Dispute aids union in finding its voice

THE dispute between Cathay Pacific and its flight attendants has marked a change in the cabin crew union's attitude, with one senior purser becoming the public face of the Flight Attendants' Union.

Miss Rachel Varghese has been catapulted from the relative obscurity of the union to become the official spokeswoman for the striking workforce, whose week-long stoppage has cost Cathay an estimated $105 million.

In previous disputes with the company, the union has rarely spoken to the press. The union's chairman, Mr David Ngan, has been particularly elusive.

But the strike has seen a major policy shift with Singapore-born Miss Varghese fielding questions from the local and international media for the last seven days.

''The union has in the past taken the view that talking to the press would not help in our negotiations with the company,'' Miss Varghese, 33, said.

''We didn't want to wash our dirty linen in public. But Rod Eddington [Cathay's managing director] started to do just that.'' Mr Eddington has repeatedly vowed that any cabin staff who the company claims have been clearly active in the strike will face disciplinary action and possibly dismissal. The union's executive committee and Miss Varghese are prime candidates for any action.

''That doesn't scare us,'' she said.

''We truly believe that the union is in the right here and our action is both legal and justified.

''We have three real issues of concern and if the company is not prepared to resolve them, many members feel that Cathay is not the type of company we would want to work for and I am one of them.'' A member of the union's decision-making body for the last two years, Miss Varghese is a close ally of Mr Ngan and was chosen for her new high-profile job because of her 13 years' service as a flight attendant compared to the average cabin crew member whoserves for five years.

''David has been our chairman for the last 10 years and he has a tremendous amount of experience. He led the union through a strike over similar issues in 1984 and we were successful then,'' she said.

''Cathay says that industrial relations are all about give and take, but over the last two years we have given and the company has just taken, taken, taken.'' She added that in her years with the company, the attitudes of her colleagues had changed.

''In the past many girls were naive and viewed a job with Cathay as just a chance to travel. Now young people are more opinionated and independent,'' Miss Varghese said.

''They've got their own ideas and stick to them.

''We, the executive committee, have not led our people into a strike, it is the membership who have said 'enough is enough'.'' The company has an estimated 15 public relations experts lined up to give the airline's side of the dispute, including officials from Cathay's parent company, the Swire Group. But the might of a multi-national organisation does not worry Miss Varghese.

''It doesn't scare me or anybody else in the FAU,'' she said.

''We genuinely believe that we are in the right and it's my job to keep the public supporting us.

''There may be disruptions and problems for travellers and we are truly sorry for that, but most people realise that we are not a militant union and we would not take this action lightly.''