Taiwan: interview with EVA Air Union activist Kuo Chih-yen

We publish an interview our Taiwanese comrades held with Kuo Chih-yen: one of the leading activists in Taiwan’s EVA Air Union. She played an active role in 2019’s historic EVA Air flight attendant strike that shook Taiwan’s society.

Prior to the strike, Ms. Kuo is already known for publicly criticising EVA Air’s management for failing to respond to an incident where she was forced to aid a passenger to use the lavatory and wipe his backside. As the strike was coming to a close, the EVA Air management used a screenshot of her private comments to charge her for “bullying” and “threatening flight safety” and thus fired her and turned her in to the police for criminal investigations. Kuo later requested Taiwan’s Ministry of Labor to rule on EVA Air’s unfair labor practice, but on 12 March 2020, the MoL ruled that the leaking of her screenshots has damaged EVA Air’s reputation as an enterprise and thus her firing does not constitute an unfair labor practice.

On 21 March 2020, the Taiwanese members of the International Marxist Tendency spoke with Ms. Kuo and her attorney Mr. Shen on behalf of our local outlet The Spark and our international website In Defence of Marxism. During this interview, Ms. Kuo shared valuable experiences of labor organizing and strike actions, EVA Air’s appalling treatment to their employees, and the pressures and challenges that Taiwan’s labor movement currently faces.

From this interview with Ms. Kuo, we can see the extraordinary extent that the Taiwanese capitalist class goes to maximize exploitation of workers for profit, just as their counterparts around the world. At the same time, although still in a preliminary stage, Taiwan’s labor movement is already moving in a bolder and more-militant direction. A new generation of youth entered the workplace not with the promise of a bright future in an era of economic boom, but with the gloomy prospect of a worsening capitalist crisis. The objective situation led them to understand that, only by struggling as a class, can every worker maintain their basic needs.

From Kuo’s experience, we also see the bias of the nation state towards the bourgeoisie. Marxists understand that these biases from the government are not a question of the attitude of individual politicians or political parties, but because the capitalist state is, as the Communist Manifesto illustrated, “committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” This is especially true for Taiwan, where there is not yet a mass workers’ party democratically operated by the working class, who have to “choose” between two bourgeois parties dominated by the bosses and imperialist forces. Thus, the hope that the government is capable of “upholding justice” has always been a useful illusion for the ruling class. Under the system of the Republic of China (or any capitalist state around the world), all the legislation and procedures regarding labor-management relations are ultimately set to favor the capitalist class. Workers who follow these rules will inevitably have to make concessions and face defeat. For more on these please see our analysis of the EVA Air Strike of 2019.

Taiwan strike Image Taoyuan Flight Attendant Union Facebook PageMs. Kuo Chih-yen was an activist in the historic EVA Air Strike of 2019 / Image: Taoyuan Flight Attendant Union Facebook Page

Additionally, although the present scale of Taiwan’s labor movement isn’t very big, and there are cases where individual workers would make comments that damage class solidarity on the internet, the consciousness of the Taiwanese workers is being changed thanks to the national and world crisis of capitalism, and is being pushed towards a more militant direction, just as their class brothers and sisters around the world.

Yet, as the Taiwanese workers fight for their own basic rights and interests, they must understand that the capitalist class is inherently interested in minimizing the pay and conditions of workers to maximize their profits. This profit motive not only creates the horrible conditions workers face in society today, it is actively detrimental to human society as a whole. From climate change to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, these crises that concern the entire world have been constantly bogged down by the question of “how to make profit,” which prevents direct and rational solutions from being implemented. Only when the working class takes over the property, wealth, and resources controlled by EVA or other such corporations, and uses them to directly supply the needs of society, can we fundamentally resolve all the oppression that workers face, along with all the contradictions in capitalist society.

The above are our own views and do not reflect those of the interviewee. The comments below are also views of the interviewee only.

Interview with Kuo Chih-yen

The Spark: Can you introduce yourself to our international readers, as well as some experiences of your struggles?

Kuo Chih-yen: My name is Kuo Chih-yen. I began working at EVA Air in April 2011, and was fired in July 2019. (The EVA Air branch of the Taoyuan Flight Attendant Union (TFAU) and the EVA Air Union that I helped organize) were built after the 2016 China Airline strike.[1] Although the China Airline strike only went on for 24 hours, (its actions and results) were very inspiring for us. The people who would go on to found the EVA Air Union first joined the TFAU as it is open to any flight attendants.

