Philippine Daily Inquirer, 23 July 1998
"THE STRIKE will last until the airline closes. Unless PAL changes its position and recalls the retrenched workers, we will not stop the strike."
So warned Alex Barrientos, president of the 8,000-member ground crew union which yesterday went on strike at 3:30 a.m. to demand that the company recall the 5,000 workers who were laid off last month during the strike launched by the pilot's union.
President Estrada appealed to management and striking employees to remain open to an amicable settlement as the labor unrest was harmful to the economy as well as an embarrassment to the country.
Sa buong miyembro ng PAL, lagi nating isipin na hindi lamang ang international at domestic flights kung hindi ang ating ekonomiya ang naaapektuhan ng strike (Let us keep in mind that the economy as a whole is adversely affected by the strike), the President said in an interview with dzRH.
He was scheduled to meet with Lucio Tan (principal stockholder of the now privatized PAL; sg)and later have dinner at 7 last night with Labor Secretary Bienvenido Laguesma and labor leaders, among them officials of the PAL unions--Palea, Airline Pilots Association of the Philippines (Alpap) and Flight Attendants' and Stewards' Association of the Philippines (Fasap).
The President reiterated his willingness to mediate the dispute. He said he was scheduled to meet with Palea last week, but the union representatives failed to make it to Malaca=F1ang.
Members of the Philippine Airlines Employees Association (Palea) include reservation clerks, maintenance crew, caterers, cargo handlers and load controllers, who also service 19 of the 35 international carriers at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
PAL said a strike by its ground personnel could force Asia's oldest airline to close down after 57 years of operation.
Palea asked the riding public for utmost understanding, saying that it never wanted to go on strike. Palea is defending not just its survival, we are defending our very lives, the union said in a statement.
PAL, which reported a record P8.08 billion net loss in its fiscal year ending March 1998, said it was unable to make payments on about $2 billion of debt.
This reckless and ill-advised action, like a fatal blow, may ultimately crush Philippine Airlines, the company said in a statement.
By staging this illegal strike, Palea has put in jeopardy any proposed rehabilitation plan for the airline, and, with it, our last hope for survival as well, it added.
The Securities and Exchange Commission has the authority to approve the rehabilitation plan. If it withholds approval because of the labor dispute, the airline would have no option but to close.
SEC Chair Perfecto Yasay expressed concern about the strike's effect on the rehabilitation proposal.
Doubts had been aired on whether the President would take up the cudgels for the workers, because of his close ties with tycoon Lucio Tan, PAL's majority owner. Tan was said to be major contributor to Mr. Estrada's campaign.
On the other hand, it was also hoped that the President's relationship with Tan would enable him to convince the tycoon to reach a settlement with the strikers.
In a single day and without any kind of warning, the Lucio Tan PAL management ordered the immediate termination of 5,000 employees literally shattering their lives and their families. Worse it was done in a manner that was patently unjust and inhuman, Palea said.
The airline maintained its downsizing program was necessary for survival.
PAL said it tried to find acceptable solutions to the problem to avert a strike by exhausting all possible means of finding an amicable settlement with the management and the labor department.
Palea said it even met with Tan himself on Tuesday night in a last-ditch effort to avoid a strike. But to our dismay and to the detriment of the entire country which depends on PAL's continued reliability, the Lucio Tan group insists on their hardline position.
Manolo Aquino, PAL executive vice president, said that during a meeting with the union PAL offered to suspend its downsizing program for one month but the union stuck to its demand that employees already retrenched should be re-hired.
Aquino said that was impossible as PAL had cut back its operations by 80 percent since a pilots' 22-day strike last month and had no more positions for the retrenched workers.
He said the strike was illegal because the government's labor department had assumed jurisdiction and had warned labor unions against striking.
Labor Secretary Laguesma has vowed to push for continuing negotiations between PAL and Palea.
Earlier, he issued an order assuming jurisdiction of the dispute in a bid to avert a strike. In the order, Laguesma has asked Palea not to go on strike and for PAL to stop firing employees.
Laguesma clarified that he did not issue a return-to-work order to Palea on July 9. Palea cited Laguesma's alleged bias for PAL as indicated by the reported issuance of the order as one of the grounds for the strike.
June pilots' strike
In June, PAL was embroiled in a crippling pilots' strike that brought the company close to financial ruin.
At the height of the strike, PAL laid off 5,000 of its nearly 14,000 workers.
Palea then threatened to go on strike to demand the reinstatement of the terminated workers but the labor department assumed jurisdiction of the union's dispute with PAL on July 10 and prohibited any work stoppage.
The labor department also ordered the airline to suspend any more layoffs. The union, however, said it would go ahead with the strike plans.
The union filed a second strike notice with the labor department yesterday afternoon charging an illegal lockout, union busting and termination of union officers.
Palea's strike caused some delays in several domestic flights but failed to paralyze the airlines' operations.
As of presstime, regular flights to Tacloban, Cebu, Zamboanga, Cagayan de Oro, and Hong Kong proceeded with minor delays.
PAL said that as of 7 p.m. it was able to operate all its domestic and international flights out of Manila, except for two US-bound flights scheduled to depart later last night.
PAL said it dispatched 19 domestic flights and four flights to three Asian destinations.
Rolly Estabillo, PAL spokesperson, said the support of an overwhelming number of PAL's air and ground employees of management made it possible for the airline to continue its operation.
Estabillo said many rank and file employees crossed the picket line and manned their posts.
The strike was staged even as hundreds of PAL employees petitioned Barrientos to reconsider union plans to go on strike, citing that the airline may collapse.
Aside from asking Barrientos to reconsider the planned strike, the employees expressed support for PAL's rehabilitation. The employees also lamented the interference of non-PAL unions in the airlines' labor dispute.
Officials at Naia's ground handling operations said only a few PAL employees showed up for work and other airlines that use PAL ground crew had prepared contingency plans.
The non-strikers and ground crew from other airlines were expected to be capable of handling the services at the international airport during light traffic in the first half of the day but delays are expected to increase by the much busier afternoon period, according to airport sources.
No support outside Metro
The strike of the Manila-based Palea members did not seem to enjoy much support from their counterparts in the Visayas.
PAL employees on Mactan Island, Cebu, and the cities of Iloilo, Tacloban and Bacolod opted to report for work yesterday.
PAL was able to mount the scheduled flights in Tacloban, Cebu, and Iloilo yesterday although these were delayed by at least two hours.
In Bacolod, one incoming flight and another outgoing flight were cancelled, not because of the strike, but because there were only few passengers.
With the support of its ground personnel, PAL was able to mount, albeit delayed, three incoming and three outgoing flights in Mactan, Cebu; one incoming and outgoing in Bacolod and Tacloban; and two incoming and two outgoing in Iloilo.
Mike Villanueva of Palea Bacolod said that except for the group's spokesman Emilio Garingalao, most of the 32 PAL employees reported for work. But, he added, he expected more Palea members in Bacolod to join the strike in a few days.
Not a single PAL employee in Iloilo and Tacloban cities joined the strike.
Simeon Canton Jr., PAL spokesperson in Cebu, said all 400 retained PAL employees in Mactan Cebu International Airport did not join the strike.
But Clemencio Galindo, Palea board member in Cebu, belied Canton's claim, saying that at least 34 retained PAL workers joined the strike. Some 266 retrenched employees joined the mass action.
Still, he added, he was disappointed that most of the PAL ground personnel in Cebu reported for work.
The indefinite strike came days before Mr. Estrada's first State of the Nation Address and as the Philippines prepares to host an important diplomatic gathering.
The 31st Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) ministerial meeting opens this week in Manila.