A one-day strike on Friday by the Taoyuan Flight Attendants Union did not only achieve victory: Combined with the positive reactions of the public, the strike has set a milestone for workers’ rights in the nation.
The labor dispute started when China Airlines (CAL) management changed a company rule to require flight attendants to clock in to work at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport — previously, those living in Taipei were allowed to report to work in the city — and attempted to force them to sign an agreement to extend their working hours.
After several failed negotiations and demonstrations, 99.5 percent of CAL flight attendants in the Taoyuan Flight Attendants Union voted in favor of a strike, which began at midnight on Thursday.
In the beginning, most of the striking flight attendants said they were not sure about what they might achieve and some expressed concerns that they might fail and face reprisals from CAL management.
However, within 24 hours, the tide turned and CAL management — led by newly appointed CAL chairman Ho Nuan-hsuan (何煖軒) — decided to make concessions and reached an agreement with the union to end the strike.
In the history of workers’ rights movements, it is rare that almost 100 percent of the members of a union would vote in favor of a strike and it was the first time unionized employees of a Taiwanese company displayed such solidarity, forcing the nation’s flag carrier to cancel all flights for the day — except President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) charter flight — affecting more than 20,000 passengers.
There are two keys to the strike’s success: the solidarity among flight attendants and public support.
In 2013, a group of laid-off workers ran onto the tracks at Taipei Railway Station to block railroad traffic in protest, but the move upset passengers waiting on the platform, some of whom went so far as to urge train drivers to run over the protesters.
There have also been protests by laid-off freeway toll collectors and factory workers. The public’s reactions to the protests were highly polarized, with some people supporting their cause and others condemning them for causing inconvenience.
However, the flight attendants’ strike on Friday was different. A majority of the public seemed to side with the flight attendants. Although a few passengers whose flights were canceled yelled at CAL staff and complained about the strike, most of the affected passengers interviewed by the media were understanding of the flight attendants’ plight.
Some people said it is the physical attractiveness of the flight attendants that turned the tide in public opinion, but it cannot be that simple.
One thing that might have changed is that the public, over the years, has started to understand that protests and strikes are not something “evil,” as former president Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) government often pushed through — or tried to push through — policies not supported by a majority of the public.
After the 2014 Sunflower movement that stopped the legislature approving the cross-strait trade in services agreement, people gradually realized that they must take action if they want to achieve something or prevent it from happening. They have also realized that, sometimes, people on the streets are not “troublemakers,” but are fighting for the sake of the general public.
Before the strike, the company’s union opposed it, but now that the flight attendants have achieved their goals, it issued a statement demanding more benefits for other CAL employees and threatened to strike again if the company does not agree to its terms.
Perhaps — and hopefully — the flight attendants’ strike has turned a new page in the local workers’ rights movement.
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