After the China Airlines strike in 2016, the EVA Air management preemptively improved the benefits of the flight attendants without us even taking any action. Previously, EVA Air’s flight attendants’ per diem rate was $63 NTD per hour (around $2 USD), while China Airlines flight attendants’ rate was $3 USD per hour before they went on strike. But if we work on flights to the US, just a lunch would cost around $10 or even $20 USD, and neither companies’ per diem rates were enough to cover that. After China Airlines flight attendants went on strike, they won a per diem rate of $5 USD per hour. Before the EVA Air flight attendants made any moves, management suddenly raised our rate to $90 NTD per hour (around $2.97 USD).

At the time, we thought that EVA Air’s management might have feared that we would follow the example of the China Airline strike, so they felt the pressure to give us these raises. A group of us thus started to ask those around us whether they want to join the TFAU. At the time I was working at the business class cabin and was rather new at the job. When we began to look for new members we had to be very low key, almost like a secret society. We first printed a few copies of union membership applications, and we’d privately ask others in the crew: “hey! Want to join?” “Join what?” they’d ask. “Join the union”, we’d say. Sometimes, after new members filled out their applications, they couldn’t figure out who to turn it in to, because they were afraid of giving it to the wrong person who might be surveilling the workers on behalf of management. They were also afraid to directly mail their applications to the TFAU’s office. We then considered how to collect their applications in a safe way. At the time, my mother bought a house in Nankan, and this house’ address wasn’t on EVA Air’s records. As I was staying there at the time, I proposed that new members could just mail their applications to that place. Some new members were too afraid to address their mail to “the union,” so I jokingly suggested that they can address their mail to “Nankan Pepper.”

China airlines strike 1 Image ScoutT7The China Airlines’ strike of 2016 inspired EVA Air workers to organize their strike / Image: ScoutT7

Later we collected about 800-900 union applications, so we started to get everyone into the TFAU. Only three to four months later, we got over 2,000 members to join the union. It was quick. We were surprised that this small, secretive organization could balloon to a size that can stand up to management. We were so emboldened that we later directly distributed union applications directly into the employee mailboxes at the office, and openly asked anyone who wanted to join us to take a copy, and could turn them directly to me after filling them out. The union grew to a size that made everyone feel safe and no longer needed to be afraid, all within three months.

The group of founding members was around 20. At the time, we had no meeting space, so some of us went to a clothing store that an ex-coworker owns, pulled down the roll-down gates, and had our meeting there. Around 10 or so of us were crammed into her tiny storefront to discuss how to organize in the middle of a typhoon, yet we were enthusiastic because we yearned for a union. We wanted a union like what the China Airline flight attendants have. From there, this union suddenly grew after four to five months.

In Taiwan, there are different categories of unions. (Legally speaking), company unions are the most legitimate. (As TFAU) was a craft union that included members who work for China Airlines, Tigerair Taiwan, (and previously) Transasia Airways, and Far East Air Trans, the EVA Air management accused the TFAU as an “outside union” because it didn’t consist purely of EVA Air workers. According to Taiwan’s law, only 31 workers are required to form a company union that holds the most legal legitimacy. Thus, after we joined the TFAU, we also rallied 31 “heroines” and went to the Ministry of Labor to register the EVA Air Union.

After EVA’s management discovered that we’ve registered for a union, they created an “EVA Air Corporation Affiliated Enterprises Union (EACAEU)” as a company union that competes with us. At the same time, we heard some complaints from the outside that “TFAU and the EVA Air Union are the same set of people” (to question our legitimacy). However, as we’ve registered the union first, we have just as much legitimacy, so now EVA Air has multiple unions.[2]

Kuo at attorneys office Image Ian TsaiThe Spark/In Defence of Marxism sat down with Ms. Kuo for an interview / Image: Ian Tsai

The Spark: So this EACAEU is a union propped up by management as a means to hit out at the worker-run union?

Kuo: Yes. All you need to do is to look at their leadership composition such as the president and delegates, which are all upper management of the company, which indicates how genuine this union is.

As a crew member, we signed onto five-year contracts. In the beginning, many were afraid that joining a union would cause the company to not renew our contract, or just outright fire us. Many believed that: “as long as I don’t stir up trouble, whatever problems I have I can trust my instructor or manager to make the best decision on my behalf.”

(But the real conditions remain outrageous.) When I started my job, menstrual leaves would only be granted with a note from a hospital that EVA Air recognizes, which is a lot for just having a period. Once, I wanted to take a menstrual leave, when I went to the hospital the doctor asked me: “you work at EVA Air, right?” I said yes, and he said: “your company reviews the requests very strictly,” which I agreed about. He said, “so I’ll have to see if you are really only having a period,” and I had to let him give me an internal exam right then and there. I’m just having my period, yet I had to open my legs for him to see if I am actually bleeding. Even outside doctors are scared of EVA management.

