Air Malta sues pilots’ union over ‘illegal’ industrial action

The airline said that industrial action taken in June was illegal, in breach of pilots’ collective agreement and not protected by law

The airline is insisting that industrial action instituted by the union back in June was illegal and not protected by law
The airline is insisting that industrial action instituted by the union back in June was illegal and not protected by law

Air Malta has filed a court case against its pilots union, ALPA and members of its executive committee, asking the court to declare last month’s industrial action illegal, in breach of the collective agreement and therefore not covered by the legal protections of an industrial dispute. It also demanded damages.

On 1 July, Air Malta had filed a warrant of prohibitory injunction against the union and its pilots, over a set of directives issued by the union, in the hope of preventing industrial action. The courts had definitively upheld the warrant after hearing evidence.

But in an application filed before the First Hall of the Civil Court, Air Malta says it knows “for a fact” that the reason behind the industrial action was that the union and its members were expecting guarantees from the government (which has a 99% shareholding in Air Malta) about their pay.

On the other hand, the defendants insist that the action had been taken over a dispute about threats and intimidation by the flight operations chief in April 2019.

The problems had begun in January 2018 when the association raised a number of reservations about the negotiations leading up to the collective agreement and had made a number of requests.

Air Malta said that it had held a number of meetings with the union, over the course of more than a year, in order to settle pending disputes. “Air Malta had always sought a sensible compromise,” it said.

On 28 June, after two days of discussions, the parties agreed on a common position about the issues tabled and all that was left was the signing of an amendment to the collective agreement. But in the meeting held on 28 June, the association had demanded financial guarantees from the government, threatening to take industrial action anyway on a completely different issue.

The government had not acquiesced to the demands and industrial action was later taken, delaying all flights by 30 minutes.

It was therefore clear, said the airline, that the reason behind the decision to take industrial action did not stem from a dispute with Air Malta, but from a request to its shareholders that was not upheld. This meant that it was not an industrial dispute as defined at law and was an abuse of the legal right to industrial action.

The defendants had given an altogether different version of the facts, however. ALPA said that on 27 April, a captain who was scheduled to fly from Malta to St. Petersburg had called his employers some three hours before the flight was scheduled to take off, to inform them that he was fatigued and could not fly the plane. This set off a “state of emergency” inside the company due to the risk of a delayed take-off and the related expenses.

The company had contacted the flight’s First Officer and ended up in a debate about the interpretation of reporting procedures and flight time limitations in the operations manual, eventually leading the First Officer to also back out of the flight because he felt “threatened” and therefore not in the correct frame of mind to operate a passenger flight.

Air Malta claims that there were no threats by its employees, who were just doing their jobs and who had only warned the First Officer that “if he is going to choose to refuse to report for the flight as requested, to make sure he had a valid reason to do so”.

On 18 June, almost two months after the incident, the union had demanded the resignation of the two employees who had warned the First Officer, threatening industrial action if this did not happen.

According to the previous collective agreement, unilateral actions are precluded where negotiations had not been concluded. At the time that the industrial action was called, the discussions had not even started, much less been concluded, said the airline.

The demand for the resignation of the two individuals could not have been made under the collective agreement in force, as this also precluded the association from interfering in the functions of the airline’s management.

The industrial action taken on 1 July was not the result of an industrial dispute but simply a manoeuvre to put the government’s back to the wall in the hope of it surrendering and giving the guarantees requested by the pilots.

After the decree upholding the injunction on 23 July, the situation had worsened, with ALPA “bombarding management with a number of allegations on everything imaginable, in the hope of somewhere finding the seed for a dispute.” The company had subsequently requested a list of the pending disputes being raised in order for them to be discussed and given the time and attention they deserved.

Air Malta requested the court to declare the industrial action as being illegal and in violation of the collective agreement and therefore that the defendants do not enjoy the legal protection given to striking workers. The airline also requested damages be liquidated and paid by the defendants.

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