the public domain. The action of NACIL was uncalled for and led to the industrial action. In the end, the government appointed a 28-member Civil Aviation Safety Council, with the DGCA Chairman heading it. But, instead of taking on board the concerns of the unions, they have been given no representation.

This reflects the government’s underlying thinking — seeking a turnaround in the public sector without participation of key stakeholders. Without developing strong values enforced through a participatory model, it will not be possible to break the vicious circle of capital infusion and leakage. Praful Patel, the Minister for Civil Aviation, forced the merger of AI and IA,and argues for strategic disinvestment. But, he also demands capital infusion of Rs 5,000 crore. He takes a good company and merges it with a sick one to create a sick behemoth. Is there an underlying logic to his unapologetic conviction in privatisation?

To win against privatisation, unions have to ensure that AI retains its market dominance

The strike is, in the first place, a reaction to broken industrial relations. It affects 31,000 employees and 10,000 contract workers. There are many issues to be resolved — the delay in wage payment, wage parity and career progression, productivitylinked incentives and contractualisation to name a few. And yet these have been dragged on for too long. This confrontation was, thus, bound to happen, and though the union was right on all the issues, it lost the sympathy of the very middle class it is a part of because of the protraction of the struggle.

Before the next round, the unions have to introspect. If the core struggle is against the privatisation of a public sector airline in a neo-liberal environment, then, to win it, we have to ensure that AI retains its dominance in price, service and market share. Only then can the value of the public sector, in controlling and regulating the private industry, be understood and defended by all. Unions must also ally with other social movements to win the battle of opinion-making in the wider society.

Roy is the General Secretary, New Trade Union Initiative

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