Air France Labor Talks Weighed Down by Pilot Leader's Fate

(Bloomberg) -- The clock is ticking for a French labor leader who’s become a poster boy for strikes at Air France, signaling tough contract negotiations lie ahead for the troubled carrier.

Philippe Evain, head of the airline’s powerful pilots’ union, SNPL, is up for re-election in December and the uncertain outcome has galvanized his efforts to win a better pay deal, even if it means more walkouts. The next round of talks gets underway Thursday.

“Management tells us there’s no budget, but we need results now,” Evain said by phone. “We’ve been waiting for months.”

Read more: Air France Pilots Say Strikes Are Still Possible in Wage Talks

The SNPL pilots, along with flight attendants, are holdouts in efforts by Air France-KLM’s new Chief Executive Officer Ben Smith to end a bruising labor dispute that led to 15 days of strikes this year, the departure of the previous CEO and hundreds of millions of euros in lost profit. Last month, Smith reached an agreement with a majority of unions for a 4 percent pay raise over two years at the French arm, Air France. The SNPL refused to sign and Evain says he wants more.

“The upcoming SNPL negotiation will be an important barometer of how Mr. Smith plans to manage labor relations,” Bernstein analysts wrote in a note last month.

Hard Line

Evain is considered to be among the most hard line of the union leaders at the carrier’s French arm. Cockpit crew generally hold significant sway during disputes because they have the most power to ground planes. A global shortage of pilots has put pressure on airlines to pay them more.

The charismatic Evain, who flies up to 10 days a month, took the helm of SNPL in 2014. He was one of the backers of another headline-grabbing dispute in 2015 when executives had their shirts ripped after scaling an industrial fence to escape enraged workers. Yet his re-election to lead the SNPL isn’t a given.

“Even as SNPL gained power during Evain’s mandate, it has lost credibility with management and the government due to its adversarial stances,” said Bernard Vivier, a consultant in labor relations. “Pilots may welcome a change.”

Evain had wanted a total pay increase for pilots of around 10 percent and says getting a deal is urgent because of growing discontent, not the upcoming union election. Management has so far refused the raise, asking that it should be compensated by other measures such as lower entry-level salaries, he said. A spokeswoman for Air France-KLM declined to comment.

Smith will need pilots’ support for any strategy moves, such as expanding Air France-KLM’s low-cost offering. Yet he may be tempted to drag out talks until after the SNPL vote.

“It’s as if there was a willingness to make these negotiations fail,” said Evain.

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