The NMB’s Newest Member: Linda Puchala—There’s No Substitute for Experience
By ALPA Staff

It was the high school debate team that spurred Linda A. Puchala’s interest in and commitment to understanding different points of view. Puchala, the newest member of the National Mediation Board, said she could capably argue both sides of an issue growing up in Norway, Michigan, a small town on the state’s upper peninsula. She has used this and other skills to become a distinguished labor representative, labor relations professional, and mediator. And when the time was right, President Barack Obama selected her to fill a critical position on the National Mediation Board that requires balance and fairness.

She Was an Alpa Member, Too

Linda Puchala started working in the airline business as a flight attendant with North Central Airlines (which later merged to form Republic) when flight attendants were part of the Steward and Stewardesses division of the Air Line Pilots Association. Within a year of starting work at North Central, she joined the flight attendant Scheduling Committee, later moved to the Negotiating Committee, and eventually became the Master Executive Council chair. From 1979 to 1986, Puchala was the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, AFL-CIO.

Shortly after her swearing in, Puchala sat down with Bruce York, director of ALPA’s Representation Department; Marie Schwartz, director the union’s Communications Department; and Sharon Vereb, editor of Air Line Pilot to discuss the mission, goals, and renewed focus of the NMB under the Obama Administration.

Air Line Pilot: A lot of legacy carrier bargaining took place under the bankruptcy code during the last negotiating cycle, which left the NMB on the sidelines. The Bush administration’s labor policy and long mediations in the recent past have caused ALPA and other airline and rail unions to question the effectiveness of, or lose confidence in, the NMB’s ability to fairly balance employer and employee interests. What steps can the NMB take to restore confidence in its role and demonstrate that it can facilitate mediation efficiently?

Puchala: I was a mediator when President Bush announced early in his first four years that there wouldn’t be any airline strikes during his presidency. That announcement, combined with bankruptcy-related bargaining, could lead to the perception that there has been a chilling effect on the Railway Labor Act bargaining process. Looking forward, my recent experience on the Obama administration’s NMB transition team helped me understand where labor was coming from with respect to our mediation practice, but also, where management was coming from. Both sides expressed the need to bring credibility back to the negotiating process, and we’re taking that very seriously. We are hopeful that we’ll be able to move cases along more quickly. The Board’s mediation agenda is increasing daily, so we have to be prepared to distribute our resources accordingly but also use them efficiently to help facilitate agreements.

Can that balance be restored, and can negotiations and mediation proceed more efficiently under the Railway Labor Act, or does the Act need to be changed?

With my long negotiating history under the Railway Labor Act, my view is that balance can be restored and the Act can work. A lot of the questions can focus on the Board’s discretionary authority, how it’s been used in the recent past, and how this new Board intends to use it. Frankly, I know that there is an element of your members, and other union members, that feels that we need to revamp the RLA. With my fellow Board members and the NMB staff, I would like the opportunity to breathe some life back into the Act and exercise judicious authority to show both labor and management that it can work.

But as we prepare to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the NMB, this is also an appropriate time to take a serious look at the Railway Labor Act and the way the Board is administering the Act. We have discussed reconstituting a Dunlop-type commission [named after its chair and the former Secretary of Labor John T. Dunlop, who convened industry participants to discuss and recommend changes to the NMB in the mid-1990s] that is representative of both labor and management interests so that the parties can help take a critical look at and offer suggestions and observations to the NMB on the way negotiations and mediation, among other things, are working. All of the Board members have expressed a positive interest in moving forward on that issue.

What characterizes negotiations that move forward successfully versus ones that don’t?

Well, I can tell you that a mediator’s dream is that we’re at the table with a limited number of issues, the right people are at the table, and both sides of the table have the motivation to make a deal. You can’t underestimate the need for the parties to be motivated to make a deal.

Our members sometimes worry that the Board weighs in on the kind of deal that should be done rather than focus its attention on facilitating the deal and letting the parties decide what to settle for. More specifically employees worry that the Board puts its finger on the scale in favor of management. Is that concern accurate?

The economic circumstances are always under evaluation by the parties so it’s not surprising that the mediator might also have a view of how the contract that he/she is working on compares with others being negotiated at the same time or recently. But he or she does not favor the position of one side or the other. It may surprise members to learn that we hear exactly the same concerns expressed by management most of the time. That says to me that we’re putting equal pressure on the parties.
We’re primarily concerned that the parties reach agreement themselves, understand the deal, and believe that whatever they agree to can be ratified. One of a mediator’s main areas of concern is to have a contract rejected and have the parties return to the table after economic circumstances have deteriorated. Now management, because of the economic circumstances, is unable to continue to offer that tentative agreement. Those follow-on negotiations are much more difficult. I know that ALPA understands how important it is to stay in constant communications with the members in order to understand what can gain members approval. Our efforts are for naught if the contract can’t be ratified.