The company’s disrespect for our privacy doesn’t end there. Employers don’t have a right to open up my personal belongings. Yet when we return from flights to places like Europe, they would bring us to a small room and open our luggage to search for what they consider to be contraband, such as purses or anything above our quota. If they find anything they think breaks the rules, they would unleash a wave of punishments. It is very authoritarian.

Other than that, and besides the “bottom-wiping incident” that I experienced, there was yet another. One day, someone anonymously told EVA management that a flight attendant was involved in a pornographic film in Holland and that this film is already on the internet. (The company’s first reaction was to accept these accusations and begin a witch hunt.) My manager canceled the shift of one of my coworkers who looked similar to the person in the film and brought her to the little room and forced her to watch the porn movie for over three hours. During this, they kept asking her: “Is this you?”, which she denied, because it really wasn’t her. They then demanded her to prove that it wasn’t her, and even started asking her outrageous questions such as: “do you have a boyfriend? Is he Taiwanese or foreign? Do you film yourselves during sex? Do you film yourselves like this?” She was locked in a small room surrounded by two to three people bombarding her with these kinds of questions. One of them even pointed to the porn and asked her: “you see she (the person in the film) has a mole in this part of her body, do you have one there?” She was forced to go to great lengths to prove that she wasn’t the same person. Later, it was shown that the person in the film is a pornographic actress and not my coworker. These managers used to be flight attendants themselves, but once they got their positions in the offices they started to manage flight attendants with such authoritarian methods.

In addition, before we went on strike, EVA Air only hired female flight attendants, no men. As we all know, the corporate culture of Chang Yung-fa (founder of Evergreen Group, EVA Air’s parent company) treats women poorly. Women are first to be examined whenever a problem arises. (The management) feels entitled to do so because firstly because we are “their” employees, and secondly because we are women. (They’d say) since they pay us higher wages than other airlines, we deserve to be scrutinized this way. Imagine if this happens to your own daughter, wouldn’t you be mad? At that point, I started to realize unions are important.

The Spark: You mentioned that the EVA Air management created a “Corporation Affiliated Enterprise Union.” Has this yellow union already taken action against your own union?

Kuo: they haven’t taken actions against us per se, but more like taking advantage of our struggle. For example, whenever we make the same demand to management as they do, they would always get it instead of us. The management will let them take all the good things.

On the other hand, most of our demands tend to be very different from theirs. For instance, as a member of the job safety committee representing the union, I once demanded management to replace metal cutlery for plastic ones to reduce the weight of the meal cart. This would maintain the safety and health of the crew. The “Corporate Affiliated” union would instead demand things like setting up a safety net in the office building’s canteen or ask management to fix a window in the building. We demand the ocean, and they demand a small cup. The scale of the demands is different. But then they got their safety net installed and windows fixed, but when it came to our demand about cutlery, the management would bring us data and say: “Chih-yen, you are overthinking this. We’ve done tests with the equipment and the weight (of the cart) fall within reasonable ranges for work.”

The Spark: In the past period, you’ve faced misunderstandings from the public and ceaseless slanders from EVA Air. What kind of mental pressure do you face and how do you handle it?

Kuo: After the “Bottom-Wiping Incident,” I already faced a round of attacks. At the time I wondered: I’m clearly the victim here, but why am I getting attacked like this?

During the strike, (another incident led to attacks on me). I tend to be a little impatient, and I believe that A is A, B is B. (During one of the strike meetings) I went up the stage and grabbed the microphone myself to speak. This is because that meeting was a vote on whether we wanted to continue the strike or not (we promised all members that we would hold a vote to decide whether we want to continue the strike every 10 days). That day, our negotiation delegates went into a room with EVA Air’s management, but they came out with results that fell far short from what we originally demanded. I asked the delegates how it ended up like this, and they didn’t want to tell me. Later as we held the vote, the delegates tearfully pleaded with the members to vote to end the strike. At the time I felt that our strike barely lasted for 10 days, so why wouldn’t we keep going? We’ve already convinced the members to take a risk and go on strike, if we accept a poor settlement, then what credibility do we still have as a union? At the time, I told the delegates that they’ve engaged in “backroom negotiations” as I don't know what was actually discussed in that room. How could it be that you went into the negotiation with the confidence generated by our large-scale strike, but then came out so docile and tearfully pleading to end the strike? I believe that whatever happened, the negotiation delegates should be able to tell us.

