Air Transport World

A fair shake.(airline-employee labor unions no longer willing to make concessions)

After years of concessionary contracts, U.S. labor is looking for a payback

In the early 1990s, U.S. airline managers sought and won concessionary contracts from unions, in part due to a disastrous economy. Labor grudgingly acquiesced to demands for pay and benefit cuts in exchange for stock options, seats on boards of directors, even a hand in corporate governance.

Having shared the pain, unions now feel justified in demanding some of the gain of recent years. Nowhere was that desire for payback better demonstrated than during the 15-day Northwest Airlines pilots' strike that began in late August. Leading up to the strike, the pilots sent a clear message to management that the time had come to share the wealth. In a way, the strike set the stage for future negotiations between airline labor and management, with pocketbook and job-security issues at the forefront.

ALPA's new president, Northwest Capt. Duane E. Woerth, may have spoken for several union leaders when he told ATW: "The move for additional concessions, whether it be in productivity, pay or anything else, has clearly evaporated." There won't be a return to the practice of concessions as long as the economy and the airlines' balance sheets remain strong, said Woerth and other union leaders interviewed for this article.

Despite the rhetoric and a few flareups in the last five years--American Airlines' brief pilot strike in 1997 being one--the relationship between, management and labor has been relatively stable. Certainly, relations are infinitely better today than they were at the dawn of airline deregulation. Fourteen strikes occurred between 1978 and 1980, out of a total of 25 strikes during the entire deregulated era.

What surprisingly has deteriorated is the relationship between union leaders and rank-and-file members. For example, between October, 1996, and November, 1998, 14 of 22 tentative contracts were rejected after being approved by union negotiators.

"These defeats show a stunning lack of faith in the negotiating process as well as a lack of trust in union representatives and their employers by airline employees," said former National Mediation Board Chairman Joshua M. Javits, now partner with the law firm of Ford & Harrison, which represents numerous airlines on labor matters. In a recent speech, he warned that "this phenomenon is as troubling to unions as to management."

Perhaps. But the situation seems far more worrisome to labor. "My fear is that all these contracts getting shot down the first time will result in management exploiting the issue and delaying the negotiating process," said ALPA's Woerth, who just finished 5 1/2 years on Northwest Airlines' board of directors. "Some managements will now automatically assume that the first contract will be shot down and as a result, will hold something back"

Pat Friend, international president of the Assn. …

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