The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA earlier this month became the latest in a growing number of international labor unions announcing their support for a public boycott of Philippine Airlines (PAL) for its attack on its longtime employees. In a letter to PAL management, AFA-CWA President Vera Shook said that the union would support the boycott until the company ends its lockout and outsourcing scheme that has cost 2,600 workers their jobs.
The workers are members of the Philippine Airlines Employees Association (PALEA), who provide ground services such as baggage handling, in-flight catering, and call-center reservations. Back in 2010, Lucio Tan, the billionaire owner of PAL and its sister airline Air Philippines, announced that the company planned to reclassify the PALEA members as contract workers who would be managed by a third-party operator.
Tan’s decision to make the workers contract employees meant that the workers would be unable to bargain collectively. It also meant that they would be joining the ranks of a growing international precarious workforce that works under temporary contracts with few social protections and few, if any, benefits.
“Your employees want a life of dignity for workers and their families, and recognition for the sacrifices they have made to make your airline profitable,” Shook said in her letter. “We will stand in support of the public boycott of Lucio Tan-owned PAL and Air Philippines until management has heeded workers’ demands for a return to their regular jobs.”
Tan’s decision to make work more precarious is a popular strategy among capitalists for reducing labor costs and shifting more of the risk of business to their workforce.
The PALEA fight against their reclassification began in 2010 shortly after Tan’s announcement, and reached a crescendo last September when a few days before the reclassification took place, PALEA members demonstrated in front of a PAL terminal at the Manila airport. Some members inside refused to leave their jobs and were forcibly evicted by police and airport security personnel called in by PAL management.
PALEA set up a camp site near the terminal and continued to picket the airline. In October, the camp was attacked by thugs hoping to intimidate the workers and force them to leave. However, they have maintained their camp and their picket line.
This fight has a long history. Thirteen years ago PALEA was forced to give up its right to collective bargaining with PAL in order to help the airline remain solvent. Since then the company’s economic prospects have improved considerably. In fiscal year 2011, the company reported $76 million in net income. But the company wants to continue to avoid collective bargaining with PALEA and chose to do so by reclassifying its members.
The union has expanded the fight beyond the campsite. Workers demonstrated at national Congress while inside sympathetic lawmakers urged the Congress to investigate PAL for violating worker rights. The union also filed an unfair labor charge with the Philippine labor board and a separate lawsuit in court. The labor board dismissed the unfair labor charge, but the lawsuit is still pending before an appeals court.
In January, PALEA President Gerry Rivera traveled to Washington to testify before the Office of the US Trade Representative about the suppression of labor rights in the Philippines. He was asking for a ruling that the Philippine government had violated labor rights. Such a ruling would threaten the Philippines’ favorable trade status with the US.
“We submit that Philippine government has abused its power to assume jurisdiction of strikes thereby curtailing workers’ rights to freely organize and bargain collectively,” Rivera said in his testimony.
PALEA has also asked unions and people who support workers rights to boycott PAL and sign a solidarity statement in support of the boycott addressed to Tan.
In an appeal for international support, PALEA writes:
Three typhoons have come and gone yet PALEA’s protest camps outside the international airports of Manila and Cebu remained strong and defiant. Heavy rains and soaked sleeping mats failed to dampen the fighting spirit of PALEA members. Every day several hundred workers man the pickets in shifts.
The lockout must stop, the outsourcing plan should be scrapped and the workers should be allowed to return to their jobs as regular workers. PALEA needs your moral and logistical support.