Workers’ union at Air France was right to protest

On October 5th, a group of around 100 protestors from a worker’s union interrupted an executive meeting at their employer’s offices.  The discussions largely concerned the redundancy of thousands of their colleagues. It proved a pro-active, democratic exercise.

However, it was depicted in the press quite differently. The protests at Air France offices, conducted by a worker’s union connected to the partially state-owned airline, dominated French media. Reports on the ripping of two executives’ shirts and the necessity of security to escort others away assumed centre stage, steering discussion away from any form of sympathy with the protestors.

Headlines included the Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, reiterating ‘the state of shock’ in which France now found itself; or Le Figaro dramatically proclaiming “Les Dirigeants d’Air France aggressés” (‘Air France management attacked’). Victimisation of executives filtered down into public opinion, where the consensus allowed the protests in theory – supporting the right to demonstrate – but condemned them in practice, denouncing their conduct.

The outcome has been bleak. After a revised plan, the airline still intend to make redundant 300 pilots, 900 in-flight attendants, and 1700 members of ground staff. A notable improvement from the original intention to demand of pilots an extra 200 hours per year without improving their salary. As one Guardian commentator pointed out, the ‘violence’ of the protestors is diminished in the face of the management’s brutally cut-throat approach.

The manner in which the protests appeared to escalate is, naturally, regrettable. Not only does it damage the image of the union Force Ouvrière as a non-violent organisation, but it also granted the now-dominant right-wing press an opportunity to exploit and manipulate the course of events.

Yet, considered in the wider context of worker maltreatment in the industry, the protestors are increasingly legitimised. The demonstration may be regarded as drawing public attention to the repressive, at times abusive, treatment of airline staff more generally. The Air France debacle at its heart unveils the conflict between welfare of employees and profit maximization, a battle in which capital is all too often the victor.    

Similar patterns recur elsewhere. In an anonymous interview with three employees, Swedish newspaper Expressen uncovered the suffocating employment regulations enforced by Qatar Airways. The company was found to reserve the right to terminate an employee’s contract for no given reason. Staff were required to remain single for five years whilst at Qatar, requiring special permission from the CEO in the case of marriage. At staff lodgings, curfews were imposed for non-working days, the violation of which led to the termination of employment.

Other cases include the company Latécoère’s widely-documented mistreatment of workers at a construction factory in Fauchana, Tunisia, producing crucial electrical parts to be distributed to airlines worldwide. Le Monde Diplomatique reported that, following the triumph of a coalition of worker’s unions – securing a cap on supplementary hours of work, 15 days of paid holiday and a substantial salary increase- operations were temporarily relocated back to France, due to the perceived threat of union activism. Moreover, the ‘ringleaders’ involved in negotiating the improved terms were identified and fired in March 2013, a dismissal deemed illegal by Tunisian authorities.

The voice of the airline worker is usurped by the overarching power of a combination of state and company authority. Unionism, an increasingly dirty word in the world of airline management, is repeatedly quashed as unnecessary, reckless and adversarial, and the media represents this opinion.   

The protestors at Air France had little other choice than to assert themselves – to make heard the voices of many whose grievances are silenced and subservient to the pre-eminent goal of so-called luxury service and capital gain.

Image Credit: Nick Benson

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