The Bombay High Court has turned down a petition by the Air India Employees Guild (AIEG) to stay election proceedings – a judgement which will help cut drastically the number of recognised unions in Air India to two from the current 15. Once implemented, this would be the single-largest human resources (HR) transformative step in the airline’s history.
The national carrier has drawn up a blue-print to rationalise the number of recognised unions in the airline from 15 to two — one union for pilots and the other for all other employees. The selection of the two unions will be done through an electoral process. The airline’s two subsidiaries — Air India Engineering Services Limited (AIESL) for maintenance repair and overhaul and Air India Air Transport Services Limited (AIATSL) for ground handling — would have between them another three recognised unions.
The proposal, a brain-child of director (personnel) N K Jain, has been designed to ensure efficient decision-making during negotiations between the management and union representatives. When contacted, Jain confirmed the development. “We are looking at rationalising the number of unions to facilitate efficient decision-making during negotiations between union representatives and the management. Multiplicity of unions leads to conflicting demands, which often comes in the way of fruitful negotiations. We are looking at scaling down the number of recognised unions via elections,” Jain said.
The two unions in Air India and the three additional ones between AIESL and AIATSL will be selected through an electoral process, scheduled to be held on August 19-20, 2015. Air India currently has around 21,000 employees (including those at AIESL and AIATSL). The move from Air India draws parallel to similar procedure by the Indian Railways which in 2007 had reduced the number of unions from 34 to two. As many as 1.4 million railway employees decided the number of unions, as well as their leadership, through secret ballot.
“According to the electoral norms decided upon, if any union which gets more than 50 per cent of the votes, it would be recognised by the management. If, however, a union ends up with 35 per cent of the votes, there could be one major and one minor union. So, theoretically, there is a chance that the mainline airline body and AIESL can have four instead of two unions each. But for all practical purposes, the intention is to have five recognised unions between Air India and its two subsidiaries,” informed another executive in the airline.
A committee headed by Krishna Mohan Sahni (former secretary, Ministry of Labour) had submitted its final report to Air India recommending modalities for the rationalisation drive earlier in April this year. The committee members talked with a cross-section of people and took into account views of all factions. They have recommended norms for recognising and synergising operations between unions associated with erstwhile Air India and Indian Airlines.
Besides Sahni, other members of the committee include Raja Sridhar, executive board member, International Transport Workers’ Federation, retired chief labour commissioner S K Mukhopadhya and Ajit Nigam (advisor, IR, Indian Railways).
An industry insider who did not wish to be identified said, “Fewer unions means they would have higher bargaining power to get their legitimate demands accepted, rather than one being pitted against the other. Multiplicity of unions helps none other than, perhaps, union leaders.”
Debilitating strikes by unions have severely hampered AI’s operations in the past. In May 2012, the Indian Pilots’ Guild, which represents pilots of erstwhile Air India, went on a 58-day strike to protest against the promotion procedure and the induction of pilots from erstwhile Indian Airlines in training programmes to fly Dreamliners. Subsequently, the Indian Pilots’ Guild was derecognised by former civil aviation minister Ajit Singh.