Malevolent Malev

Pilots love their job - so what drives them to go on a strike?

One reason was evident when our colleagues from Malev Hungarian Airlines exhausted all other options and found the only way to force their company back to the bargaining table was a work stoppage. In late 2007 the state sold Malev. The majority of the shares were held by a Hungarian front man with the backing of a Russian firm controlled by Boris Abramovich.

By February 2008, the collective labour agreement had been terminated and a much worse one created. One of the basic pillars of any pilot union is the seniority system including last one in, first one out. This is how a pilot's life is structured in any successful major airline. By refusing the seniority system, the company turned to page one of union busting techniques: firing 'selected' pilots, not rostering others, forcing part time jobs on pilots that wish to work full time.

This is not the worst end of the low fares sector, but Malev, a European flag carrier.

Following a fleet reduction, the company notified over 100 pilots out of 310 that they may be dismissed. That's page two of union busting, spread fear and distrust among the members. The final toll… ten part time jobs and just two redundancies. In the spring of 2009 the company finds itself in a pilot SHORTAGE. Page three suggests a holding company to supply pilots on a very different contract with no benefits. Because of the lower costs, the company scheduled these crews for more hours. As with any other major airline, part of a pilot's salary comes from flight pay, so in addition to reduced terms and conditions, the Malev pilots have less flight time and subsequently less pay.

Page four of our union busting manual and in an incredible feat of managing to suck and blow at the same time, Malev announced further layoffs affecting approximately 40 pilots while at the same time hiring through the holding company.

On the other side of the negotiating table, Malev pilots showed incredible restraint. They did everything they should have done. Instead of looking inward and trying to solve their problem at the home association they reached out and publicised their plight. ECA and IFALPA were contacted and organised help from other MAs. An alliance meeting in Budapest was used as a platform for a protest march to Malev HQ gaining more publicity and generating support. As the negotiations broke off, the Malev pilots stayed united and planned a full blown strike. They were united, determined and ready. The happy news is that both sides returned to the negotiating table and signed a mutually agreeable collective labour agreement.

The economic crisis, inconsistent national labour laws, and eager investors for whom "social partnership" is an unknown word, will help spread union busting techniques throughout Europe. The Malev case also confirms fears about "flags of convenience". Why should I base my company in a state where the law is followed when I can base it in a state where peace and quiet can be bought? ECA calls on legislators to take note. In the meantime, pilot associations must be prepared, organized and united to be able to counter such threats - just as our colleagues from Hungarian ALPA were.