Fears over restructuring at Iberia spark new dispute by pilots

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January-February 1998 saw a dispute at the Spanish airline, Iberia, organised by the pilots belonging to the SEPLA trade union. The grounds for the dispute related to the planned restructuring of the company.

Between 29 January and 1 February a dispute took place at the Spanish national airline, Iberia, involving pilots who belong to the occupational trade union, SEPLA. The pilots' action - a strict work-to-rule without notice - caused enormous delays on many flights at airports serving Madrid, Barcelona, the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands, affecting several thousand passengers and leading to some flight cancellations. As always happens with airline disputes, the action received major coverage in the press. It also revealed difficulties in the relationships between pilots and other workers in Iberia, and between SEPLA and the CC.OO and UGT trade union confederations .

Neither the pilots nor their union - which called the protest a "warning to the company" and, to minimise customer inconvenience, did not want to prolong it - were very explicit about the reasons behind the action.

Iberia is holding discussions with American Airlines and British Airways with a view to creating a strategic alliance from 1998 that would involve the partial privatisation of the Spanish company. As steps towards this alliance, it is intended to renew a large part of the fleet and to hire out several aeroplanes with their crews - pilots and co-pilots - to Air Europa. However, Air Europa crews, and those of British Airways, have substantially worse pay and working conditions than the pilots at Iberia (for example, the pilots in the British company earn 30% less than those in Iberia).

The Iberia pilots therefore fear that their working conditions may deteriorate in the future. Their discontent stems not so much from a wage freeze proposed in their collective agreement, as from the fact that they were not consulted on these strategic decisions. They also point out that previous agreements stated that the growth of Iberia would be achieved from inside the company and not through external sources.

Iberia has signed new collective agreements with all its workers except the pilots. Further bargaining may lead to a renewal of the dispute, which will be more serious next time. But both the management of the company and the Ministry of Industry seem determined to go ahead with the restructuring of the company and the harmonisation of the conditions of the pilots with those of their European counterparts. Competition will play a major role in this.

Strikes by airline pilots have normally been fairly unpopular and have been met with distrust by the other workers in the airline affected and by the trade unions in general. The reason for this is the belief that pilots can take advantage of their strategic position in the company to obtain wages and working conditions that are far superior to those of other workers. Furthermore, at Iberia these conditions seem to some difficult to justify, even when compared with those of the pilots of other European companies.

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