Taiwan: EVA air flight attendants’ strike shakes society

On 20 June 2019, the flight attendants of Taiwan’s private commercial airline EVA Air went on strike. Under the leadership of the Taoyuan Flight Attendants’ Union, with over 2,300 workers joining the strike, this is already the largest private sector strike in Taiwan since the end of the KMT dictatorship’s martial law in 1987. The strike has thus far caused more than 700 flight cancellations.

Due to the strike’s massive impact on air travel, it has gained widespread attention from all corners of Taiwanese society, with bourgeois media of all political persuasions slandering the striking workers as overpaid, spoiled “princesses”, while energetic discussions about the strike can be heard from social media, on the radio stations and in local restaurants. It is not an exaggeration to say that a decisive section of the Taiwanese working class is now viewing this strike as their own fight.

The strike

The workers, who are entirely female due to EVA’s women-only hiring policy for flight attendants, are striking for demands that include the end of excessively long work shifts, a right to be represented on the board of directors, the prohibition of non-union workers to freeride on union contract benefits, an increase in traveling expenses, and more. However, after 20 failed negotiations with management since April 2017, the EVA Air workers began their strike over management’s unrelenting attitude towards the demand for no-freeriding and workers’ representation on the company’s board.

The EVA Air flight attendants, who only were able to form their own union in July 2016, have historically endured low pay, long work hours, and brutally high service standards as demanded by the management. Although the negotiations for better working conditions have been taking place for a long time, the straw that broke the camel’s back was perhaps an incident in January of this year, when a notorious passenger known for throwing tantrums on the flight forced an EVA Air flight attendant to wipe his backside on the toilet after defecating. The victimised flight attendant revealed that similar behaviours on the part of this same passenger occurred repeatedly, and in early incidents EVA management chose to reprimand the crew instead of blacklisting the passenger.

In Defence of Marxism had a chance to visit the site of the EVA Air flight attendants’ picket line, set right outside of the gates to EVA Air’s Headquarters in Taoyuan, Taiwan. The surrounding area isn’t very populated and no traffic is obstructed. The picket is furnished with toilets, a medical station, a press table, a stage, and supply stations. The workers on the picket line endure days of rapidly alternating weather, between pouring rain and blistering heat.

The picket tent is surrounded by cops and security guards with camcorders videotaping the workers at all times. Some workers choose to wear facemasks as instances of online trolls doxxing individual striking workers have occurred.

As our correspondent arrived at the picket around noon on 26 June, the striking workers, numbering around 300-400, had broken out into small groups to discuss the terms of negotiations with management that they would propose the next day, line by line. These discussions continued into the early hours of the next day. The union leadership has promised that this was done in the interest of fostering democracy within the union, the results of the discussions will determine the terms the delegates will bring to the negotiation with management.

Eva Air 2 Image Parson YoungStriking workers discussing the terms their leadership would bring to the negotiation / Image: Parson Young

Shortly before the discussions took place, a contingent of Hong Kong’s Confederation of Trade Unions’ (HKCTU) delegates and workers of Hong Kong’s Cathay Dragon Air have arrived to show their support. A few days earlier solidarity letters from South Korean trade unions also arrived.

Struggle against management

The pressures from management has been mounting. EVA Airways Corp President Sun Chia-ming, along with all major bourgeois media, have been deploying brutal and at times strange tactics to try to bring the flight attendants to heel. From the start, management has threatened to cut the striking workers’ end-of-year bonus and impose disciplinary measures against them. On the night when the picket was erected, several thugs tried to break the picket, even resorting to spraying water onto the workers, to no avail. At one point, 15 flight attendants were stranded overseas for refusing to sign a no-strike pledge. On the eighth day of the strike, management even flew up a giant balloon appealing to the striking workers to “come home (to work).” To which some workers pointed out that management claimed to have no time to negotiate, but appear to have the time and money to spend on such shenanigans. EVA Air management is now trying to hire scabs, even breaking its own rule of never hiring male flight attendants.

But one of the most consistent weapons that management has been using against the flight attendants has been contingents of corporate office/ground logistics workers. Due to the leadership of the flight attendant union’s commitment to abide by the law, they were legally prevented to organise beyond their craft, let alone beyond their company. This gave management ample opportunity to spread propaganda among the ground logistics workers, who lack competent labour leadership and have had to endure extra work due to the strike. This created an unfortunate situation where ground logistics workers appear to be largely unsympathetic to the flight attendants, and a minority of them were even mobilised by management to heckle the picket line.

Although the flight attendants have been trying to fraternise with the ground logistics workers through slogans and demanding EVA Air’s management to increase the wages to ground logistic workers during the strike, the effectiveness of these measures are ultimately limited by the organisational division between them and the logistics workers. This is the result of the union’s choice to follow Taiwan’s restrictive, Byzantine strike-breaking laws, where strikes ultimately require the government’s approval. Had the union leadership been able to actively organise among all workers of EVA Air and beyond in preparation for the present action, a thunderous labour action, which necessarily breaks the law, would have been able to deal much more damage to management and even challenge the government.

