Virgin America

The time had come for Virgin America pilots to be heard collectively by management. And on June 5, 2015—the day of the National Mediation Board (NMB) election—their voice was loud, unified, and strong. Of the 95 percent of eligible Virgin America pilots who voted, 75 percent voted in favor of joining ALPA.

The overwhelming vote was the result of a year-long drive that began in June 2014, when a group of Virgin America pilots met with ALPA representatives to discuss union representation. The company’s decision to reduce pilot flexibility, not follow its own rulebook, and purposefully carve the pilots out of any significant payout in Virgin America’s IPO were all factors that helped the organizing drive quickly gain momentum.

After securing contact information and building a strong Organizing Committee, the pilots collected authorization for representation election cards from a majority of pilots in one of the fastest organizing drives in ALPA history. Seven core organizers, supported by roughly 50 organizing volunteers, decided that it was time to hold the airline accountable for its broken promises and to bring the pilots’ compensation and quality of life more in line with other major U.S. airlines

But getting to that point was no easy task. “We have a wide range of age groups and backgrounds at Virgin America, so understanding our pilots’ various points of view was important. And we needed everyone to understand, regardless of their own circumstances, that voting ‘yes’ for ALPA representation was something that we all needed to do,” said Capt. Joe Youngerman, the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) chairman, who also served as the temporary secretary-treasurer.

Open lines of communication and a good organizing strategy were instrumental in keeping the organizing effort moving. “We didn’t want an organizing victory that left a fractured pilot group in the aftermath. We carefully crafted our messages to make sure pilots knew we were reasonable in our goals and wanted everyone to be part of the union we would build at Virgin America,” explained Youngerman.

After the NMB election, the temporary representatives led a successful membership drive with 95 percent of the eligible Virgin America pilots joining ALPA within 90 days. The MEC started making committee appointments and drafted a policy manual. In October, the Virgin America pilots were represented at ALPA’s Executive Board.

Elections for permanent local representatives were held in October and November. And, in December, the permanent Virgin America MEC elected permanent MEC officers: Youngerman, MEC chairman; Capt. Keith Louis, MEC vice chairman; and Capt. Steve Darling, MEC secretary-treasurer.

According to Youngerman, staffing committees while building the group’s internal structure and working with management on various issues has been more time consuming than the pilots anticipated.

In November, the MEC Contract Study Committee met with ALPA staff to review resources and develop a time line and work plan for negotiations with the company. ALPA’s Economic & Financial Analysis Department prepared and distributed an industry comparison that provided pilots with data about peer compensation and work rules. Just a few weeks later, the committee created an internal poll that will help the MEC and Negotiating Committee assess the pilots’ goals for their first union contract. The pilot group is also working to finish letters of agreement with the company to address some interim scheduling issues, provide an interim dispute resolution mechanism, and better establish safety programs and their protocols.

Later this year, the pilot group will open formal contract negotiations with management. “We have an aggressive negotiation time line and will work hard to deliver a contract that allows the company to continue to improve its business performance while still living up to a long-overdue promise to share that success with us,” noted Youngerman. “We want to make Virgin America a career destination for pilots, not just a stepping-stone to a better one. That’s something management should want as well.”

Virgin America Capt. Joe Youngerman, Capt. Jose Palacios, ALPA President Capt. Tim Canoll, and F/O Ronan O’Donoghue
At ALPA’s 117th regular Executive Board meeting in October 2015, are, from left, Capt. Joe Youngerman, then temporary Master Executive Council secretary-treasurer; Capt. Jose Palacios, then temporary MEC chairman; Capt. Tim Canoll, ALPA president; and F/O Ronan O’Donoghue, LAX Local Executive Council 181 vice chairman.