State-owned domestic airline Indian stands to lose more than some business because of the flash strike by its employees that started Tuesday night. It stands to lose its most valued asset perhaps: trust.
Radhika Verma, a passenger stranded at the Delhi airport, could not conceal her disgust. “I thought Indian is a trusted carrier but now I would think twice before flying with them.”
The strike violated Section 22 of the Industrial Disputes Act, which states no person employed in a Public Utility Service can go on strike without giving notice to the employer:
• Within 6 weeks before the strike
• Within 14 days of giving such notice
• Before the expiry of the date of strike specified
• During the pendency of conciliation proceedings
The strike caught Indian’s passengers by surprise across the country. Delays mounted, ending in cancellations, baggage clearance was chaotic, and counter staff — standing in for striking workers — became increasingly edgy.
Indian runs 194 flights every day. On Wednesday, it had logged 101 till late evening. The rest were cancelled.
The authorities hit back with lightning speed, saying the strike was illegal. Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel gave the strikers until Wednesday evening to return to work.
And when they didn’t, the Delhi High Court stepped in.
At a special sitting at 9.30 p.m., the court ordered the strikers to return to work immediately.
“Prima facie the strike appears to be illegal,” Justice J.P. Singh said. He clarified he was passing an interim order, and said he would hear the petition in detail on June 22.
Earlier, Minister Patel had read the striking workers the riot act.
“If they do not withdraw their illegal strike by this (Wednesday) evening, we will take stern action against them,” he said. “The financial package offered to the employees too might be withdrawn.”
Patel was referring to an earlier decision to pay the employees a package of Rs 267 crore as wage arrears since 2000. The strikers have demanded wage revision since 1997 and career progression on par with Air India.
A source, who did not wish to identified, said that meeting the additional demands of the union would result in an extra outgo of about Rs 200 crore that would bleed the airline further.
Twenty-seven striking employees were suspended. More are likely to be suspended if they do not return to work.
Chief labour commissioner S.K. Mukhopadhyay said, “The strike is automatically illegal (as no public utility service employee can go on strike without giving the employer a notice of strike).”
The Air Corporation Employees’ Union, which has over 11,700 members, said it was prepared for any action. Its general secretary J.K. Badola said: “We will never succumb to the minister’s pressure.”
Most Indian flights to and out of Delhi were delayed, while Mumbai and Kolkata suffered major cancellations.
Twenty-three flights were cancelled in Mumbai. There were complaints of counter staff losing patience with passengers.
“We are stuck in a city we do not know. We do not even know Hindi,” said Shweta Balakrishnan, who is from Chennai. “The staff is very rude. Is this the way a national carrier should behave?”
Kolkata was worst affected. Strikers, and in some instances, harried passengers, manhandled officers pressed into service to make good the shortage of staff on account of the strike.
A large number of the stranded passengers simply gave up on Indian and tried to find a seat on flights run by its privately owned rivals such as Jet and Kingfisher.
(With inputs from Mumbai and Kolkata)