Taiwan Unions Buoyed by China Airlines Success

Taiwan Unions Buoyed by China Airlines Success

What you need to know

While some unions have leveraged the success of the flight attendants' strike, other industries face challenges in worker organization and collective bargaining.

The successful strike by employees of China Airlines last month has encouraged unions across the nation to up the ante in the fight for labor rights.

Su Ying-jung (蘇盈蓉), director of the Taoyuan Flight Attendants Union, told The News Lens International in an interview that the group’s recent industrial action was the first successful strike held by an independent labor union in Taiwan's history.

According to Su, workers across the airline industry are now looking to unite and call for improved rights. Due to confidentiality she did not name any of the unions that are considering strike action.

Su says that while there was criticism from passengers during the strike, the media played an important role in drawing attention to the group’s concerns.

“How public opinion reacts is the key to success,” she says.

Also, Su says she is grateful that most of her coworkers participated in the movement without hesitation.

“This encourages us to go further and attract more attention,” she says. “Flight attendants have been over-working for decades. We hope the movement doesn’t stop and that companies can take more action to improve our working environment.”

Nearly futile

The China Airlines Employees Union was founded in 1988, but for years it had little impact due largely to the size of the company and a divided workforce.

Su adds that because some of the China Airlines Employees Union directors are company-appointed, members believe the directors have tended to be more aligned with the interests of the company than union members.

"They repressed our voices,” she says.

The flight attendants instead to turned to the Taoyuan Flight Attendants Union, and after a day-long sit-in in central Taipei, management agreed to the employees' demands.

Encouraging voices

Chang Feng-yi (張烽益), director of the Labor and Social Policy Association at the Taiwan Labor Front (TLF), tells TNLI that it is never easy to start a strike, and labor groups will not call one unless it is necessary. However, he is optimistic that the China Airlines’ strike will encourage other unions.

Chang says the TLF – which fights for labor rights for workers in all industries – is not looking to start a strike for its own members in the short term. However, he is glad to see that the recent protests led to the expansion of unions in other industries.

The Taipower Labor Union has been protesting for months against the proposed restructuring of the electricity industry in Taiwan.

Peng Chi-tsung (彭繼宗), secretary general at the Taipower Labor Union, told TNLI it was not until the strike at China Airlines that the media noticed the group’s efforts.

“We told the press that we could still start a massive protest if they pass the [new electricity industry] law without taking our voices into consideration,” Peng says.

The union has now been allowed to participate in the discussions around law amendments after negotiating with the government.

Meanwhile, graduate school students today protested in front of the Ministry of Education in Taipei, calling for better pay for teaching assistants.

Engineers and nurses

While some unions have been able to leverage the flight attendants’ success, other industries face challenges in worker organization and collective bargaining.

Officials at the Trade Union of Electrical, Electronic and Information in Taiwan (TUEEIT), told TNLI the union currently has too few members spread across each company in the engineering industry.

“So it’s hard to bring about change,” an official says. “When it comes to striking, you need a huge number of people.”

In the past five years, the union has called for increased holidays and better working hours, among other matters. It now has around 250 members and is encouraging workers to join.

Deng Ya-wen (鄧雅文), director of the Taiwan Radical Nurses Union (TRNU), tells TNLI there are only three official unions for medical staff under the hospital system: the Kaohsiung Medical University Labor Union, the St. Martin De Porres Hospital Nurses Union and a Chiayi Christian labor association. Other labor unions in the medical field are independent.

While nurses are currently trapped in a vicious cycle – “working extremely long hours so they seldom have time to join labor unions” to fight for better hours – Deng says the China Airlines strike has had an impact.

“Some nurses are surprised to find that there are labor unions for them, and they’re happy to join us,” she says.

The TRNU is currently fighting to change insufficient training programs for young nurses.

First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: Olivia Yang