Air India strike from April 2 looms large as talks fail

Mumbai: The debt-laden national carrier Air India is set for more troubles beginning next month with its employees, who have not been paid their dues for the past five months, on Thursday threatened to go on strike from April 2, as three rounds of talks with management failed here.

The strike warning followed the demand of the unions for a written commitment from the management that it will clear the entire dues before April 1, union sources told PTI. "As many as seven unions out of the 13 today had three rounds of meetings with the management here, but management could not give us a written commitment for full payment of our salaries and performance-linked incentives, which have not been paid for the past five months," union sources said.

"We are firm on our decision to go ahead with the strike from April 2, for which we have given notice months ago. We will reverse our decision only if our dues are cleared before April 1. We don`t believe in any of verbal assurances from this management," a senior Indian Pilots Guild official said.

"All the major Air India unions, including those of the pilots, met the management this evening here and we have assured them to clear salaries and performance-linked incentives of one month next early month; and clear all arrears by May when the government will infuse money," Air India spokesperson told PTI. The management also requested them not to strike as it will hurt the airline in the holiday season, the spokesperson said, adding "however, unions sounded adamant to go ahead with their proposed strike".

The official parried a query on whether the management was ready to give the unions a written commitment of payment. Last April, the IPG pilots had gone on an 11-day strike over wage imbalances. The latest strike call comes as the industry is entering the busy and profitable holiday season. The management side was represented by AI chief operating officer K M Unni, executive director for industrial relations Vineeta Bhandari, and executive director for finance S Venkat.

The unions which attended the talks included Indian Pilots Guild representing the erstwhile Indian Airlines pilots, and the unions representing the employees` union (AIEU), service engineers` union (AISEU), the maintenance engineers` union (AIMEU), the cabin crew association (AICCA) and the technicians` association (AITA), apart form the Indian Commercial Pilots Association (ICPA).

While a union official, who described the meetings as "very acrimonious," claimed that the management had finally agreed to give a payment schedule, a senior captain belonging to the IPG said nothing of that sort had been arrived at. According to the sources at one union, the management had given them a payment schedule, under which the employees, including the pilots, will be paid one month`s salary and PLIs on March 29, April 25 and May 25, with the rest of the arrears to be paid at one go after the capital infusion by the government, which is likely to happen towards the end of May.

Pilots even reportedly asked the management to stop paying to oil companies and instead pay to employees, and leave the oil payments to the government, cabin crew association member said. Another IPG captain said, "We will defer our strike plan only if the management gives us a written commitment towards clearing our dues." The crippled national carrier is sitting on debt mount of over Rs 67,0000 crore.

Meanwhile, an AI statement on Thursday clarified that none of its international flights were affected by the "reported strike" by a section of its cabin crew on Wednesday. "A section of the press has reported today that on March 21, our international flights were affected by delays and cancellations due to agitation and strike by the cabin crew. Air India would like to clarify that there were no disruptions or cancellation of flights operating on international sectors," said an official statement.