During the weekend of August 19-20, Caribbean Airlines Ltd (CAL) had to cancel approximately 60 domestic and international flights owing to pilots reporting sick en masse. CAL described the impact of the disruption, which resonated throughout its entire international network, as a shame. It's estimated that it will cost CAL over $15 million.
On August 21, the Industrial Court granted an interim ex-parte injunction restraining the pilots from taking, continuing to take and participating in industrial action within the meaning of the Industrial Relations Act (IRA), including calling in sick en masse.
The IRA recognises the right of every worker to be a member of any trade union of their choice and to take part in the activities of the trade union.
It requires employers and the recognised majority unions to meet and treat with each other in good faith regarding industrial relations matters,
including collective bargaining for terms and conditions of employment.
The IRA specifies that all collective agreements must contain effective provisions for appropriate proceedings for avoiding and settling disputes, and prescribes detailed procedures for doing so. These dispute settlement procedures include the intervention of the Labour Minister and can result in conciliation or arbitration by a third party.
In February 1978, BWIA pilots went on strike over the dismissal of a colleague. After ignoring a call to return to work, the company terminated all the pilots. Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams was deeply hurt by the pilots' action, since during his tenure, the
government spent billions of taxpayers’ dollars to keep BWIA airborne. The airline remained grounded for eight months until the strike was finally settled and the pilots were re-employed.
The aftermath of the strike lasted for decades, owing to tensions between pilots who supported the strike and those who did not.
He quickly moved to amend the IRA to make all civil-aviation services essential industries and essential services.
This included all services provided by a commercial airline – the majority of the aircraft of which are registered in TT or are owned by citizens of TT or by a company incorporated in TT – aircraft maintenance, refuelling and ramp services, air traffic control and meteorological services and airline catering services.
The effect of this is that no worker employed by CAL can engage in any form of industrial action, including strikes, go-slows or sick-outs.
In 1980, the Singapore Airlines Pilots’ Association (SIAPA) demanded a 30 per cent hike in basic salaries and better working conditions at a time when Singapore Airlines (SIA) profits were very low. The pilots’ union launched a work-to-rule industrial action to make its demand felt.
An SIA flight from London to Dubai was disrupted when three pilots and a flight engineer refused to work beyond their 12-hour duty during their stopover at Zurich on November 16, 1980.
Everyone involved in disrupting the Dubai-bound flight was terminated by SIA and charged in court for carrying out the illegal industrial action.
As SIA and SIAPA locked horns in a seemingly unresolvable conflict, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew intervened to end the ongoing dispute. On December 1, 1980, SIAPA representatives were summoned to Lee’s office for a meeting.
Lee Kuan Yew said he gave the pilots two choices. Either the pilots ended the work-to-rule and got back to work or he was prepared to ground the airlines and teach the pilots a lesson they wouldn’t ever forget. Lee told SIAPA he was prepared to start all over again without them.
According to Lee, within 65 minutes after the meeting ended, SIAPA decided to end the industrial action and return to the bargaining table as the fight just wasn’t worth it. There was never any industrial action again at SIA, which rose to become one of the world’s most successful and profitable airlines.
The demise of LIAT 1974 was partly due to several instances of disruptive industrial action by employees for wage increases at a time when the airline was losing millions of dollars.
Unions have a legitimate right to engage in collective bargaining to improve the terms and conditions of employment of their members. It is not uncommon for talks to break down and in such cases, back channels are used to get the employer and the unions back to the negotiation table or seek third party arbitration.
Industrial relations are underpinned by mutual trust, respect and good faith to ensure that both sides of the aisle are devoid of recklessness.
However, something drastically went wrong with the CAL/TTALPA negotiations that triggered the recent impasse. It is unclear what aviation expertise CAL’s industrial relations advisers possess, particularly in relation to pilots' working conditions.
The most valuable assets of CAL are its human resources, with the pilots being the most skilled segment of the workforce.
Pilots' job functions are highly safety-sensitive and subject to very rigid regulatory standards pertaining to competency and medical requirements. CAL’s airmanship is second to none, owing to its very high proficiency standards.
TTALPA has vehemently disavowed any knowledge or sanction of industrial action by its members. TTALPA is fully aware that a sick-out is illegal under the IRA and can lead to the termination of employment and decertification of TTALPA.
The taxpayers and loyal customers who have faithfully kept CAL airborne easily read between the lines and have an expectation that both sides to the dispute would come clean and call a spade a spade.
A basic principle in wage negotiations is the employer’s ability to pay. CAL is on the cusp of achieving profitability, thanks to opportunities provided by the demise of LIAT 1974 and the withdrawal of Air Canada and WestJet from the lucrative Port of Spain/Toronto route. CAL’s expansion programme is bearing the fruits of profitability, which, when reaped, will lead to job security and improved working conditions.
Disruptive labour disputes will provide opportunities for extra-regional airlines,causing a loss of CAL’s market share. The owners of a major Nigerian airline are now citizens of a Caricom member state, qualifying the airline to be designated under the revised multilateral air services agreement and compete with CAL.
Whatever the circumstances that led to the disruption of services, all parties must immediately return to the negotiation table with the assistance of a competent arbitrator to bring about an amicable resolution to this impasse. Pilots are the public face of the airline and both CAL and TTALPA have a sacrosanct duty to the travelling public to remove the clouds of doubt that things are not right in the cockpit.
One senior government official, asked to comment on the impasse, allegedly described CAL as a luxury and not an absolute necessity. There is merit in the official’s very powerful veiled message. Should the corporation sole decide to cut CAL’s taxpayers' support and redirect funding to other wanting sectors of national life, thousands can be without jobs.
CAL is an icon of national pride. However, irresponsible actions can kill the goose that lays the golden egg.