Preparing for a Strike

Delta pilots ready labor’s ultimate weapon by building unity, using ‘crosstalk,’ and taking lessons from history.

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

When an aircraft or other manufacturer is looking to improve a product, it may refer to "incremental prototyping"—building a model, testing the components, keeping the bells and whistles that work, modifying (or getting rid of) those that don’t. The goal is to end up with a product that has the desired performance capabilities.

When an ALPA pilot group is building a strike-preparedness structure, the modeling, testing, and modifying process takes on a whole new dimension.

Delta pilots, in the end game of their current contract negotiations, have been building, testing, and retooling their strike preparedness since before the ink had dried on their 1996 contract.

If and when they roll out their 2001 strike model, it should be a well-oiled machine. And it should also stand as a textbook example of how the give-and-take among pilot groups, and the shared wisdom of a union with seven decades of history, can work to pilots’ mutual benefit.

First Officer Mike Donatelli, chairman of the Delta pilots’ Strike Preparedness Committee, understands the high-profile nature of the Delta operation. Just like United’s negotiations last year, he says, "We know every pilot group in the world is going to be watching this one."

Delta pilots voted by a 97 percent margin in February to approve a strike if one becomes necessary. (At this writing, the two sides are in mediated talks and have agreed to ask the National Mediation Board for a proffer of arbitration and release into a 30-day cooling-off period if a new contract is not reached by February 28.) An impressive 99.2 percent of Delta’s approximately 8,300 eligible members cast votes in the strike balloting.

ALPA’s Executive Board approved an initial allocation of up to $10 million from the Major Contingency Fund for the Delta strike effort.

But underpinning that commitment of resources is a commitment of a large number of pilot volunteers, the Delta pilot group’s leaders point out.

Adapting structures

From the Atlanta headquarters of the Strike Preparedness Committee, its efforts fan out in a cadre of volunteers through a network of nine other sites across the country, linked to Delta’s crew bases and Boston, where a base was closed in 1996 but a large contingent of pilots still lives. Committees oversee the SPC’s key functions—communications, finance, hotels, information technology, pilot tracking, and security. Nine satellite centers have also been set up to coordinate picketing.

The SPC has adapted many of the committee structures already in place to serve the Delta pilot group. Professional Standards Committee members, for example, "were already familiar to our pilots out on the line," and had the necessary training to serve as an interface with the Chief Pilot’s office in the pressurized environment of negotiations, F/O Donatelli says.

Similarly, committees specifically geared to negotiations, such as Pilot to Pilot and Family Awareness, have been carried over in some form since Contract ’96.

"We’ve learned from the past not to tear down these structures completely, but to build on what we have," F/O Donatelli adds. "We actually had an ‘after-action meeting and report’" after the ’96 contract was signed to modify the pilot group’s strike preparation efforts. Based on that post-mortem, the SPC "rewrote the entire strike prep manual," he says.

The SPC effort has been "road-tested" along the way by other pilot groups, which has allowed Delta planners to fine-tune and strengthen their operations, F/O Donatelli says.

"When we were ramping up during the course of negotiations for the ’96 contract," he says, "we had other pilot groups come here and watch our operation. The Allied Pilots Association —the independent union representing American’s pilots—actually adopted our system and employed it as their own. In 1997, we went over to American and watched our operation run. We saw how it worked there, how to make modifications, and where the holes in the system might be."

Northwest, whose earlier strike manual had served as the basis for Delta’s, modified Delta’s SPC efforts to use in its own strike preparations in 1998, F/O Donatelli says. "When they went through the strike, we were all over the country with them. We’d say, ‘OK, how can we improve on that part? We actually built what we learned into our MEC’s Strategic Plan for the current strike-preparedness effort."

Delta pilot representatives went as observers to other operations, such as that of Trans States, and to non-ALPA operations, like that of UPS’s Independent Pilots Association. In turn, the chairmen of the Family Awareness Committee and Strike Committee of the Independent Association of Continental Pilots (IACP) were observers during Delta’s regional strike training in January.

The testing and the give-and-take have demonstrated the benefit of the interchange among pilot groups.

"When we made our presentation to the Executive Council to ask for MCF funding," F/O Donatelli says, "I told them ‘The message I want you to take from this meeting is that you’ve got to tell your pilots about the power of a national union.’"

At the kitchen table

ALPA’s history has taught the Delta pilots that "strength from within" draws not only from the membership, but from each individual member’s support structure.