Your tenure at the Board as a mediator includes lots of work with alternative dispute resolution (ADR). Are there things the Board is planning to do, or can do, that make it easier to solve industry-labor relations problems generally?

One of the things that has been asked in recent years is whether there are sufficient opportunities for airline labor and management to talk about important or thorny issues away from the bargaining table—things like grievance backlogs, changing economic circumstances, how bankruptcy overlays and impacts bargaining under the RLA, what future trends are developing. I think it’s incumbent on the Board to work with the parties to find times to talk about these kinds of issues and make sure that we do it constructively on a regular basis. We have experts on both sides of the table who can offer ideas to the Board about what programs are necessary and can be offered to industry-labor relations participants.

So as a mediator and now as a Board member, what are the typical misperceptions that people who haven’t participated have about the bargaining process? What don’t you think they sometimes understand?

Often times folks don’t understand why their view of the “right solution” to a problem will not always prevail in the bargaining process. People sometimes think that if you’re just tenacious enough, your proposal will be adopted, and that may not be true—for both sides of the table. There are usually several ways to resolve an issue, and that is why it is a bargaining “process.” A common misperception with respect to mediation is that the mediator has the authority to impose a settlement, or that the mediator can strong arm the other side into accepting one proposal or another. None of those things are true.

How do you disabuse that perception?

Well, one of the things that mediators do is talk to negotiators about the proposal that’s on the table in detail and discuss with them the other side’s view of that proposal. The Board, instead of trying to support one side or the other, tries to identify common ground. Mediators spend most of their time listening, asking questions and trying to be alert to opportunities to build on or expand areas of common ground. We try to link areas of common ground with other issues of disagreement to see if we can help the parties formulate viable alternatives. In short, mediators focus their efforts toward keeping the parties engaged in constructive dialogue.

Do you think that the parties coming to the table on both sides are as prepared as they should be to reach a deal?

One of the things I know that happens in tough economic times is that training programs are condensed. Travel and costs become an issue. Training budgets within unions and on management teams are sometimes one of the first things that gets minimized. But for bargaining, it’s one of the most important things. In days gone by, it was typical for everyone at the bargaining table to be very experienced except for one person on each side. They were the new member of each committee, and this was their opportunity to observe. Often times, they were asked to be the note taker rather than have a speaking role. That’s not the case any longer. We come into mediations today with many representatives who haven’t been through the bargaining process. In fact, they may have just started on the negotiating committee after the parties applied for mediation. The parties have the right to determine who will represent them at the bargaining table and sometimes find it necessary to substitute members of the committee. So consistency is one of the challenges that the mediators face.

Puchala’s Background

Linda A. Puchala was confirmed as a member of the NMB by the U.S. Senate on May 21 and sworn in as chair on May 26. Before becoming the three-person Board’s most recent member, she served as the senior mediator and associate director of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Services at the NMB. She joined the agency in May 1999 as a mediator working on both airline and railroad cases. Puchala has 40 years of experience in the labor-relations field, including work as the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, AFL-CIO, and staff director of the Michigan State Employees Association, AFSCME, AFL-CIO.

What suggestions do you have for union representatives when it comes to processing negotiations and interacting with the NMB?

I think that a good deal of negotiations relates to the parties’ expectations. When committees come to the table with scores of issues, they need to recognize that their mediator has more than one case. The parties will likely not have the opportunity to meet with the Board every week—at least not until the end stages of mediation. So negotiators have to do the math—how much work can be accomplished given the amount of time available; and, if we’re looking for a speedier resolution, do we need to consider moving some of this work into subcommittees or solving some of the issues ourselves without the mediator’s help?

In some cases the mediator has equal access to each side’s caucuses. But in others, mediators spend much more time with one side or the other. Why does that happen?

Each mediator has his or her own personal style and approach, but generally speaking the Board mediators focus on keeping communication lines open. It’s sometimes necessary for mediators to spend a lot more time with one side than the other. It doesn’t mean that he or she likes or believes that side more than the other. Instead, more work may be required with that side. But we try to make sure that the other side generally understands what issues are being discussed with the other and that they have constructive work to do in the meantime.

A number of ALPA carriers are in the mediation process right now. Are they likely to see changes that are noticeable or is this a more evolutionary process?

