New Delhi: The merger of state-owned Air India and Indian might hit turbulence as smaller labour unions at both airlines have joined Air Corporations Employees Union (ACEU), the largest union at Indian, in its opposition to the merger.
The 700-strong pilots guild at Indian (formerly Indian Airlines) is looking to hire a professional consulting firm to “present our case in front of the minister,” said Capt. Rohan Kailasam, president of the Indian Commercial Pilots Association. He said he intended to talk with Ernst & Young and human resource consultant Adecco PeopleOne.
“It’s arrogant on the part of the minister to go ahead without setting up a proper committee,” Kailasam said. “We will force the minister to talk to us, or we can get a court order against the merger.”
A parliamentary group, set up to examine the merger of the two airlines, approved the merger on Wednesday, but only after labour issues postponed the decision by almost a month. Union minister for civil aviation Praful Patel has said repeatedly that the labour groups’ fears were unfounded, but all the unions opposing the merger want enforceable assurances before the airlines’ merger is approved by the cabinet.
Cabinet approval is likely to come in the next month.
Workers of Indian, the domestic airline that has less than 19,000 of them, would make up a majority of the over-34,000 staff at the merged entity. As of now, unions representing almost 95% workers at Indian said they are opposed to the merger.
At the same time, other workers at Air India, with 15,500 employees, are supportive of the merger, said George Abraham, the general secretary of the Air India Employees Guild. The guild represents almost 70% of the Air India workforce.
The biggest challenge to the merger would likely come from the members of the powerful Air India Engineers Association, currently the only union at Air India that opposes the merger. The group is closely affiliated with the Communist Party of India (CPI).
“We completely oppose the merger,” said Gurudas Dasgupta, a CPI member of Parliament. “We will be raising the issue in Parliament.” The union membership felt their opinions were disregarded as the ministry for civil aviation moved forward with the merger, according to Dasgupta.
At Indian, the Indian Aircraft Technical Association, with 2,500 members, said it too opposed the merger, joining the 14,000-member ACEU in its dissatisfaction with the way the merger has been approved.
The Centre of Indian Trade Unions (Citu), a Marxist union coalition with about three million members, threw its support behind ACEU’s opposition to the merger, saying it was important that the government’s assurances be given formally within the framework of the Industrial Disputes Act of 1947, a law that governs relationships between workers and managements.
“Everything looks calm right now,” said R. Ramnathan, aviation spokesperson for Citu. “But a lot of commotion may take place.”
During the merger process, the unions have met the minister several times, and Patel said that almost all of their issues had been dealt with. The workers at Indian, for instance, will receive wage hikes to match their salaries with their soon-to-be colleagues at AI.
But the unions at Indian say their concerns range beyond wage issues. The pilot’s guild says their counterparts at Air India are required to work more hours than pilots at Indian. The guild at Indian is also worried about its continued existence under Air India, because the international carrier doesn’t recognize its pilots’ guild over previous disputes, said Kailasam.
The civil aviation minister told reporters on Wednesday that post-merger, the current unions would be allowed to continue, but the worker groups have wanted those assurances in writing.
On Friday, Indian said talks were continuing with the unions. “No employee would be worse off as the result of the merger and due care will be taken in terms of their compensation,” a spokesperson for the domestic airline said.
Indian’s engineers, represented by the Hyderabad-based All India Aircraft Engineers Association, which also has 700 members, usually undergo intensive, government-approved training before they are qualified to work on specific aeroplanes.
As the yet-to-be-named airline’s fleet mix evolves—it will have more Boeings than Airbus planes— the union says the engineers feel unsure about their position in the new company. During a previous merger, that of Vayudoot with Indian and Air India, Vayudoot engineers turned to the courts to settle their status. Many of those cases are still unresolved.
“There would be a thousand cases like the ones that are still pending from the Vayudoot mergers,” said Y.V. Raju, general secretary of Indian’s engineers’ association.
Right now, none of the unions have mentioned the possibility of striking work, but in the past, the government has taken strikes, or their threats, seriously.
In November 2003, AI’s ground staff threatened to strike over a dispute related to baggage screening, but the unions’ demands were met through a compromise.
In May 2003, pilots at Air India struck work for a full week when they said they were being forced to fly to countries with outbreaks of the Sars virus. Just months before that, employees at both airlines threatened to strike over a 30% tax on the free tickets that they and their family members received: that strike too was averted by a decision from the ministry of finance.