The Virgin America Master Executive Council (MEC) meets in its Las Vegas, Nev., office for the last regular MEC meeting of 2017.
Last year resulted in the first contract for the pilots of Virgin America, who are now working under a joint collective bargaining agreement. And while the path to get there was tumultuous, it yielded improvements for the pilot group. When Alaska Air Group announced the purchase of Virgin America in 2016 and its intention to integrate Alaska Airlines and Virgin America, the Virgin America pilots—who at the time were in negotiations with their own airline for their first collective bargaining agreement—began the long and at times turbulent journey of a merger.
After a joint transition and process agreement was finally reached in December 2016, the next step was to negotiate a joint collective bargaining agreement for the merged pilot group.
Only three items of Alaska’s current contract were open for negotiations: compensation, 401(k)/retirement benefits, and scope/job security protections. “In the beginning, Alaska management shared its vision for a smooth and successful transition. We were told that management wanted to work with us to reach a joint collective bargaining agreement by focusing squarely on the process of merging the two airlines into a single carrier as quickly as possible,” said Capt. Joe Youngerman, the Virgin America pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) chairman.
Yet while the pilots of Virgin America continued to work without a contract or pay raises for more than two years, Alaska management dragged out a process that could have been completed in a matter of days or months. The delays and resistance to provide all pilots with a market-rate contract led to mediated negotiations, which failed, followed by an arbitrated award that gave pilots an increase in pay and retirement benefits, yet still leaves the pilots behind their industry peers and excluded important scope provisions.
“Our Joint Negotiating Committee and team of attorneys did an incredible job, and we appreciate all of their hard work and support. The award was not everything we wanted, and we were denied the job-protection provisions we know are so important. The next round of negotiations will be regular Section 6 full contract negotiations that will not have an arbitration mechanism built in. We’ll be looking for improvements in the future,” noted Youngerman.
The joint collective bargaining agreement was implemented in early November 2017. As the Joint Negotiating Committee moves into the contract implementation phase, the Virgin America Merger Committee is working to create an integrated pilot seniority list.
While it’s certainly been a challenging year for the Virgin America pilots, their unity, camaraderie, and professionalism have not wavered and continue to be their greatest strength. At the Virgin America regular MEC meeting in November, all three MEC officers along with the existing Negotiating Committee chairman and members volunteered to continue to serve and were reelected. Additionally, Capt. Shane Atkins, the Los Angeles, Calif., Local Executive Council rep, joined the Negotiating Committee, further displaying the unity, commitment, and dedication of the union reps to the pilot group.
“The support and professionalism from our pilots throughout this difficult period has been tremendous,” said Youngerman. “The joint collective bargaining agreement becomes amendable in 2020 with negotiations expected to begin in the second half of 2019. This will be an opportunity to address issues like scope and work rules that we’re still lacking. The next negotiations will be a test of our pilot group’s resolve, participation, and unity. There is much work to be done between now and then to be prepared. We’ll get the contract that we are all willing to fight for and nothing less.”