We do not need to look beyond Taiwan’s own history to know that every struggle that brought real progress in society was ultimately illegal, from the strike wave for worker-controlled unions in the late 1980s that accelerated the transition from authoritarianism to bourgeois democracy, to the recent Sunflower Movement that permanently crippled the KMT. The legal system and the entire government, in the final analysis, forms the capitalist state that will always be partial to the capitalists at the expense of the working class. As Marx and Engels explained in the Communist Manifesto: “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” Organising the workers within the confines of the states’ rules and laws ultimately means playing by the terms set by the bourgeois class, which would prevent the working class from exercising its full power in society.

Eva Air 3 Image 我挺長榮罷工Facebook PageEVA Air Vice-president Ho Ching-sheng at one point heckled the picket / Image: 我挺長榮罷工Facebook Page

In the same vein, it is entirely unsurprising that all major media outlets in Taiwan, that are also owned and controlled by the capitalist class, are united in their antagonism to this strike. The pro-DPP, and pro-KMT/China media companies, who would ordinarily (superficially) be at each other’s throats, suddenly stand united, and act with efficiency in spreading slanders, misinformation, or otherwise blatantly pro-management reporting about the striking workers. The fiercely pro-KMT/pro-China China Times has spread various rumors about flaws in the strike vote. They’ve also claimed that a previous pilots’ strike in February 2019 was the result of flight attendants bullying and intimidating the pilots into going on strike. The pro-DPP media outlet, Liberty Times has been almost exclusively reporting on how much the passengers have been victimised by the strike. In a previous report in 2017, Liberty Times even claimed that the rising labour movements in the airline industry have been directed by the CCP!

Shockwave through society

Against the onslaught from management and bourgeois media, the flight attendants are standing strong in their strike. A major source of their strength come from the widespread and energetic support from all corners of society. The impact of this strike on society is causing broad attention, educating a whole generation of the Taiwanese working class on the need to use strikes as a weapon to defend their own interests.

To counter the pressure of the bourgeois media’s tireless slander against the workers, a public Facebook group, Fight for EVA Strike, was started by friends and families of the flight attendants. Initially the group was intended to function as an information bulletin and discussion group about the strike. In the eight days since its creation, the group has now reached over 21,600 members. Workers, passengers, activists and sympathisers from all walks of life have shown their support within this group, and several highly engaged discussions about how to counter media slander and broaden public support for the strike took place. Supporters took it upon themselves to donate supplies, create pro-worker memes, debunk slanders with research, make suggestions, share historical and/or international examples of successful labour actions, or publish emotional appeals to help the flight attendants press on.

Outside of the picket line, the correspondent from In Defence of Marxism met a worker from the local area who doesn’t personally know any of the striking flight attendants, but still sat outside of the picket line with a headscarf showing support. He was even trying to convince the cops to back down by himself. He was there because he wanted to meet other workers who, like him, believe that class militancy is necessary. We were able to speak at length about a wide range of topics. Although we disagreed on whether it is possible to gradually reform the present social system, we agreed that there is no longer a need for profit motive, and that the working class should be able to directly control politics. We parted ways with the agreement that there is no need to fear if those holding the right ideas are at present in the minority, because if these ideas are what is needed in our age, they would inevitably start to spread beyond ourselves, and there is a need to actively promote them within the working class.

This is an unprecedented opportunity to raise the level of the class struggle in Taiwan for the benefit of working people. Many members of the Facebook group and beyond clearly recognise the historical significance of the present strike. The leaders of larger industrial organisations, although they are small in number, must mobilise for support through industrial actions and bring people into the streets.

As expected, nefarious and alien elements have been trying to insert themselves into the movement for their own benefit and ultimately weaken the strike from within. A number of politicians from the DPP, KMT, and NPP have popped into the picket tent to voice their support, in an attempt to redirect the workers’ energy and faith into parliamentarianism rather than their own direct actions. But let us be clear that politicians from these bourgeois parties are the very same who did nothing in the Legislative Yuan to fight for workers’ interests. For example, DPP Legislator Chung Kung-chao, who used to be the president of the Taiwan Confederation of Trade Unions, voted in favor of the DPP’s bill to slash 7 paid national holidays for the workers in 2016. The workers must remain completely independent from any bourgeois political organisations and fight to build a party that represents their own class.

