Building the Union Movement

By Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA President

Airline pilots learn from experience. For 90 years, we’ve recognized the importance of union representation and fought for collective agreements that protect and reinforce the rights of workers. During the same nine decades, a highly unionized pilot workforce has charted the course for air transportation to become extraordinarily safe in the United States and Canada.

One of the most significant reasons behind this safety distinction today is the risk-based, data-driven safety culture that pilots have helped create and put into practice across the U.S. and Canadian airline industry. The airline industry’s lifesaving shift from a forensic to a proactive approach to safety is only possible because of union pilot participation and the protections laid out in our union’s agreements with airlines and regulators.

Safety reporting programs such as the Aviation Safety Action Program and Flight Operations Quality Assurance play a central role in safety management systems (SMS) and the risk-predictive safety culture that ALPA pilots have cultivated at our airlines. These programs wouldn’t succeed without support from labor, management, and the regulator and a nonpunitive workplace environment that allows workers to voluntarily report safety issues without fear of retribution.

In July 2020, our union wrote to the Pakistan Air Line Pilots Association (PALPA) to highlight the value and success of SMS programs in advancing aviation safety. During the recent 2021 Global Pilots Symposium, PALPA Executive Committee Member Capt. Majid Akhter described the “vital” connection between collective labor agreements and a successful safety culture.

As union members, ALPA pilots participate as partners in collaborative safety data collection efforts that are codified in agreements with our airlines and often with regulators as well. As members of the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee, we’re also working to create a risk-predictive safety culture in the remotely piloted aircraft system sector.

The union movement is of course founded on reinforcing workers’ rights. In the early days of COVID-19, ALPA members turned to union agreements and the time-tested success of pattern bargaining to protect pilot health and financial security. With the support of our Collective Bargaining Committee and union staff and resources, ALPA’s master executive councils have negotiated 127 agreements since the pandemic emerged in March 2020. Our union is taking the same approach in calling for the Department of Transportation to cement the rights of U.S. workers in the structure of international agreements, including foreign air carrier permits and joint venture agreements. As a union, we’re equally committed to advancing the dignity of work to foster a diverse and inclusive pilot workforce. As we maintain our ironclad support for the first officer qualification, training, and experience requirements that have made flying safe in the United States, ALPA is working to find new ways to ensure that the piloting profession attracts individuals irrespective of race, gender, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or other diversity traits.

In a recent letter to Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, ALPA outlined U.S. government actions that will make becoming an airline pilot more accessible. Our recommendations included aligning federal funding support for the education required to become an airline pilot with that of other highly skilled professions. We believe that union representation and agreements to protect pilots and enhance safety also contribute to a strong career to attract new aviators.

Over our union’s nine decades, ALPA has witnessed firsthand the troubling antiunion attempts by some airline managements to intimidate workers during union organizing drives and threaten and even terminate workers for reporting aviation safety issues. It’s unconscionable that such behavior continues today.

While ALPA members aren’t directly affected by the National Labor Relations Act, we support other union workers in calling on Congress to adopt the Protecting the Right to Organize Act to provide workers a fair opportunity to gain representation and penalize companies for attempting to intimidate workers during organizing drives. We also commend the Biden administration for creating the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment to help empower workers to organize and successfully bargain with their employers.

The union movement is capturing attention—we see it in ALPA’s newest Western Global members and in workers across the airline industry. As we continue to build it, our union will not only protect workers’ rights, but we’ll also make air transportation safer for our customers and create a strong pilot workforce for the future.