Pilot unions in India losing clout?

New Delhi, Aug 2 (IANS) Unlike their Western counterparts, pilot unions in India have been on

the decline for years now with the current crisis in aviation only exacerbating the problem.

By definition, airline pilots are few in number and can't be manufactured overnight, one would assume pilot unions should be wielding considerable clout. Surprisingly, pilots say the reverse is true now.

One reason cited for the decline in clout of Indian pilots unions is that in the US and other developed countries, airlines do not recruit pilots fresh out of flight schools but they recruit experienced pilots.

The majority of these come from the military, charter operations or flight schools where they build flight time while instructing. And most major carriers in the US and Europe even insist on a college degree. The carriers in the Middle East are an exception to this as their local

pilot population is very small.

A pilot joins the airline there in his mid 30s or even later with a fair amount of experience.

In contrast, the majority of pilots in India land an airline job in their early 20s and some even in their teens. Most of them may find it daunting to attempt to steer an airline union where the stakes involved are huge.

“The results are there now for all to see,” pilots say.

At this time when pilots unions are in decline and the aviation sector is in crisis, pilots recall a letter by JRD Tata, the founder of Air India, on airline unions in the country.

In a letter written by him in 1972 to an associate, Tata said: “The trouble in India (referring to employees of Air India based only in India) partly lies in the fact that we have to deal with seven craft unions, each of which is led by office bearers who are employees of the company, have no basic training or experience in trade unionism, and feel it their duty to their membership to show hostility towards management as proof of their devotion to the members' interests.”

“While we must pursue our scheme of joint consultation, we must not forget the fact that however well-conceived such machinery may be and however well-intentioned the management, only a very small number of staff members will be directly involved in it. Unfortunately, they will inevitably consist largely of union office bearers who, as I have said earlier, have a vested interest in keeping up an atmosphere of agitation and dispute…,” Tata had said.

While tracing what has gone wrong with these unions in the last few years, a look at the strike calls may be helpful. The last few attempts of the pilots to pull off a strike at Air India have not gone well.

The last strike was staged by the Indian Pilots Guild (IPG) in April 2012. It is said the management offered an incentive in the form of Boeing 787s in front of the pilots and they went for it. A bitter fight ensued which culminated in the strike.

As a result, the IPG was de-recognised accompanied by termination of more than a 100 pilots. A few were taken back but the others are now without jobs, pilots said.

The Indian Commercial Pilots Association (ICPA) wrote a letter to the management of Air India.

“They conveniently forgot that IPG is also a trade union of fellow pilots and by this act of offering support to the management were hitting at the very basic foundation of the trade union movement,” the pilots said.

Pilots consider the final nail in the coffin for the unions as the strike in 2011. That year it was the turn of Indian Commercial Pilots Association to go on a strike. The strike was declared illegal from the very first day as they had not followed the correct procedure laid down in the Industrial Disputes Act.

The ICPA was derecognised by the management and some office bearers and members were terminated and the union was then running around to get their jobs back. The Air India management also published advertisements in major newspapers to generate public opinion against the strike but the union did not publish any advertisements to counter this, pilots said.

Finally, a settlement was arrived at under which the government said that they would set up a committee headed by a retired judge to prepare a report and the union agreed to go by the recommendations and implementation of this committee.

This was also accompanied by an apology in the High Court of Delhi followed by public apologies published in major English and Hindi newspapers on directions from the Judge. The ICPA was also granted its recognition back.

“Thereafter, it was decided to recruit pilots only on contractual terms thereby ensuring a slow death for the union as contractual pilots cannot be active members of the union,” according to pilots.

In another instance, when the pilots of Jet Airways went on strike in 2009, the IPG and ICPA remained mute spectators and only issued the customary letter of support.

The last successful strike by airline pilots which goes back several years was the strike by the ICPA in 1993. The strike went on for more than a month and the government took aircraft on wet lease to break it.

One of the aircraft overturned while landing in very poor visibility at Delhi and some passengers were injured. The Minister for Civil Aviation then, the late Madhav Rao Scindia resigned after owning moral responsibility for the crash and the Chairman of Indian Airlines, L. Vasudev too had to resign. The strike was then settled in favour of the pilots.

The fact that there is no shortcut to becoming a full fledged airline pilot should give this group of professionals the kind of advantage that no other group of professionals can achieve.

Pilots say but the irony is that the piloting profession is at its lowest ebb today.

In the current crisis, pilots of many airlines haven't been paid for months and are virtually without jobs and pilots of the national carrier Air India too have had their salaries slashed drastically.

This can be contrasted with history, as old timers will recall that pilot unions had a major say in the running of the airlines and wielded considerable clout. Strikes by the ICPA and the IPG could wield clout.



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