Picketing the Airlines


Over the years it has become a tradition for aviation labour unions, especially the National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE), the National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE) and the Air Transport Service Senior Staff Association (ATSSSAN) to disrupt the operations of airlines, when they infringe on labour issues concerning the welfare of their workers, or when the management of these airlines discourage the plans by the workers to join unions.

Although this may be in conformity with international labour laws and for many years the unions have been given the recognition due to them by the management of airlines and agencies, but recently there are allegations that labour has started abusing this privilege by not exhausting negotiations before they go into physical disruption of airline operations.

It is the view of many industry observers that such disruptions should be the last resort when all other efforts have failed. But industry stakeholders said that the frequency of the disruptions indicates that the union leaders hastily adopt such strategy to redress their grievances.

Whenever labour pickets airlines or disrupts their activities such airlines lose huge revenues. In December last year, from 22 to 24, labour disrupted the operations of Arik Air over the allegation that the company refused to allow its workers to join labour unions. It is estimated that the airline lost about N650 million. This was a peak period of the Yuletide when airlines record 100 per cent load factor to almost all destinations.

What was particularly unfortunate about last December in Nigeria’s aviation history was that it was the period the country suffered chronic scarcity of aviation fuel, known as Jet A1. So for an airline to source the product at about N180 per litre and for its operations to be disrupted was not only frustrating but it led to huge financial losses, which Arik suffered under the nation’s economic recession that also climaxed at that period.
Many in the industry were of the view that labour might be right to picket the airline but noted that it lacked human face, knowing that part of the money generated would be used to pay the salary of workers, but that money was lost. Then stakeholders said the leadership of NUATE should have exhausted discussions before embarking on picketing the airline.

However, the General Secretary of NUATE, Olayinka Abioye made it known then there was evidence of efforts to talk with the management of Arik Air but it ended in deadlock, without the airline making any commitment.
Abioye had also made it known to the airlines and other organisations in the industry that the workers have implicit confidence in labour to negotiate their welfare with these organisations, so there has not been any question on the eligibility of the unions to interfere on behalf of the workers or to adopt any strategy to actualise their objective, which is aimed at improving the welfare of the workers.

But there are reasons why some industry observers accuse the labour leaders of insensitivity. They said that many airlines are not enjoying good financial health and they are operating in harsh environment with multiple charges and sometimes scarcity of aviation fuel which is sold at relatively exorbitant prices, noting that every ticket sale means a lot for these airlines. So when the operations of such airlines are disrupted, it affects their finances, their operational schedule and it also leaves many passengers stranded. They noted that these consequences should be factored in whenever they consider picketing the airlines.

Recently there was a failed attempt to picket Air Peace airline and disrupt its operations at the General Aviation Terminal of the Lagos airport over the allegation that the management of the airline did not allow its workers to join union.

THISDAY investigations, however, revealed that many of the workers were circumspect about joining labour, especially as many of them said that they trust their management and the welfare package, so it is their collective aspiration to ensure that the airline continues to do well. They added that they do not envisage any situation in future that would warrant their antagonising the airline management.
Spokesman of the airline, Chris Iwarah said the workers of the airline had resolved that they would not join labour unions and that the unions should recognise that the workers have the legal right to decide whether to join the unions or not.

“Without a doubt, we recognise the inalienable right of our staff to decide whether or not they wish to be members of any of the unions in the industry. It is the responsibility of the unions to sell themselves to our members of staff and not our obligation to compel them to join any group the law has not mandated them to belong. It is high time trade unions in the country knew that unionism is a matter of free choice, it can never be compelled,” he said.

Some industry stakeholders also talked about labour not allowing themselves to be used by the management of some organisations in the industry to drive an agenda that has nothing to do with the welfare of the workers or intrinsically related to the objective and aspiration of labour.

It is expected that what happened in Air Peace recently and what also happened in Arik Air earlier this year when the workers opposed planned disruption of activities at the airlines headquarters at the Lagos airport by labour should make the labour leaders to have introspection and realise that labour should be partners in progress with the airlines.