Air France pilots strike

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On Wednesday 10 June 1998, a few hours before the kick-off of the World Cup finals, Air France management and its striking pilots reached agreement, ending industrial action which had begun on 1 June.

Pilots working for Air France launched a campaign of industrial action on 1 June 1998, which was ended by an agreement on 10 June. The dispute was settled a few hours before the kick-off of the World Cup finals and the industrial action was seen by some as having become a "sporting event" in its own right. The action was just one in a long series of strikes (FR9705148N) which have marked the restructuring process in France's state-owned airlines - ie the merger between Air France andAir France Europe (formerly Air Inter) on 1 April 1997 (FR9704138F).

The main players involved in the dispute had changed during the restructuring process. Jean-Cyril Spinetta replaced Christian Blanc as chief executive officer of Air France after the latter resigned in protest at the Government's decision not to privatise the company (FR9709168N). As far as the opposing team was concerned, industrial action was mounted principally by the new management at the National Union of Airline Pilots (Syndicat National des Pilotes de Ligne, SNPL), which gained a substantial majority in the recent workplace elections with 56% of the votes cast by the 3,423 pilots (out of the company's total workforce of 55,000).

The dispute

The wide-scale industrial action by pilots brought three-quarters of Air France flights to a halt for a 10-day period. The strike was in protest at management plans to save FRF 500 million by cutting pilots' pay by 15%. To achieve this goal, the management had planned to set up a two-tier salary scale under which newly recruited pilots would receive an annual starting salary of FRF 240,000, compared with FRF 350,000 for their predecessors. In addition, the management proposed to compensate this cut in salary through the free distribution of shares of a value equal to 10% of the FRF 3 billion equity that the partially privatised company launched on the stock exchange on 23 February 1998. These proposals were refused and led to a strike call on 28 May, just one day after Air France had announced profits for 1997 of FRF 1.87 billion, following seven consecutive years of losses.

The management emphasised the need to consolidate the onset of recovery and pointed out that French pilots' salaries were very high; 40% higher than at Lufthansa and 19% higher than at British Airways. These figures have not been disputed, since they are the result of an audit which the SNPL itself asked the American ALPA pilots' union to carry out.

Resolution - for now

The Government took decisive action in the conflict. It ensured that negotiations continued and then gave the final impetus for the last stage of the negotiations - held at night in the utmost secrecy - which resulted in the drawing up of a draft agreement. This agreement provides for pilots to play a role in increasing competitiveness "by becoming shareholders in their company in exchange for accepting the setting up of a mechanism to control their paybill". In reality, the strikers have accepted a freeze in their gross pay for a seven-year period, which means that their purchasing power should decrease only in line with inflation. Plans to trade further pay cuts against shares have not been abandoned, but will have to be on a voluntary basis and limited to the same seven-year period. A new collective agreement should clarify the details in the next few months. The management has agreed to abandon the principle of a two-tier pay scale and to replace it with a "specific newly-qualified pilot career path which will involve young flight deck crew, whose initial training will have been undertaken by the company". Under this condition, the SNPL agreed that in the future young pilots would have an annual starting salary of FRF 300,000 instead of FRF 350,000, as is the case at present.

All those involved have congratulated themselves on the relatively balanced outcome to the dispute. However, several other small unions - for the most part representing ex-Air Inter pilots - were not so pleased and had even considered continuing the industrial action. The Minister of Transport, Jean-Claude Gayssot, saw the end of the strike as proof that "one should never give up on the negotiation process." In the view of the chief executive of Air France, the agreement is "good for the company, good for its employees and its customers and demonstrates perfectly the economic aims set by the company". In a press release, the management talked of the creation of a "long-term all-encompassing agreement setting out the foundations for long-lasting stable industrial relations". The SNPL also displayed similar satisfaction and referred to a "good compromise" and the "creation of a framework conducive to achieving social stability, which is essential to the development" of the company.

The agreement has not put an end to the conflict, all the less so since right from the start it took on a political dimension, particularly due to: the fact that it coincided - with striking impact on public opinion - with the start of the World Cup; the issue of privatisation; and the fact that the Minister of Transport is a member of the Communist Party. The right-wing opposition criticised the Government for not having avoided the strike and not having prevented it from gaining hold. The opposition immediately seized the opportunity to question the decision not to privatise Air France entirely. The Prime Minister,Lionel Jospin, promptly answered these criticisms by saying that he "had difficulty understanding the logic behind the idea that if the company had been privatised, its problems would miraculously have been solved". The Prime Minister's statement echoes the support by the SNPL for previous total privatisation projects.

In any case, the strike will have cost the company dear. It puts losses at FRF 100 million per day, not to mention the effect on the image of the company. The company is not sure that the agreement will be enough to stabilise long-term industrial relations within Air France.

Commentary

The pilots' industrial action has left a feeling of bitterness, mixed with an image of "corporatism" on the part of the pilots' union which, for example, has never taken into account the demands of the other employees. Management, which was finally forced to abandon its principles, was seen to be intransigent. Finally, the strike was perceived as excessively politicised and "mediatised", whereby the pretext of an unpopular strike was used to target other areas such as public services and the right to strike. (Michel Husson, Ires)

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