A strike by EVA Airways flight attendants that nearly ended yesterday, 10 days after it started, had already begun faltering on Thursday when the union was greeted with an obstinate response from the company, despite making significant compromises in its demands. This is a far cry from the successful strike that the Taoyuan Flight Attendants’ Union held in 2016, which union director Su Ying-jung (蘇盈蓉) called the “first successful strike held by an independent labor union in Taiwan’s history.” The union’s success spurred other unions that had previously lacked the impetus to call their own strikes.
Taipower Labor Union secretary-general Peng Chi-tsung (彭繼宗) at the time told the News Lens that the China Airlines strike that year brought media attention to his own union’s efforts to prevent the passage of a new electricity industry law.
So, what made the Taoyuan Flight Attendants’ Union strike in 2016 so successful, and why did the union fail to achieve success this time?
Independent unions in Taiwan have long struggled to achieve bargaining power, largely because of their lack of members. Most workers in Taiwan are employed at smaller companies where unions lack effectiveness, and industry unions have often failed because of low membership, or because they are comprised of only a few people from each company they represent — not all of whom want to strike at the same time.
Taiwan’s two main airlines are unique in that each company represents such a large number of employees, and the companies’ employees are collectively represented in the Taoyuan Flight Attendants’ Union and the Taoyuan Union of Pilots.
A sizeable membership is a key factor in union success, but union members must also be united and resolute in their demands. In a 2014 paper, Lanu Kim said that dependence and cohesion are crucial to a strong union: “Dependence measures how well a union monopolizes the supply of workers to an employer... Cohesion indicates how much workers are participating in union activities.”
During strike action last week, hundreds of flight attendants who had handed over travel documents and employee badges to the union later attempted to take them back or replace them. The company then leveraged this in the media to strengthen its position.
EVA was also quick to assure the public that it was increasing flight capacity from 40 percent at the start of the strike to 60 percent by reshuffling employees and flights. This lack of dependence on striking workers weakened the union’s bargaining power, a situation further exacerbated by the union softening its stance only a week into the strike.
The union had not effectively voiced the importance of its demands to the media. Su in 2016 said that the media are important in mitigating criticism from passengers during an airline strike, adding: “How the public reacts is the key to success.”
Hundreds of thousands of passengers were affected by canceled flights last week. If the public sees a union’s demands as greedy or unwarranted, it will have to fight an uphill battle. Passengers need to be better informed about how improved work conditions for flight attendants and pilots would result in a better customer experience.
The Ministry of Labor, which speaks for workers’ interests, on Thursday reportedly accused the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC), which speaks for passengers, of leaking information on negotiations between the union and EVA management. The MOTC also “created confusion by proposing a strike authorization period,” the Chinese-language Apple Daily reported.
Unions are important in ensuring fair wages and labor conditions, but the Taoyuan Flight Attendants’ Union must be more cohesive and communicate better on key issues to achieve success.
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