Kuo at picket Image Parson YoungMs. Kuo maintained order at the picket line everyday during the strike / Image: Parson Young

At the time, I was maintaining order at the picket line, so I was in the tent everyday, and knew about every member’s situation. Everyone was confused by the sudden call to end the strike. We just got started, and we couldn’t accept such a plea. The union already should be able to tolerate different ideas and opinions, but if these elected delegates are all asking everyone to vote to end the strike, then there was only one view being presented to the members. Had I not gone on stage and took the microphone, then the call to surrender would be the only view represented. After I took the mic, the media started to pay attention to me, although they already knew that I was involved in the “Bottom Wiping Incident.”

Regarding the leaked screenshots of my conversations, the media took it out of context and presented it as me “threatening flight safety.” That was a private group chat among friends. I made an inappropriate joke when I was letting off some steam about my grief with the captain and the company’s strict treatment of workers. After the screenshot was leaked, I suddenly became the bully in the eyes of others. The media doctored the story. Even if I presented an additional 15 screenshots to show everyone the full conversation, no one was interested in reading them. They only judged me based on one or two sentences. They are not interested in the truth, only in burning a witch.

Since that day people started to attack me, calling me an arrogant thug. But this thuggish image was already created for me by the media, and the screenshots only added to that narrative. Some would say: “You all claim that the media bullied you while you’re on strike, but then you went on to bully others after the strike ended.” Later, one of my Facebook posts was spammed by haters with 2,000-3,000 comments that included all kinds of abuse.

At the beginning, I didn’t want to read those comments, because I was just fired within days (after a day of internal investigation and a day of Human Resources Arbitration Committee meeting that fired me), and I had to go to the police station to leave a record, as I was also submitted by the company to criminal court. Therefore, I had no time to care about what the public thinks of me and focus on getting those things done. This took me about three months, during which I was too afraid to go outside my home. I also was afraid to look at PTT (a popular internet forum in Taiwan). In the end, I was too afraid to talk to others, because I didn’t know and wasn’t able to know whether someone would leak out information after I speak to them about this.

A consequence of the “Screenshot Incident” is that now whenever I make an edgy, ironic joke, I would always have to add “I’m just joking, please do not take a screenshot.” This is true to this day. In fact, the chat group where the screenshot came from consists of close friends who went through the same job training as I had, at the time it only had around 30 people. I already talk trash all the time, and everyone knew that the chat group was where we could talk trash to let off some steam. But now, I’m in such a state of fear that I don’t know what to say in order to not be screenshotted. I also don’t know what I could and could not joke about anymore, or just not make jokes at all. Therefore, other than coming here (the attorney’s office), another attorney’s office and the union’s office, I didn’t go anywhere else and just stayed home, because at least conversations with my lawyer wouldn’t be captured and leaked.

I also haven’t met any colleagues from EVA Air, because they would pity me when they see me, but I do not want to be seen this way. I don’t want people to ask me “how have you been?” because I’d have to repeat the entire saga all over again, only to be met with pity. Thus, I don’t meet with anyone from work at EVA Air, not even my own family. I just stay home by myself.

With my personality in the past, I would have retorted to you 10 times if you bully me once on the internet. But now I have a criminal charge on my back, so I can’t reply to internet bullies, and just let them say as they please. This is true to this day.

The Spark: Prior to the strike last year, you endured the “Bottom Wiping Incident” that you mentioned. Did that experience motivate you to become more involved in trade union work?

Kuo: Actually, the opposite is true. After that incident, I was already bullied, as I’ve mentioned. Thus at the time I thought I would keep a low profile in all activities that I was involved in. Yes, it is the opposite, because I was savagely attacked. I bet you didn’t know that it’s the opposite.

The Spark: In your legal battle with EVA Air, what kind of forces and allies did they have? Who were some of your supporters?

Kuo: The union subsidized me with $150,000 NTD (around $4986 USD) for legal costs, and I pay for the rest.

On EVA Air’s side, they had many. They have an internet army as their forces, such as the “Green Ribbons” (anti-union workers within EVA Air), or even employing fake accounts to attack me and the union, as well as influencing public opinion.

The Spark: What do you think about the government’s role in your struggle against the EVA Air management?

Kuo: Since last October we requested the Ministry of Labor to rule on EVA Air for unfair labor practices, yet the MoL’s decision leaned towards believing the materials that the EVA’s management provided. (When management does something that is obviously unfair, they seldom are seen by the government as inappropriate). For example, When EVA Air’s Vice-president Ho Ching-sheng said to a union activist “you better leave yourself some way out” when we were setting up the picket line. The union at the time already asked for the MoL to rule this behavior as unfair labor practice as it was a clear threat to the union. Yet in the end they didn’t materialize, because (the government) said that (Ho) said this “during the time of strike, when emotions were tense on both management and labor side, so (that was) his freedom of speech,” therefore there was no unfair labor practice.

