Training for the Unexpected at the Bargaining Table

Pilot Commentary

By Capt. Jeff Harbison (JetBlue), Chair, ALPA Collective Bargaining Committee

Like most airline pilots, I take every opportunity to share my passion for flying and my experience in the piloting profession with the next generation. Union pilots know, for example, that our collective agreements with our companies affect every part of our job. Given this influence, contract negotiators owe it to ourselves and our profession to share what we know with others—and especially with those who are new to the bargaining table.

Our union’s Collective Bargaining Committee (CBC) is a team of seasoned negotiators who represent the full spectrum of ALPA pilot groups. Working with our staff partners, the CBC is charged with designing pilot training and resources based on our union’s eight decades of experience negotiating industry-leading contracts. Just as pilots “train for the unexpected” in flight operations, the CBC’s programs provide pilot negotiators with a strong core knowledge but also the nimbleness to respond rapidly to new issues. Equally important, the CBC fosters communication, coordination, and unity among U.S. and Canadian pilot negotiators.

The COVID-19 pandemic was clearly unexpected. ALPA’s CBC leaned on the core fundamentals while communicating among pilot groups to identify the strongest strategies for bargaining in a new era. We acted swiftly to support individual ALPA master executive councils (MECs) in negotiations while always considering the broader view of how each contract modification would influence the industry bargaining pattern.

In the first days of the pandemic, the pressure to act quickly was intense—pilots’ health was at risk as ALPA members continued to work, and many transported health-care personnel, equipment, and supplies into pandemic hotspots. However, ALPA had learned from experience following the attacks of 9/11 that some changes to collectively bargained contracts can take years to alter once the bargaining environment improves, and a response that lacks pilot coordination across the industry will undermine the favorable contract patterns we’ve worked hard to achieve. This understanding and the Association’s experience led us to take immediate steps to ensure both coordinated responses across our profession and avoidance of long-term changes.

Right after the COVID-19 outbreak, the CBC invited all ALPA MEC Negotiating Committee chairs and staff to join weekly coordinating calls. Participants on these calls—MEC leaders, Negotiating Committees, and ALPA’s staff of professional experts in the negotiating, legal, and economic arenas—discussed and helped create safety protocols and protection for pilots with possible virus exposure. This collective effort helped MEC negotiators improve contract standards, enhance leave provisions, boost medical and insurance benefits, and provide pay, sick bank, and commuter pilot protection. ALPA then reached out to independent pilot unions through industrywide bargaining roundtable meetings to ensure that we coordinated our approach across pilot group lines.

While these first COVID-19 agreements focused largely on pilot safety and health, they set the stage for bargaining over a broad range of issues related to early retirements, voluntary leaves, and furlough mitigation—efforts that are still under way and will continue during the next months. Despite wide participation in voluntary leave and early-out measures, pilots have received notice of potential involuntary furloughs. Our union will continue its work at every possible level to reduce the impact on our members.

The full picture of the industry challenges isn’t yet known. As a result, the CBC will continue to work and coordinate the Association’s bargaining efforts as part of its other regular activities. Our efforts will be guided by three key principles: (1) little appetite exists for contract concessions after the arduous efforts to restore our working agreements following 9/11 and the bankruptcy era, and any needed assistance must be short-lived, (2) pilots continue to have negotiating and contract objectives during this period that must be addressed along with company goals, and (3) the only way to ensure that favorable contract patterns are broadly maintained is to work closely with other pilots across company lines.

We may not know what the airline industry will look like in the future, but we do know it will be different. In the months ahead, the CBC, assisted by experienced professional negotiators, will focus the full weight of ALPA’s expertise, resources, and efforts on protecting ALPA members. Our union will look to new ideas as well as proven practices as we support our MEC negotiators at the bargaining table.

This article was originally published in the August 2020 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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