They think we are easy to control: Inside the recent EVA Air flight attendant strike

Vincent Grant interviews Wen, a flight attendant who was on the strike leadership committee for last week’s EVA Air strike and occupation.

Last week, 2,350 members — more than 50% — of EVA Air’s all-female flight crew made history by organizing the largest and longest strike in Taiwanese aviation history. In the previous year, the company had been rocked by a number of high-profile sexual harassment cases, which brought to the surface many grievances that the flight crew had experienced on a daily basis. The company’s strict beauty standards had resulted in women falling ill after not being allowed to wear masks and gloves while transporting sick patients.

In one well-publicized case, a worker was forced to watch a pornographic film in front of her managers. They accused her of being the main actress in the film, and grounded her until she was able to prove that it was, in fact, famed Japanese AV star Sukisukigirl.

This story and others galvanized the women, who already felt disrespected by the company.

The workers said that they were organizing against the company’s chauvinism and authoritarian management style. By the time the airline kicks back into full operation on July 20th, the strikers—almost all in their 20s and early 30s—will have grounded 2,252 flights, and cost the company, known for their Hello Kitty-themed planes, around US $87 billion. As part of their strike, they maintained a 24-hour occupation in front of company headquarters, to keep pressure on EVA.

The results of the strike are a mixed bag. Their victories include small bumps in the bonuses they receive per flight. More importantly, the workers say, are victories related to workplace democracy, including workers sitting on the disciplinary board, and worker representation on the board of directors. This, however, is just a fraction of their original eight demands, which included increases in their per diems, and double pay for working national holidays. The workers also had to sign a three-year no-strike agreement, so long as management upholds their side of the deal, which includes not retaliating against strikers.

To try and sort out exactly what happened, and what lessons organized labor around the world can learn from the experiences of these flight attendants, I spoke to Wen, a 29-year-old flight attendant who was on the strike’s leadership committee.

What is the significance of you being an all-female crew? Why have they only hired female flight attendants?

First off I want to say that it is really sad that it is an all-female movement. I think it if we had male crew, it would be hard for them to call us “princesses.” [During the campaign, the press and social media often referred to the striking workers as “天上當仙女” or “princesses” –VG]

Of course, the reason that they hire an all-female crew is because they think we are easy to control. It was only because of the strike that they started hiring male flight attendants. I don’t know how they got away with it. It has been unlawful for 20 years.

Image courtesy of Vincent Grant

The union came together fast. In three years you organized 75% of your shop (around 3,000 of around 4,326 flight attendants joined the union), all culminating in the largest and longest strike in Taiwanese aviation history (2,350 people participating, 2060 staying on strike for all 20 days). How was it that you were able to get so many people involved?

We got so many people out on strike, just because we had so many people who were fed up. As we carried out the negotiations [with management], the people were following. Because all the representatives who held the strike were also [EVA Air] flight attendants ourselves, when we approached people to fight for our rights, it really resonated with a lot of people. Of course, we had the industrial union’s help, because none of us had been on strike before. But we made all the major decisions democratically and they were just giving us advice. We wanted democracy in the union, so we had to teach ourselves to respect both majority and minority.

I would say, democracy is not an easy way to go. Dictatorship is much easier. [With democracy] you have to listen to the voices, you need to have meetings every day. You have to lay out all of the pros and cons for people to weigh.

To make decisions for all these thousands of crew is most difficult. Some people will say, you are not taking our opinion, you are not a good union, but we had to tell everyone that everyone’s opinion is valued, it is important. We need to see the whole picture.

A lot of people don’t really know what they are doing. EVA and the society trains us very well not to think. But we wanted to encourage people to be able to think. To do this, we have to make sure that [everyone] understands everything that is at stake.

These days, people use Facebook and [social] media, but [this is] incorrect. We had to have representatives looking in everyone’s eyes. And really listen to them. Ask them what they think. Ask them their options. Some of them did not even know the demands. We had to ask them to be fully committed.

Some people wanted to leave the strike, and we would ask them “why” and they would say, “well, my family does not understand.” So we have to ask them, “did you explain it to them?” We had to teach them how to explain it to others.

The union was organized in a pyramid structure, with 30 elected representatives on top. Then 200 organizers below them, who served as intermediaries between the leadership and the workers.

