Poor Ben Smith has his work cut out for him.
The Air Canada President and Chief Operating Officer was named CEO of Air France-KLM today. Already, unions representing Air France are up in arms, threatening strikes and condemning Smith’s lack of Frenchness. A statement published in the Financial Times makes this clear:
“Regarding the candidacy of the next CEO at the head of OUR company, The inter-union organisation maintains that it is inconceivable that the company of Air France, French since 1933, falls into the hands of a foreign leader pushed by a rival industrial group”, said the unions in their statement on Thursday morning.
The unions added that “the choice of a candidate must be focused on the defence of the interests of our national company” and that they would be meeting on 27 August to decide how to proceed in September with further strikes already threatened.
So let’s see: the man has not even started yet and already unions are threatening more strikes and tearing the new leader apart?
A Realistic Role As CEO
Smith enters this role understanding the tense labor relations, but hoping to navigate through them. His statement is mostly corporate-talk, but I bolded one statement of significance on his self-professed role to earn the respect and trust of all sides:
I am very enthusiastic about this new opportunity. Air France and KLM are both airlines well known for the professionalism and commitment of their teams. I am well aware of the competitive challenges the Air France-KLM Group is currently facing and I am convinced that the airlines’ teams have all the strengths to succeed in the global airline market. I am confident in the Group’s capacity to become one of the world’s leading players. I look forward to earning the trust and respect of all teams, working together to win in this highly competitive and fast-changing customer service industry. I am approaching this new challenge with my passion for the aviation sector and with my deep willingness to listen to all stakeholders so we can work together and win. I have spent my entire career in this industry and I am convinced that the teams of the Air France-KLM Group are its strongest assets for its future success. I believe that over the past two decades I have developed very strong trust-based relations with my colleagues at Air Canada and I am looking forward to meeting the teams at Air France-KLM in September to begin working alongside them. I thank the Board of Directors of Air France-KLM to entrust me with this mandate.
I truly wish Smith all the best, but I don’t think that will be his role. One Mile at a Time notes that he made remarkable progress on labor relations during his tenure with Air Canada. Indeed, under Smith’s watch both pilot and flight attendant union groups agreed to 10-year labor contracts. Smith deserves an immense deal of credit for this.
But France is not Canada. Reasonableness is not in the vocabulary of the French labor unions. The fact that Smith is already being attacked on jingoistic grounds is a stern warning that negotiations will not be like this:
Let’s be clear: the Air France unions are out of control and have acted in a grossly unreasonable fashion in stranding hundreds of thousands of passengers in strikes earlier this year. Their demands for increased pay and benefits are totally unrealistic in light of the current competitive environment. This is not about lining the pockets of the C-level executives with bonuses extracted on the backs of workers. Rather, this is about creating a sustainable business model that will not simply leech off the KLM division to sustain itself.
Maybe under the right economic conditions Smith can pull off a Gordon Bethune, but his lack of Frenchness is not the problem. The two previous French CEOs vowed to curb the influence of labor unions failed miserably. French presidents including Macron, Hollande, and Sarkozy have vowed to do the same thing…and also failed miserably. The French labor system is firmly ingrained. Fighting Goliath will take the right David. I believe Smith’s goal should be victory, not harmony.
I wholeheartedly congratulate Smith on his new position and offer this declaration: brother, you have your work cut out for you!
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