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The Strike – outmoded and unneeded or the only option?

The right to withdraw one’s labour when in dispute with an employer and without getting fired is one of the rights most enshrined in the life of most countries in the West. Going on strike is something that UK citizens were, at one time, very familiar with. The 1970s was a time of strife, with strikes across almost every industry. This form of pressurising an employer has lessened considerably over recent years although there are still moments.

An on-going disagreement on the railways in the UK has yet to be fully resolved and disputes have arisen over waste collections, notably in Brighton and Birmingham. Perhaps of most interest to many, recent disputes in the NHS and the Fire Service did catch the public’s attention but the disagreements have not lasted too long before some kind of resolution has been found. Generally speaking however, striking workers do not get the kind of attention they once did, except across the channel in France, where strikes have become almost the norm, particularly where cross-channel transport is concerned. French air traffic controllers also have something of a reputation for striking in summer, less so in winter, but the timing of such strikes tend to make most think they are less about pay and working conditions, more about making a political point – an accusation regularly aimed at union leaders in the UK.

1970s UK was once referred to as ‘The Sick Man of Europe’ due to the never-ending series of strikes called at the time, a tag long since shrugged off. France, as yet, hasn’t been given the same nom-de-plume but one part of the world not known for union militancy are the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Yet SAS, the national airline, is currently deep in the mire of a pilot strike, grounding some 70% of flights (the only departures still taking place are those of SAS Ireland and partner airlines flying subcontracted routes). The strike began last Friday (April 26) when flight deck crew withdrew their labour, initially stranding some 70,000 travellers as more than 600 flights were cancelled. Both numbers have grown considerably since and the carrier’s recent recovery from its financial woes has come to a grinding halt (see related stories - and also The Aviation Oracle).

According to Jacob Pedersen, a stock market analyst with Sydbank who specializes in the aviation industry, although the situation is unusual, it has been coming for some time. ‘It is remarkable, in a situation where there is a lack of pilots across Europe, that SAS has not seen loss of staff to other companies, if pilots are so dissatisfied with the package they currently have with SAS,’ he said. ‘Having said that, these pilots have had to put up with an incredible amount over the last 20 years in the form of various types of cutbacks.’ Along with many airlines, SAS suffered a financial crisis and as a consequences, management brought numerous cost-cutting exercises into practice and altered the airline’s business model considerably, without which the carrier would probably have gone out of business (as have other major state-owned and privately-owned airlines that failed to adapt). Salary increases are a major sticking point but the union has said that the biggest issues relate to working hours and scheduling. The SAS Pilot group said that their salary requests are in line with the market rate, while one SAS negotiator called their requests ‘unreasonable and extreme’. Pedersen noted that SAS cabin crew and pilots are primarily employed under Scandinavian-style contracts agreed with unions (overenskomst in Danish and kollektivavtal in Swedish), making staff a larger overhead for SAS relative to other airlines. He went on to say that, ‘the strike could have serious – and costly – consequences for SAS if the company is to meet the demands of the striking pilots’.

Despite the recent economic strains, the company has reported a profit in each of the last four years. ‘SAS looks like delivering a profit again this year, but this is all propped up by the cuts the company is making,’ Pedersen said. ‘And if that trend comes to an end, whereby SAS can save money every year, it won’t take many [financial] quarters before SAS is once again in the red and fighting for its future,’ he added.

It is this point that really comes to the fore; does there come a point where strikes over higher pay and better working conditions actually threaten the existence of the business itself? The question is not new.

Twenty-eight years ago, in January 1991, Eastern Airlines, one of the USA’s most well-established, pioneering airlines, went out of business after its finances became so bad the company was a lost cause. Yet throughout the years immediately preceding 1991, the airline was beset by disputes between its management and its staff, to the point where travellers simply stopped flying with the airline since they never knew whether or not their flight would go. The net result was the end of the airline but the question remains valid almost three decades later; undoubtedly there was some cack-handed management decisions and poor implementation of those decisions but how much of a contribution was made to Eastern’s demise by striking workers? Can one strike one’s way out of a job?

It has happened and the current dispute at SAS could end the same way.

© Kevan James 2019

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