Two days after a flash strike by Air India employees, normalcy has returned to Indian skies. The company finally cracked the whip and derecognized the two unions that instigated the strike. It has also sacked several employees, some of whom were office bearers of the two unions.

It is difficult to attribute the rot in the airline to a single cause. But if there’s one, it would be what economists call the “soft budget constraint". In plain English: repeated bailouts by the government in the form of generous cash infusions and other support. When one knows that help will be at hand at the first sign of trouble, where’s the need to inculcate a culture of responsibility? This has wrecked Air India’s organizational ethos, if it ever had one.

Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

Tuesday’s strike fits in this pattern. It all began with a circular that the company claims was “reiterated" on Monday. This circular prevented union leaders from making public statements about the airline’s internal affairs. This order had been first issued in July, but was interpreted as a “gag order" by the unions on Monday. The result was the strike involving 20,000 employees, cancellation of at least 130 flights, thousands of stranded passengers across India and the loss of crores of rupees in revenue.

Any industrial action, in the form of a protest or a strike, has to be in proportion to the grievance that leads to the action in the first place. In case the management does not pay attention to the problem, graded escalation is the way to proceed. Otherwise, relations between the management and unions, key to the smooth functioning of any organization, will be marred by suspicion and uncertainty. Air India unions have seldom adhered to such niceties. This is probably the first time the company management has displayed any harshness.

In an age where politically motivated actions are out of place in private organizational settings, Air India is perhaps one of the few companies of its size that allows such misbehaviour. It should not, if it is to function effectively as India’s national carrier.

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