Singapore Government Clips Pilot Union's Wings

Air Line Pilot, February 2004, p.34

This decision shows what can happen when the balance of power tips too far toward governmental control of unions. In one fell swoop, the Singapore government has stripped the pilots of their voice.
óCapt. Duane Woerth, ALPA President

In the "It canít happen here" department, U.S. and Canadian pilots should take note of what happened recently to the Singapore Airlines Ltd. pilotsí union, the Air Line Pilotsí Association of Singapore (ALPA-S).

After Singapore Airlines management was able to cut wages because of the adverse effect of the SARS health crisis, ALPA-S voted to fire its entire leadership. The pilots said union leaders had not handled the negotiations aggressively enough.

Singapore Airlines posted a $181.1 million (U.S.) loss in the first quarter of 2003, but rebounded with a $177.6 million profit the following quarter.

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Nonetheless, after long negotiations with union leaders and mediation by the Industrial Arbitration Court and the Singapore government, company management was able to reduce wages between 5 and 16.5 percent temporarily and to require compulsory unpaid leave for its 1,700 pilots.

Singapore usually enjoys a relatively tranquil business climate because of the unique relationship between the government, employers, and unions.

Under the arrangement, unions rarely openly challenge the government or their employers. ALPA-S is the only union in Singapore to have the right of seeking consent from its members, or membership ratification, a privilege it has enjoyed since 1980.

Claiming the unionís action could threaten Singaporeís economy, the government moved quickly to curb the long-held right of member approval. The Singapore Ministry of Manpower planned to amend the Trade Unions Act to remove the requirement that ALPA-Sís executive committee seek approval from its members before committing to collective agreements.

"This decision shows what can happen when the balance of power tips too far toward governmental control of unions," observes ALPAís president, Capt. Duane Woerth. "In one fell swoop, the Singapore government has stripped the pilots of their voice."

The city-state Singapore government will also ban foreigners from serving on the ALPA-S board. Under current rules, two foreigners are allowed to serve on the 22-member executive council. According to ALPA-S officials, just under half of the unionís members are non-Singaporean.

The government said it was taking the actions because the "confrontational industrial relations" reflected by the unionís action could put jobs and the Singapore economy at risk. The government also challenged company management to work on its labor administration skills, noting that Singapore Airlines would have to pay competitive wages to retain its best workers and regain the loyalty of its pilots. The government owns 55 percent of the airline.