I later pointed out that, as a cadre in the union, and also one that gained a lot of media attention, I was clearly a target for the EVA Air management. Thus, at the time, I requested a rule on unfair labor practices, because EVA Air was clearly trying to make an example of me, and weaken the union’s power by getting rid of me. Yet, in the end, the MoL did not rule it as unfair.

EVA boss picket line Image 我挺長榮罷工Facebook PageEVA Air’s Vice President Ho Ching-Sheng became known for viciously heckling the striking workers at the picket line / Image: 我挺長榮罷工Facebook Page

The EVA Air management claimed that my conversation in the screenshot took place after the day the strike ended (6 July), so their disciplinary measure has nothing to do with the strike. Yet 6 July was the day that the workers signed the collective agreement with the management, and they have agreed that the actual end date of the strike would have to be 9 July, as we needed a few days to return the travel documents to the striking flight attendants as well as packing up the picket line. Yet, the MoL believed the management’s side of the story. Further, I provided 15 more screenshots to restore the context of my conversation, but they only believed three of four of them. The rest they declared to be fake.

The MoL in the end rejected my request to rule for unfair labor practice. They do not feel that I was fired because I was a union cadre, but because I instigated social disturbances.

Attorney Shen: But how could she have caused social disturbances? It was the media that did that.

Kuo: If I can cause social disturbances by myself, then why would I work at EVA Air? I might as well get my own talk show.

Attorney Shen: At best she was a small match, and the media was a barrel of gasoline.

The Spark: Finally, is there anything else you’d like to say to the workers and young readers of In Defence of Marxism and The Spark around the world?

Kuo: Taiwan’s labor organization rate is only 7 percent, yet the EVA Air strike received such widespread attention. I think this is firstly because we are flight attendants, and secondly, because we had solidarity. Some in Taiwan’s society would say: “whatever the bosses tell you to do, you must do it, because they give you your wages.” Yet I believe that many things should be basic provisions, such as a menstrual leave, or the right to not be held in a small room. However, (many workers) don’t know that, because we don’t have the resources to know how to fight for these rights, that is why we need unions.

Some in Taiwan want to slander our strike. They complain that we are noisy. But in the end, we are all people working for a living. I made some noise today, gained the right to strike, and went on strike. I was merely exercising my rights. It wasn’t like this union of over 2,000 members had to go on strike because only 10 or so people said so, not at all! All strikes need to be agreed to by a simple majority. It was hard enough to organize a union. Getting a majority “yes” vote to the strike is also hard. Launching a strike itself is even more difficult.

But this society does not seem to encourage us to fight for more. Everyone seems to say, from the “boss’ standpoint”: “well, the economy is bad these days, you have to sympathize with the boss.” Why would you say such a thing to me if you aren’t even in such a position? You should be trying to organize a union to struggle for things you want. When we struggle, you are not required to support us, but how could you speak against a vocal worker on behalf of the bosses, especially when we all work for a wage? Besides, I was always a very highly vocal person in the union.

I think this society still has many people who earn a workers’ wage but think as if they are a boss. Further, I think we finally see people who are willing to speak out, and everyone should support such a person instead of trying to get rid of them. This society needs many voices, instead of just those of EVA or corporations setting the tone.

The passenger that forced me to wipe his bottom already took over 20 flights with EVA, maybe he already had done what he did to me to other crew members every time. Or maybe the management has forced other people to stay in a room to show them pornography. Towards these situations, I could have stayed silent and saved myself from being bullied on the internet. Yet I believe that once someone is willing to take the first step in the struggle, someone will follow you. This is how I am in the eyes of my colleague-sisters. Someone has to try first, and if they get attacked, others will support them, and then we can make progress together. I think everyone should try to overcome conditions that you’ve been dissatisfied with for a long time, because if no one does it, then everyone’s condition will remain this terrible.

Notes

[1] China Airlines is a public-private joint venture airline company in Taiwan, not to be confused with Air China, which is owned by the Chinese state. In 2016 China Airlines’ flight attendants launched a historic strike which ended in success, and thereafter inspired a wave of labor militancy in the air travel sector in Taiwan.

[2] This is significant as, prior to the founding of EVA Air Union, not only in EVA Air, but also in the entire Evergreen Group (which includes Evergreen Marine, the seventh-biggest container shipping company in the world), there were no unions in the enterprise’ 50 years of existence.