New Tools for Old Problems

ALPA equips the ‘Class of 2001’ with new technology and advanced concepts as these leaders face the age-old battle of labor versus management.

Air Line Pilot, April 2001, p.24
By Chris Dodd, Staff Writer

The message wasn’t sugar-coated for ALPA’s newest elected leaders, sequestered in Reston, Va., for 4 days of intensive training: The job is tough and usually thankless. And though the tools and services to draw from get more sophisticated each year, the battles that they’re used for can be decades old.

"Look around you," ALPA’s president, Capt. Duane Woerth, told the ALPA Leadership Conference "Class of 2001" on its opening day, February 26. "Managements have always tried to make you believe that pilots from other airlines are your enemies. The real truth is that the people in this room are often the only friends you’ve got."

Capt. Woerth told the 84 pilots from 32 carriers who attended the conference that many of the union’s current struggles were rooted in the perennial tug of war of capital versus labor. "Every airline operator is trying to save money at [our expense], trying to get labor cheaper," or to squeeze more out of flight crews’ schedules and work rules, he said. "Dave Behncke is probably rolling in his grave because, despite Decision 83 [the 1933 National Labor Board decision setting a maximum for a pilot’s monthly flight time], we’re still fighting the [flight and duty time] battle to this day."

ALPA’s Leadership Conference, which has grown in size and popularity as a training tool for new representatives, has evolved to address the complex roles these leaders face as ALPA’s "point men and women," said Leadership Conference Committee chairman, First Officer Dan Waldmann (United).

The attendees were briefed on legislative and legal issues and air safety initiatives, heard from ALPA staff on the range of Association services, and learned the legal requirements for union record-keeping and the fine points of running a meeting correctly and efficiently. The group also took part in workshops on dealing with disciplinary actions and processing grievances.

A special session was set aside for representatives from ALPA’s Canadian carriers to discuss issues unique to those pilots.

Brendan Kenny, senior legislative representative from ALPA’s Government Affairs Department, noted that the current political climate was going to make it particularly difficult for ALPA and other labor unions to advance their initiatives. "Not in the last 50 years have we been faced with both a Republican administration and a Republican-controlled Congress," he pointed out.

There are some bright spots, however. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, the lone Democrat in the new Cabinet, has long been sympathetic to pilot issues, and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao served on the Northwest Airlines Board of Directors with Capt. Woerth before he became ALPA’s president.

Kenny noted that ALPA’s three full-time lobbyists would be paying particular attention to pension and campaign finance reform legislation in the coming months. ALPA supports the McCain-Feingold bill, which restricts the use of "soft" money in political campaigns.

He added that so-called "paycheck protection" legislation was expected to be introduced again in the current legislative session. Proposed most recently in 1998, the legislation aims to hamstring labor unions’ influence by requiring that they obtain annual written permission to use any portion of union dues for so-called "political activities."

The trapdoor in the legislation is that "political activity" is broadly defined to include contact with all manner of government agencies—in ALPA’s case, everything from lobbying Congress for safety initiatives to working through federal agencies such as the National Mediation Board to secure pilot contracts. If enacted, the "paycheck protection" could adversely affect nearly 70 percent of ALPA’s annual budget, Kenny said.

The Association’s battles over flight and duty time extend back to the 1930s, noted Jim Johnson, supervisor in ALPA’s Legal Department, who detailed the chronology of the regulations to the present day and ALPA’s ongoing struggles to address pilot fatigue. Since major rulemaking on the issue was last attempted in late 1995, ALPA has fought opposition from the airline industry, primarily the Air Transport Association (ATA), and sought to have portions of the issue addressed piece by piece.

In mid-1999, the union forced FAA Administrator Jane Garvey to begin enforcing the "reserve rest" rule requiring that reserve pilots have a 9-hour rest period during each 24-hour period (see "Reserve Rest Requirements," August 1999). In 2000, the Allied Pilots Association secured an interpretation from the FAA of a portion of the rule that prohibits a pilot from being on duty more than 16 hours per day. While ALPA and other pilot unions interpreted the rule to refer to actual flight time hours, carriers were narrowly interpreting the language to refer to scheduled hours, which often bear little resemblance to a pilot’s actual time on duty. The ATA in January filed a "petition for review" in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., to seek to overturn the unions’ interpretation. ALPA immediately petitioned to intervene in the suit, Johnson said, and is continuing the fight to press for even stricter limits on duty time.

ALPA Assistant Director for Representation Ken Cooper described the strong network of staff support from all of ALPA’s departments that underlies every contract negotiation—from the Representation and Legal Departments, to Economic and Financial Analysis, to Retirement and Insurance, to Communications. And aside from the Leadership Conference training, departments often provide more specialized training for pilot negotiators, including collective bargaining training, a grievance training seminar, and a retirement and insurance seminar scheduled for later this year.

But the most effective weapon in the ALPA arsenal, as it was in 1931, is still pilot unity, Capt. Woerth noted. The "tremendous amount of consolidation" in the airline industry must strengthen pilots’ resolve not to allow managements to exploit their differences, he cautioned.

And the state of the industry was indeed reflected in the audience: pilots from United and US Airways, whose carriers’ merger plans were under study by the Department of Justice; pilots from Allegheny and PSA, which had been proposed for sale (along with Piedmont) to Atlantic Coast; pilots from TWA, bankrupt and on the auction block; and pilots from ALPA’s Canadian carriers, plowing through a major restructuring, which was leading many of the pilots to have to choose between membership in ALPA or in the Air Canada Pilots Association.

While overall union membership throughout the United States has declined, ALPA’s membership has doubled since deregulation of the airline industry in 1978, Capt. Woerth said. At this writing, Continental and Continental Express pilots are voting on whether to reaffiliate with ALPA, which is continuing to explore mergers with other independent unions, including those of the American and FedEx pilots.

With ALPA observing its 70th anniversary this year, Capt. Woerth encouraged the representatives to work across company lines to confront the problems that the shifts in the airline industry pose. "If we can stick together and get through this next round of mergers without reverting to a ‘herd mentality,’" Capt. Woerth said, "this class can make everybody proud."