A sea change in class struggle

The present struggle and the massive interest in it from Taiwanese society is not at all accidental. It is a part of the international drive of the working masses towards struggle. Concurrent to this strike we see revolutionary events in Sudan, Algeria, Honduras as well as mass demonstrations or strike actions in the United States, Hong Kong, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Kazakhstan, and many more countries. These struggles are all rooted in the crisis of global capitalism which has consistently driven the capitalist class to attack the welfare and interests of the workers, which in turn causes the latter to abandon their old habits in order to find new methods and tactics that can permanently resolve the worsening conditions they live in.

Eva Air 4 Image Image Flickr Studio IncendoThe union leading the present strike in Taiwan showed active solidarity with Hong Kong’s recent movements / Image: Flickr, Studio Incendo

Within Taiwan, the very same crisis has produced a new, young layer of workers with advancing consciousness, which at present is concentrated in the industrial area of Taoyuan and is most pronounced in the Airline industry. A watershed movement in this process was the 2016 China Airline strike, which saw the radicalising rank-and-file workers overthrowing their decades-long yellow union leadership and winning gains through a militant strike. The experience also gave rise to a change of advanced workers’ tactics in orienting to the broader masses. China Airline Employee Union’s General Secretary, Zhu Meixue, who obtained his leadership after being in the union’s left opposition for decades, embarked on an explicitly class independent mayoral campaign in Taoyuan, as well as initiating a process in laying the foundations for a future labour party in Taiwan. Zhu’s campaign chief of staff, Lina Cheng, is also the secretary general of the Taoyuan Flight Attendants’ Union that was formed shortly before the successful China Airline strike in 2016. This union’s leadership is now leading the present EVA Air strike.

The Taoyuan Flight Attendants’ Union is also broadening the horizon of struggles in Taiwan. During the million-strong anti-extradition mass movement in Hong Kong, the TFAU and other unions organised a petition that included over 20 unions and many individuals, showing solidarity with the Hong Kong masses, while criticising the Taiwanese and Hong Kong governments’ policies in weakening the working class, as well as demanding for a right to stage political strikes, which remains illegal in Taiwan.

How to move forward?

These advanced perspectives are independently approaching the Marxists’ programme to transform society, showing that the Taiwanese working class is fully capable of drawing radical and courageous conclusions to defend their own interests. However, further steps need to be taken to fully unleash the power of the working class, the only class that is capable of transforming society.

Aside from the aforementioned points regarding the need to disregard bourgeois laws and the state while organising the workers, the labour leadership and the working class must realise that collaborating with the bosses will not resolve their problems. A key demand for the present strike is to include a worker representative on the company’s board of directors. Many have understood this as a reasonable measure to help the bosses understand the concerns of the workers and potentially operate the entire business in a more humane way. The EVA Air management’s fierce opposition to this demand notwithstanding, even if this demand was somehow achieved, such a “worker’s member of the board,” due to the supremacy of the profit motive, would not be able to stop the inevitable attack on workers’ rights or could even become co-opted into the ruling structure. If the workers were to send a representative into the board, this representative’s only role should be to expose the irrational, gluttonous, and chaotic inner workings of the corporate bosses to the rank and file of the union and broader society, in so doing showing that the working class has no other choice but to take control of industry and operate it according to the needs of society.

The present struggle also needs to be broadened not only throughout the country, but beyond the confines of Taiwan. The international capitalist political system shuns Taiwan due to the maneuvering between US and Chinese imperialism, but Taiwanese workers will find millions of brothers and sisters of their class across the world. The Taiwanese labour leadership must build upon the ties they have with the Hong Kong and South Korean labour movements and actively connect with the working class internationally. Conversely, leaders of the world’s most powerful aviation workers’ organisations like Sara Nelson of the Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO have a duty to voice their support and solidarity with this strike.

On 28 June, the union leadership was suddenly summoned by EVA Air’s chairman, Lin Bou-shiu for a meeting in the presence of EVA Air president, Sun Chia-ming and Deputy Minister of Labour, Liu Shih-hao. Management made a set of counter proposals to the union that includes a no-revenge clause; a slight increase in travel expenses calculated by trip rather than by hour as demanded by the union; an agreement to a monthly management-labor meeting rather than labour representation on the board; allowance for overnight stays for flights to Tokyo and Beijing, and more.

Management attempted to bully the union delegates into signing onto the counter proposal and immediately end the strike, but the delegates instead brought the terms back to the picket line for a discussion and a vote. After an overnight voting, the union leadership announced that union members have voted to agree to the terms on 3:30pm 29 June local time, but will not end the strike until a formal negotiation has been conducted. While the results of the vote were not published, a significant number of participants in the strike support Facebook group and union members are appealing for the strike to continue, as they do not believe management’s terms are good enough. A campaign of “Keep on Striking, We Got Your Back (繼續罷,我挺妳)” was launched in the Fight for EVA Strike group.

All Marxists, socialists, militant workers and consistent democrats around the world must support and pay close attention to this strike and the development in Taiwan.