Taoyuan Union of Pilots members working for China Airlines (CAL) went on strike on Friday last week, citing “fatigue flights” and maintaining aviation safety as justification for the industrial action.
There might well be other reasons behind the pilots’ decision to picket their employer and it is their civic right to hold a strike. Nevertheless, by choosing to hold an open-ended strike during the Lunar New Year holiday, the strikers have caused travelers a great deal of anxiety.
China Airlines management is by no means disposed to give way to the pilots’ demands, especially in light of the public backlash, while their actions mean that future industrial action by pilots and cabin crew will be less likely to garner public support.
Having resided in Berlin for the past two years, I have experienced several instances of industrial action by German workers, including two strikes by Rheinbahn, the operator of Duesseldorf’s public buses, metro and light railway, as well as a strike by Deutsche Bahn employees while returning from a business trip in Switzerland last year.
However, these were “warning strikes,” called warnstreik in Germany. This means that if management refuses to enter into negotiations with union members or rejects their demands outright, members will hold an initial warning strike, which brings the possibility of a full-scale strike to the public’s attention.
A notice of at least 24 hours will be given before the warning strike takes place and will only last for a few hours or take place outside of busy periods, often by suspending services early. These warning strikes cause companies tangible losses and bring the strikers’ demands to the attention of the general public. Commuters are given sufficient time to alter their itineraries, which ensures disruption is kept at acceptable levels.
Although last year’s warning strike by Deutsche Bahn employees lasted only four hours, as the railway network was already at full capacity, it was certain to cause chaos for the entire day. As a result, on seeing the news I immediately changed my ticket and stayed for another day in Switzerland.
In the end Deutsche Bahn management agreed to the union’s requests — everyone was happy.
One wonders where these China Airlines pilots picked up their industrial action skills. The Ministry of Transportation and Communications has tried its best to negotiate with the union, which should have held a 12 or 24-hour warning strike on Friday, rather than an open-ended strike.
If, after holding a warning strike, China Airlines management was unwilling to return to the negotiating table, only then should the union have resorted to a full-scale strike.
If the strikers had followed this method, the public would have been more receptive to their cause and it would have given people time to alter their travel plans. Perhaps the public does not fully understand all the reasons behind the strike, nevertheless they are extremely angry.
One might have expected that the pilots’ exposure to — and therefore understanding of — international norms would run far deeper than the average member of the public, yet they appear to be totally ignorant of the concept of warning strikes, despite their widespread adoption in Europe.
China Airlines and its striking pilots are both losers in this round of industrial action, while the clear winner is Hong Kong Airlines — the sister company of China’s Hainan Airlines.
It almost feels as if someone is manipulating events behind the scenes. This fiasco needs to be investigated.
Martin Oei is a political commentator based in Germany.
Translated by Edward Jones
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