Mumbai/New Delhi: There could be further trouble at Air India as an employees’ union demanded all dismissed workers be taken back, hours after the national carrier sacked 23 employees and withdrew recognition of two unions that led a strike on Tuesday.
The state-run national carrier had on Wednesday dismissed 17 officials, including union leaders, after the Delhi high court said the strike was illegal.
Long wait: Stranded passengers at Delhi airport on Wednesday after many flights were cancelled due to a strike call given by Air India’s ground and technical staff. Vijay Kumar Joshi/PTI
Y.V. Raju, general secretary of one of the two unions, the All India Air Engineers Association (AIAEA), said it would take industrial action if Air India does not reinstate sacked workers and withdraw its de-recognition order within 14 days. Raju is one the 40 employees whose services have been terminated.
“At present, I have not yet received any strike notice from employee unions,” said Arvind Jadhav, chairman and managing director of National Aviation Co. of India Ltd, which runs Air India.
At least 13,000 employees went on a flash strike on Tuesday to protest a gag order purportedly issued by the management, days after an Air India Express plane crashed at Mangalore airport, killing 158 people, It was India’s worst air disaster in a decade.
Air India said in a statement on Thursday that it has withdrawn recognition granted to AIAEA and the Air Corporation Employees Union (Aceu) as they resorted to an illegal strike on 25 May, “causing harassment to the innocent passengers, causing revenue loss and disrupting flights nationwide and to international destinations.”
Union leaders were unmoved by the airline’s action. “AIAEA is a registered trade union body. We had consulted with our lawyers, there is no word such as derecognition in the law,” Raju said.
Both Raju and Aceu’s J.B. Kadian, who has also been dismissed, said they will take legal recourse to battle Air India’s decision and were talking to other trade unions for help to solve the crisis.
“Such crackdown on employees is always uncalled for and we condemn it,” said Tapan Sen, general secretary, Centre of Indian Trade Unions. “However, since the Air Indian unions are independent unions and they have not discussed the matter with us, we are not doing anything about it. If they come to us, we will surely help them.”
“There is no proposal on our part to take any joint action against this move, though we do oppose such high-handed action against employees,” said H. Mahadevan, deputy general secretary, All India Trade Union Congress.
The strikes are an additional burden on the embattled carrier which is dealing with losses of Rs8,461.88 crore in the past three years through fiscal 2009 and outstanding debt of Rs16,000 crore, apart from the fallout of the Mangalore crash.
Most of the 13 unions at the airline have been up in arms over wage issues, while the airline has made a radical restructuring exercise its key priority. In its budget for fiscal 2011, the government has made a provision of Rs1,200 crore towards equity for this fiscal, conditional on specific cost-cutting targets.
Strikes such as this, experts said, will make it harder for the carrier to achieve those targets. Air India runs a monthly cash deficit of Rs400 crore.
The looming crisis could partly explain the swift and forceful response from the civil aviation ministry after the Delhi high court’s decision.
“Government wants to clean it up once and for all,” a ministry official said on condition of anonymity. “We can’t go on suffering this blackmail; its been going on for 20-30 years.”
Passengers will be inconvenienced if another strike takes place.
“If there is another strike, passengers had better brace themselves for a hard time,” said Ajay Prakash, national general secretary, Travel Agents Federation of India. “The other domestic airlines simply do not have the capacity to carry Air India’s passengers.”
Ruhi Tewari and Manish Ranjan in New Delhi contributed to this story.