The 30 elected leaders had meetings with small groups every day.

When the 200 would speak to the people [the others on strike], we had to tell them not to put any emotional description. We need them to be neutral. They are there to speak to and listen to the people.

Having people keep their different roles is also very difficult, because people need restrictions. Between democracy and dictatorship, it is very dangerous. You have to handle it very carefully because you want to give people their rights, but you don’t want to give them 100%, because this world would be in chaos, you still need a little bit of order.

In the past 3 or so years we have seen a strike wave in Taiwan’s aviation industry. Why this industry in particular?

I think it is because as flight attendants, we are more international, we got the concept of striking must faster than other Taiwanese. We have been to France, where they are always on strike, the subways are on strike. We have been to the UK, were the airlines and the trains go on strike. So we got the concept of the strike much faster than other Taiwanese who never left Taiwan. Or only traveled in Asia, as is the case for many Taiwanese. We knew that this was an international movement, and that it was not all just about us, EVA, this industry, in Taiwan. We thought it was normal to fight for your rights.

The news [we have seen] is also more international, CNN, BBC. In Taiwan, the news is all “this house had a fire” “this person threatened suicide.” But people have been trained not to care about international news. But people have no idea bout international politics, or they are trained not to care about international politics. Even the position of Taiwan, they don’t know. I blame the press.

Speaking of the press, the Taiwanese press has been especially harsh on you flight attendants [claiming that nearly 600 workers had deserted, where the actually number was around 240]. Can you tell me a little bit about why that occurred?

Our press is not neutral. The press is never neutral. They always have color. But when you are having these professional comments, they should just put the facts, instead of their personal comments. They are so bad for us, they want to see people cry, being emotional, bright colors. If it’s facts, it’s boring, so people don’t pay attention.

In one of the videos you sent me, Chief Executive Vice President of EVA AIR is seen telling protesters “What we want is this authoritarian and centralized management. If it were not for the company being managed this way, how could you still feel proud of wearing this uniform when you fly all over the world?” What is your reaction to this?

They think that we should be proud to follow their management style. They forgot that when we are wearing this uniform, we are actually making money for them. They should be listening to us. If I am flying around the world, if we feel proud. We are proud of serving the customers.

Taiwan has two major political parties, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which formed in 1986 out of a coalition of social movements that had opposed the one-party rule of the Kuomintang (KMT), and the KMT, originating from Chiang Kai-shek’s fleeing army. Do either of these parties have better policies for workers? Why or why not?

At beginning, when EVA was formed, the DPP was the government. That was when all the business just grew. Then when the government switched to the KMT, EVA also switched [its loyalties]. Now that we are back to DPP, they are cooperating [with the DPP].

What is your general assessment of the state of the Taiwanese labor movement? We know that it is only 7% of the work force. And a lot of these are company unions.

A lot of people have no idea: what are labor rights? What are union rights? They have no information, and they have not been taught that they have these rights. And a lot of people saw [us] on the news and they were thinking about it. And even if they are criticizing, when they have something happen to them and they are in our shoes. They will be thinking about joining a union. After the strike we went to a big restaurant from China and the people who worked there were asking us to about forming a union.

In Labor Notes, Kang Liao and Carrie Chao are quoted as saying, “This dispute has thus become a fight of the entire labor movement against the capitalist class in Taiwan represented by the EVA management.” What do you think they meant by this?

Because in the beginning it is just the corporation versus the employees, and if they are smart, in my opinion, if I were them, I would try to get this finished as soon as possible. But [instead] they just tried to destroy the union. So, they dragged the strike on long enough. The strike became not only the employees against the company. Now people have more awareness of labor rights. People keep telling us to 加油 (add oil, means “let’s go!”). We have a responsibility to show the world, show all the females, all the laborers, that we need to stand up.

Finally, everyone I have talked to has said that the feeling of solitary and having stood up for something has changed them. Can you tell me a bit more about that with regards to yourself?

When we were hired and trained to be a flight attendant at EVA, this society in Taiwan, in Asia, really would not allow laborers to have any opinions. But it is weird, because this is a democratic country. So you would think that people have a voice, they have a lot of things that they are capable to do. Having this movement encouraged a lot of people to stand out; this reminded them that they had this ability. So, really we did not do much, we just awakened them.