Pilots union pushes through restructuring plan at Air France
24 August 2012
While the management at Air France-KLM is trying to impose a drastic plan of cost-cutting on its defiant workforce, the National Union of Airline Pilots (SNPL) has pushed through an agreement supporting the objectives of management. “Transform 2015” envisages the elimination of more than 5,000 jobs at Air France-KLM.
After recommending acceptance of the agreement, the SNPL organized a ballot of its members. The result of this ballot, announced on August 16, was presented as a positive outcome. However, the 67 percent of members who voted in favour of the pact represented well under a half of all airline pilots.
The agreement was hailed by the press and in business circles. The daily La Tribune called it a “very wonderful victory for the company’s chairman, Alexandre de Juniac”. The company’s share value climbed 3.72 percent on news of the ballot results.
The agreement stipulates that 550 of the 4,400 pilots be redeployed in Air France subsidiaries, calls for an increase of 15 percent in working hours without any salary increase, as well as a reorganization of working hours favourable to the company.
It leaves Air France with total liberty to organize the work of pilots as it sees fit. SNPL leader Jean-Louis Barber emphasized that the measures will be “correlated to that which will be put in place throughout the whole company (concerning other categories of workers and industrial areas)”.
Barber admitted that the agreement represented an attack on wages and working conditions, stating, “The pilots accept to work longer for the equivalent salaries”. He justified this by saying that Air France has pledged that “there would not be any layoffs”. Experience has shown, however, that such commitments are worth nothing. Barber also insisted that other categories of workers make sacrifices in the company’s interest. “The pilots mustn’t be the only ones to make an effort”, he said.
While a similar agreement had been rejected by flight attendants and had been pushed through by a small margin on ground staff, among whom it was hotly contested, acceptance of the “recovery plan” was of the utmost importance for the company. A rejection of Transform 2015 by the pilots would have put the whole operation in jeopardy.
La Tribune explained that “after the refusal by hostesses and stewards”, a “no vote by the pilots would have been catastrophic for Air France”, adding that “it would have been necessary to bulldoze it through, take more forceful action, creating labour unrest”. In the event of the pilots’ refusal to cooperate, the agreement with the ground staff would have been the only one to be validated and would quickly have been put in doubt.
A “bulldozing through” of the pact would have the effect of mobilizing workers and could involve struggles beyond Air France. The open support of the unions for the increase in profitability at Air France also constitutes direct support for the government of François Holland, which can go forward to develop its austerity program.
The actions of SNPL are not alone. The CFDT union (French Democratic Confederation of Labour), Force Ouvrière (Workers’ Power), and the CGC (middle management union) have agreed to job elimination and wage reductions for ground staff. The CGT union (General Confederation of Labour) criticized the agreement, but for its own tactical reasons. All the unions accept the principle of defending the competitiveness of big business at the expense of workers. Not one has organized a struggle to defend the social gains of workers.
Essentially, the Air France “method” is to lean on the unions to impose these attacks. Air France management threatens to attack more harshly if the staff do not accept the agreements forthwith. The unions then use this threat to pressure the workers into accepting agreements favourable to management.
That the plans of Air France are perceived as a threat to the jobs and wages of its workers, including the pilots, was seen in strikes taking place in July. A strike of several days in July called by the unions to let off steam was supported by 80 percent of workers and created significant traffic disruption.
Air France announced its plans in June and the unions immediately came on board. (See “Air France announces 5,000 job cuts”) The SNPL had already signalled its readiness to accept the deal, stating, “If management proposes a clear way forward for the future, we will sign”.
At the time of the announcement of the “recovery plan”, the Hollande government had clearly indicated that it would do everything to make the objectives of Air France realisable. The transport minister, Frédéric Cuviller, had already declared on May 25 “that he would be particularly attentive in the coming months to see to it that the company … had the means to make a turnaround”.
The head of Air France said that he had been subjected to “neither interference nor pressure” by the government of Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (the state is a 15 percent shareholder in Air France) during the preparation of his plan: “We have been very transparent, the government knew everything and we announced together the figure on overstaffing and the method the deal with it”.
The Hollande government’s particular worry, and that of the unions and management at Air France, is to prevent a direct confrontation with management.
The attacks against airline workers are taking place on an international level, and many other airlines are currently implementing similar “restructuring plans”. The main European competitor of Air France, Lufthansa, is trying to impose its own plan. There as well, the UFO (Independent Union of Navigating Employees) is seeking to avoid any direct confrontation with management, although 83.2 percent of its members have voted to strike.
In the United States, the main airline companies have imposed massive job cuts and wage reductions and intensified the exploitation of workers through increased working hours. Two weeks ago, Australian airline Qantas announced 2,800 layoffs following a legal decision allowing it to outsource and use agency workers in an unrestricted fashion.