Well, obviously I can’t comment on any active cases—that would be inappropriate. But I think people will see that cases will begin moving in the direction of settlement and that there will be a more concentrated effort on the part of the mediation staff to move cases to completion. We really don’t have a choice! We have a very full mediation agenda, and more parties are anticipated to apply for mediation in the near future. So we have to handle our current caseload with great vigor and get settlements. But as always, evaluations will be made on a case-by-case basis and many variables are considered. While parties may or may not see activity on their own case at a point in time, they need to be alert and observe the big picture.

When you talk about the Board’s case load, how big is it?

Right now we average about 60 mediation cases, and we also handle grievance mediation cases. We have had as many as 100 airline and railroad cases on our docket. We also have common amenable dates on American and United and the major railroads are scheduled to begin negotiations in early 2010. We anticipate an intense period of work for the Board’s staff.

You mentioned your experience with alternative dispute resolution. For many reasons interest-based bargaining (IBB) does not always get a positive, warm reception—perhaps because the last eight years have not been positive generally or because participants are not sure whether IBB provides a platform for solving cold, hard economic issues. Can the open dialogue that the IBB process seeks, and traditional or position bargaining styles, be reconciled?

Well, I think the process does matter. Our mediators have experience in what we call straight positional bargaining or proposal based bargaining and experience with interest-based bargaining. There are subjects in negotiations that lend themselves more to interest based discussion—for instance, scope clauses or scheduling discussions. These topics are information driven and certainly lend themselves to joint problem solving. This may sound sick, but I love scheduling discussions. They’re really a favorite of mine as a mediator.

That explains a lot about why you would take on the challenge of being a Board member.

I think scope and scheduling are very fascinating subjects that really are information driven so the quality of the information is critical. The lack of IT resources devoted to scheduling troubles me. As a mediator, I encourage labor and management to develop ongoing technology initiatives so that the mutual solutions we’re trying to formulate at the bargaining table are consistent with what the parties can administer from an IT perspective. You also need a commitment to ongoing dialogue because there are going to be hiccups. That dialogue helps as the contract and solutions mature and become more sophisticated. Negotiators need to be tuned in, and they need access to current information—how much the technology initiatives will cost and whether they have been budgeted for. Establishing realistic timeframes for implementing technology-driven solutions is another critical element.

Can negotiation protocols or process agreements at the beginning of bargaining help with training, technology and dialogue?

Even with seemingly straightforward subjects like pay, as a mediator I spent a lot of time early on with both parties trying to align costing models. Those protocols are very important. Obviously ALPA takes this question about “information” and “process” very seriously, too, because it has a whole department devoted to doing this very thing. When we’re in negotiations and parties don’t have that resource, we encourage them to find a way to get it. It puts a lot of strain on the process when you’re negotiating with labor organizations or carriers that don’t have the money or professionals to engage in the analytical process. Work rules, for example, can be very expensive. And it is important for the parties to understand their relative cost in the context of an overall settlement. In the end, negotiations most often involve making hard choices that are driven by the evaluation of economic data. Providing your negotiators with sound economic analysis of the proposals is a necessity in today’s bargaining environment.

Is there anything else that you think is valuable for ALPA members to know about the Board or the mediation process?

Well, I wanted to go back to the relationship of interest-based bargaining, positional negotiations, technology, and the bargaining process generally to highlight a positive example of the integration of all these elements and some of my earlier comments. It was the ALPA-American Eagle amendment round of negotiations. As one of the facilitators involved in those discussions, I could see that we had very knowledgeable, experienced people on both sides of the table who devoted personal energy and resources to the process. They had access to very substantial union and management resources on a timely basis, and the parties were committed to the process and willing to explore different solutions and they had credibility with each other. They also had developed a realistic, proven protocol, and they were committed to work within an established time line. They were religious about adhering to established agendas. Making timely decisions and sticking to an agenda was critical to open the gates for the next set of issues. That disciplined constructive approach makes the job of the mediator easier, and the result, I believe, was much more positive than it could have been for both parties than had the negotiation been opened to a less-structured Section 6 process.

We also used technology extensively during the American Eagle negotiations. We used technology to track the discussions and the development of solutions so labor and management had a common set of negotiations notes. The parties authored a common database of tentative agreements. We did a lot of the final contract language online and that expedited the process. The Board has access to technology, and I know ALPA has access to technology that can enhance the bargaining process, and I would encourage using it to the fullest extent.

I hope we’re going to have parties that will embrace different approaches in the future, engage in negotiations training early on, and provide the structure that is needed to work through a sometimes winding and ambiguous process because it really helps both sides get to the end successfully.