Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Why cooperation trumps confrontation

Dec 15, 2010


Retired veteran unionist Victor Pang recalls the days when workers threatened him and talks about his approach in negotiating with management

By Elgin Toh

BEFORE you put it to Mr Victor Pang that trade unions here seem weaker than their counterparts elsewhere, you should prepare yourself for a vociferous retort - by what measure?

If you argue based on willingness to go on strike and lambast corporate fat cats in the media, he might concede to you.

But if you go by the ability to gain benefits for workers, then Singapore's unions win hands down, the veteran of the labour movement declares categorically.

'Open confrontation does not really work. We were like that in the early days, but did our workers get what they wanted? No. Look what we have won for them using our own approach - increased salaries, better work conditions,' says the 64-year-old, easily recognisable by his signature moustache.

He retired last month as full-time general secretary of the Singapore Airport Terminal Services Workers' Union (Satswu) after a 38-year union career. He served on the NTUC's central committee between 1985 and 2006.

Straddling two eras in Singapore's union history, one marked by combativeness, the other by cooperation, Mr Pang took to the latter, but blended it with his own quietly unflinching style.
As the workers' advocate at Sats, the leading airport ground-handling services provider in Singapore, he can easily recite a list of achievements.

Three years ago, Satswu, the union representing 4,900 airport ground staff, cut a deal with Sats to re-employ workers at 62, long before the public service issued guidelines to similar effect, and ahead of the re-employment laws that will take effect in 2012.

Last month, it convinced Sats to end the automatic 10 per cent pay cut for those hitting 60. Many companies are still making this cut automatically, even though NTUC has been calling on them to consider factors such as performance and productivity.

None of these negotiations has taken place under the media glare. Mr Pang and his team would huddle with the Sats management behind closed doors. Sometimes, the talks would last months, but not once in his 26 years as Satswu leader has he gone to the Manpower Ministry (MOM) or the media to seek support.

It is obvious Satswu has taken a different path from another union in the aviation industry. The Air Line Pilots Association-Singapore, or Alpa-S, is in the midst of a public spat with Singapore Airlines on the issue of re-employment for older workers. MOM is now mediating.

Explaining his approach, Mr Pang says: 'The question is, is it helpful to wash dirty linen in public? Very often, younger unionists lack patience to persist in negotiations. Some of my exco members have, in the past, said to me, 'Let's go, it is time to take action', but I have always resisted.'

In some ways, quarrelling publicly is actually the easy way out, as a conciliatory approach entails back-breaking work.

First, the union leaders have to build up a reasonable, well-researched case - backed with evidence and statistics - to present to the corporate bosses.

This is where the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) helps. In 2004, Sats retrenched 108 workers and asked another 1,064 to join contract labour providers to cut costs. During negotiations, NTUC provided valuable information to Mr Pang on retrenchment practices at other companies.

As a result, the union was able to convince Sats to extend medical benefits for a full year after retrenchment and provide funds for re-training courses worth up to three months' salary per worker.

Next, the union must be willing to listen to the management and understand its need to face down cut-throat competition in an increasingly globalised world.

'That is why union leaders will have to be well-educated. You have to read a lot to know what is going on in the world and in your particular industry,' he says.

Finally, union leaders must go back to the workers frequently to gauge their sentiments and explain that some compromise was in their best interests.

'Workers sometimes think like a frog in the well, and it is understandable. But you just have to keep on explaining to them that they should not kill the goose that lays the golden egg,' he says.
And what if all of this fails?

'Sometimes, you wait for a while, and then you go back and talk some more - you may just catch the management in the right mood,' he says.

His long track record of ensuring his fellow workers receive fair collective agreements and profit-sharing bonuses has won him respect.

Last month, at the Satswu delegates' convention, which also marked his retirement, tributes flowed. Satswu member N. Gopalkrishnan, an operations assistant, had said: 'When Brother Pang leads, we follow, because he has won us over through his actions.'

Added Mr S. Gunasekaran, who took over as Satswu general secretary from Mr Pang: 'He is very experienced. And he never gave in to management when he felt the workers were right.'
NTUC deputy secretary-general Heng Chee How said: 'In today's complex environment, it takes deft handling by union leaders to know when to settle for what, and yet be able to take care of your workers and grow business at the same time. And Victor did it well.'

Applauding Mr Pang for his 'responsible leadership', Sats chief executive Clement Woon says: 'He was committed to his purpose. He built trust and improved labour-management relations during both good and difficult times.'

Reflecting on the ups and downs of his union career, Mr Pang talks about the days when he 'had to go through hell'.

His baptism of fire came in 1984, at the birth of Satswu. Before then, Sats workers were part of the Singapore Air Transport Workers' Union (Satu), which catered to the aviation industry.

In the 1980s, NTUC encouraged industry-wide unions to break up into unions covering just a single company each. It was believed that 'house unions' would be better placed to handle the particular grievances of workers in a company.

As Satu's vice-president then, he came round to NTUC's plan, but Mr R. Doraisamy, Satu's eloquent and popular general secretary, opposed it as he felt smaller unions were weaker and more vulnerable to manipulation by the company.

Satswu had to sign up 51 members before its pro-tem committee could register. As Mr Pang recalls: 'We would work until 11 o'clock at night to get people to join. But then, two days later, they withdrew because the general secretary asked them to. We would get 60 joining, and 57 backing out. It was hard work.'

Eventually, the pro-tem committee was formed, but it still needed Satu's 21-man executive committee to give its nod of approval. In the end, it came down to one vote - or rather, one abstention.

Mr Pang knew he had 10 committee members on his side. And just before the meeting convened, he convinced one member in the rival camp to abstain. The result of the secret ballot: 10-10.

'The general secretary jumped for joy, thinking he had succeeded in blocking it. But the NTUC lawyers told him that according to the union's Constitution, the union president could cast the deciding vote in the event of a tie. And the president was on our side. That is how the house union, Satswu, was formed.'

After that came the '$15 affair', which Mr Pang considers the lowest point in his career. During one unusually protracted collective agreement negotiation in the 1980s, he asked management for an 'interim agreement' which saw each worker receiving an initial payment of $15 as negotiations continued.

Fellow workers overlooked the word 'interim' - which meant there was no final settlement yet - and thought he had sold out workers for that paltry sum.

'They were cursing me, and my family received threatening phone calls. Someone even called my house and said, 'Can I book a woman?'' he recalls. 'I was really down, but I didn't give up. Because I believe what I did was not wrong.'

He spent the next five months explaining to workers what had happened. The final agreement was accepted by all the workers as a good deal.

Being a union leader is sometimes a thankless job, Mr Pang admits. One often feels unappreciated, and sandwiched between management and workers. His advice to aspiring unionists? Do it only if you have the conviction.

'If you don't have the love to serve the people, then don't waste your time.'

[One of the quiet people who work behind the scenes to get things done. No fanfare, no fuss, no flamboyance, no publicity. Just quiet work.]

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