Philippine Airlines workers fight retrenchment

In a major attack on workers’ rights, Philippine Airlines moved to retrench and lock out some 2600 workers and members of the Philippine Airline Employees Association (PALEA) between September 26 and October 1. PALEA has responded with a campaign of actions and the establishment of a protest camp at Ninoy Aquino International Airport.


PALEA demonstration Mendiola, March 28. Photo by Don Pangan.

The lockout is part of Philippine Airlines’ — the country’s main carrier — attempts to contract out many of its supposedly “non-core” functions such as airport services, in-flight catering and call centre operations. Management has moved to replace the permanent workers with contract services.

PALEA responded with demonstrations on September 27. During the protest, hundreds of Philippine Airlines employees were forcibly evicted from terminal 2 of Manila International Airport, and three were reported injured.

Flights cancelled

To keep up the pressure on the airline and the government, PALEA has set up picket lines outside the international airports of Manila and Cebu, the two biggest cities in the country. Every day more than a thousand workers staff the pickets in shifts. The effect on Philippine Airlines has already been significant, and it has been unable to resume normal operations. Seventy-one domestic and international Philippine Airlines flights were cancelled on September 30 due to a lack of staff.

PALEA is demanding that the airline open talks to resolve the labour dispute. In the meantime, workers are maintaining their protest camp. On October 2 PALEA staged a “family day” in which a bishop led an afternoon mass.

“Instead of going to the mall, eating out or just relaxing at home, PALEA members spent their first Sunday as officially jobless with their spouses and children at the protest camp”, Gerry Rivera , PALEA president and vice-chair of the Partido ng Manggagawa, explained.

On October 3 many workers from the camp travelled to the national Congress to press their cause. In a speech, Walden Bello a Congress member for the left-wing Akbayan party, called on the Congress to “investigate Philippine Airlines management’s wanton violation of workers’ rights — evicting workers from their posts, and unduly terminating their employment is wrong, and they must be made accountable for that”.

The government has consistently sided with management throughout the dispute. President Benigno Aquino III even accused PALEA on September 27 of “economic sabotage”. The National Police used the occasion of the workers’ visit to the Congress to hint that they would try physically to disperse the workers’ protest camp.

Meanwhile, the National Labor Relations Council dismissed PALEA’s unfair labour practices case against the airline management in early October. PALEA’s case was based on management’s refusal to enter into collective bargaining negotiations. The airline maintains that it will enter negotiations only after the outsourcing of workers has been completed. Gerry Rivera maintains this is “tantamount to refusal to bargain”.

The case is separate from a pending appeal on an outsourcing case the union has filed before the Court of Appeals, and the union is still studying other legal options.

Marcos crony

Philippine Airlines’ outsourcing plan follows a decade of attacks on workers’ conditions. The airline has been controlled and managed by Lucio Tan since 1993. Tan made his fortune during the Marcos dictatorship. The regime granted him an exclusive licence to establish Asia Brewery to compete with Marcos’ rivals who controlled San Miguel.

In 1998 PALEA was forced to accept the suspension of its collective bargaining agreement with the airline. For 10 years, PALEA sacrificed its right to collective bargaining in order to allow the nation’s flag carrier to recover while it went into “rehabilitation”. In 2007 the airline exited rehabilitation and in 2008 the collective bargaining moratorium expired. But rather than entering into negotiations, management instead announced its plans for outsourcing in 2009.

The airline management maintains its actions are a response to falling profitability. As Walden Bello pointed out, “By the time Philippine Airlines announced its plans for massive lay offs in the second half of 2009, they already had the knowledge of the improvement of the company’s financial standing.

“In March 2010, it was reported in the Business Mirror that Philippine Airlines ‘sees revenues rising from $1.08 billion to $1.5 billion between end-December to March this year,’ which Philippine Airlines confirmed with the Philippine Stock Exchange. Even the International Air Transport Association vouched for these projections. Projections that would show Philippine Airlines’ balance sheet improving.”

Union-busting

The outsourcing has nothing to do with the viability of the airline. It is simply an attempt to boost profits at workers’ expense.

The airline continues to operate, but at a much reduced level of service. Serious questions are emerging around the safety of services that rely now on poorly trained contract staff and management.

Meanwhile its union-busting aims have also become more apparent. The airline’s outsourcing program threw more than 60 percent of the union leadership out of work.

PALEA has said that management announcement that it no longer acknowledged PALEA president Gerry Rivera and union secretary Bong Palad as union officers “exposes union busting as the real aim of outsourcing”.

“Truly, a fish is caught by its mouth. Actually, PAL is not just (not) recognizing me and Palad as union officers but 62 percent of PALEA’s leadership and 70 percent of its membership who have been illegally locked out and terminated”, said Rivera in a statement.

“Outsourcing thus is tantamount to union busting,” he said.

Rivera said they would not have minded if airline president Jaime Bautista did not recognise them “as a matter of a personal grudge against the union. But the law recognizes us as the sole representative of PAL workers pending the resolution of the case filed before the courts on the legality of the outsourcing scheme.

“We remain PALEA officers and we will officially represent our members in whatever forum, including with the management”, he said.