Need I say Moores

French revolution

The English saying “to take the shirt from somebody’s back” took on a whole new meaning after tensions erupted between Air France and its unions.

On Oct. 5, Air France announced plans to cut 14 long-haul aircraft and 2,900 staff. Needless to say, its unions weren’t happy - REALLY not happy - as you can see from these photos.

Tensions between European airlines and their unions are not new, but this sort of escalation is. The workers went on the attack and tore the executives’ shirts and suit jackets to shreds. Management fled the scene, accompanied by anti-riot police.

Air France usually keeps its professional composure, but it made reference to the violence in its press release. “The group strongly condemns the physical attacks that took place on the fringes of this Works Council, which were perpetrated by particularly aggressive isolated individuals,” it said.

The saying in the first sentence of this blog post means “to take so much of someone's money, for instance as a payment or punishment, that it is not fair and may cause them difficulties.” The unions feel the cost cuts and productivity measures are unfair punishment for their hard work. One banner read: “Work, yes…die? No.” However, the real decision may be to accept increased productivity, or the demise of Air France.

We saw a similar situation play out at SAS in late 2012. In a surprisingly frank exchange with ATW a few months later, SAS president and CEO Rickard Gustafson recalled walking into a make-or-break meeting with eight of the airline’s cabin crew and pilot unions. “Either we adapted, or the company could not continue to operate,” he explained. “I didn’t know if we were going to continue to operate in eight days’ time.” This was not stage drama to leverage a good deal with the unions. It was real.

“We cannot afford to carry costs our customers are not willing to pay for. They are not willing to pay for complexity, they are not willing to pay for a lack of flexibility in our administration and they are not willing to foot the bill for low productivity and generous pensions. We need to take the company down to competitive and market-based terms,” he told ATW in 2013.

This quote sums up the problem some European flag carriers are facing; they are sitting at the wrong end of every labor productivity graph. There is tough love, with fierce ultimatums between productivity agreements and job cuts.

Air France is threatening compulsory redundancies for those that don’t play ball, or voluntary departures for those that do. Neither are great options when you have a family to feed and a home life to support.

There is an us and them mentality. It’s a battle, rather than a partnership. Management are trying to win back power from their unions, who have held the upper hand for a long time and are not giving up without a fight.

Strikes cost money. Aircraft deferrals cost money. Redundancies cost money. A broken image costs money. But change is vital to Air France’s long-term future.

In the words of one ATW reader: “Workers have themselves to blame. There is a misguided belief in France that unsustainable losses are miraculously sustainable if everything stays the same. They think that by refusing change it will not come.”

If Air France didn’t exist, would it need to be invented? It would be like the failure of Malev, but on a bigger scale. Budget and network carriers would rapidly fill the short-haul void, with the Gulf carriers and Turkish Airlines swooping in to snatch any long-haul opportunities.

History doesn’t count as a valued commodity in the fiercely competitive global market place, unless you’re selling antiques. 

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