When SAS and its striking pilots headed back into negotiations on Thursday morning, Norway’s state mediator warned there was “no guarantee we’ll manage to find solutions today.” With principles at stake, and not just pay and benefits, it was much harder to come to terms, according to labour experts.
The pilots have been striking mostly out of anger over how those laid off during the Corona crisis weren’t offered their jobs back in the same SAS parent company where they’d worked, and where their union had a collective bargaining agreement. Instead they had to apply for new jobs in a new SAS subsidiary that’s part of an overall restructuring of the airline aimed at making it more profitable and attracting investors.
That angered the pilots, their trade union federations and many politicians, but also the public, according to a poll conducted for state broadcaster NRK. Even random interviews with travellers whose summer holidays were spoiled by the strike told NRK they understood why the pilots were so upset. The so-called “Scandinavian model” of orderly and egalitarian workplaces, where labour terms are subject to law and regulations, was under threat.
It all led to the strike that has ruined summer travel for hundreds of thousands of SAS passengers and cost the already-ailing company more than SEK 1 billion by the middle of its second week. SAS management filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the US federal bankruptcy code the day after the strike began, in an effort to keep creditors at bay, preserve its liquidity and protect assets.
It was viewed as positive when the two sides went back to the bargaining table on Wednesday, but also to disappointment when no settlement emerged. Mediators like Mats Ruland from Norway, who’s part of the negotiations taking place in Stockholm along with counterparts from Sweden and Denmark, seemed to try to lower expectations when he arrived for renewed talks Thursday morning. All agree, however that it’s important to find a way of getting pilots back to work after more than 2,550 flights have been cancelled and an important means of transport has been mostly shut down, also for cargo and medical supplies.
Some airline analysts predicted that SAS management would have to yield on some issues, if only to cut losses, get the company operating again and bring in needed cash. One suggested to news bureau NTB that the pilots could agree to go back to work and let the courts decide whether SAS has acted within the law on its restructuring. That, however, would result in more uncertainty for would-be investors in the airline that SAS management badly needs.
Pressure higher than ever
SAS officials have, meanwhile, complained that some of the same pilots’ unions involved in the strike have granted the kinds of job flexibility SAS wants in new collective bargaining contracts with new airlines like Flyr and Norse Atlantic. The unions respond that’s because they were starting from scratch with new airlines offering new jobs to pilots. In SAS’ case, they argue, the airline is trying to break contracts already in place.
Meanwhile the strike dragged on but the pressure was higher that ever on all involved. “It’s extremely important to find a solution,” Ruland told reporters in Stockholm. “There’s a company in a very demanding situation, an employee group that has been in conflict with the company for a long time and very many other employees who’ve been furloughed. Not least are all the tens of thousands (of passengers) affected by this.”
Officials on both sides also indicated that the tone was now “positive” and “constructive.” Danish aircraft technicians also ended a sympathy strike for the pilots, so that SAS aircraft would be “fit to fly” when the strike was over.