Family involvement during strike preparation ramped up during the turbulent 1980s, when the United MEC Strike Committee chairman, Capt. Rick Dubinsky (now United MEC chairman), observed that strikes are often "won or lost at the kitchen table."

Delta’s Family Awareness structure mirrors its SPC’s regional network, and its numbers are impressive, says Capt. Michael "Dutch" Holland, Family Awareness chairman. The network takes in more than 600 Family Awareness groups, which are spread out among 47 geographical areas. Delta Capt. Steve Johnson developed special software to "geo-code" (i.e., map the residence location) of every Delta pilot. Based on that information, a computer assigns each pilot to a Family Awareness group (and also keeps track of nomadic pilots—the roughly 200 who change addresses in an average month!).

The monumental preparation and mobilization of resources, says F/O Donatelli, are designed to allow the MEC and Negotiating Committee to remain focused on the ultimate goal: successful resolution of the contract. "They can stay focused on negotiations, and we’ll take care of the pilot side."

Culture shift

The early and workmanlike execution of the strike-planning strategy at Delta was necessary for another reason: a massive change in the Delta pilot culture.

Delta pilots’ historic relationship with an employer that many considered a second "family" went through a significant shift during and following the last round of contract negotiations, a number of pilots have observed, and preparation for contract 2000 represented a culture shock for some.

Planners consequently designed a number of events to reinforce and demonstrate the pilot group’s unity. They launched informational picketing at Delta headquarters in August 1997—on Delta CEO Leo Mullin’s first day on the job. For a number of Delta pilots who had switched to Delta’s black uniforms from military blue, green, or khaki, as well as those who had been part of Delta’s earlier paternalistic culture, that was a major psychological hurdle.

But, boy, did they get over it. More than 1,200 picketers turned out May 2, 2000, the amendable date of the contract, with 450 picketing in Atlanta alone, right in the sightlines of Delta corporate headquarters. On Sept. 8, 2000, the 1-year anniversary of opening Section 6 negotiations, 1,500 pilots and family members turned out for another rally.

A "strike mobilization drill" on Nov. 15, 2000, drew well over 1,000 pilots throughout the system. The drill was part practice, part public pronouncement, says F/O Donatelli. "We’ve convinced management that we are unified and that this pilot group has resolve."


Communication has been the linchpin of the whole operation, says First Officer John ("Curly") Culp, SPC vice-chairman. The pilot group has developed a number of tools to get information out quickly. The SPC has secured e-mail addresses from more than 8,500 of the pilot group’s 9,800 members, no small feat.

Besides a dedicated and secure website for its own members, at this writing, the pilot group was planning to unveil a public-access website for other Delta employees, other industry professionals, and the traveling public.

"Management has typically used their tools to drive a wedge between other employees and us, or to promote the notion with the traveling public that we have no concern for their welfare," says F/O Culp.

"We want to combat that notion and let them know that we are simply exercising our legal rights under the Railway Labor Act and that a strike is a tool we don’t want to use." The web-site will be designed to provide updates on what is occurring and how passengers might alter their travel plans.


All the components of ALPA’s "tool-box"—media training through the communications department, legal advice, economic and financial analysis, retirement expertise, political savvy—have worked into the mix of preparations, to be sure. But an unmistakable synergy has resulted from the input of pilots outside of Delta, and there is undoubtedly a lesson in that.

The Strike Oversight Board, a three-member panel appointed by ALPA’s president from pilot groups other than those involved in the strike effort, provides not only financial oversight, but also "nuts-and-bolts experience," F/O Donatelli says. "The Board is not just involved with the funding process, but also with the big picture—the emotions, the feelings, about what a pilot group might go through. Having that kind of crosstalk going is really good."

The Delta pilots took an additional step, one that was almost an afterthought in the planning of their meeting for regional strike volunteers. They invited Capt. Bob Kehs, a retired Northwest pilot who had been involved in strikes not only at that carrier, but also at United and Continental. ALPA’s Board of Directors in October 2000 named Capt. Kehs as first recipient of the Dave Behncke Lifetime Achievement Award for his experience in collective bargaining and his help to other ALPA pilot groups.

"We called him, and he was on the next airplane," the SPC planners marvel. Capt. Kehs shared advice and anecdotes and answered pilots’ questions.

With his "breadth of knowledge" and his stories from the trenches, the SPC planners add, "he infused our efforts with a sense of history."

At Air Wisconsin: A Familiar Story

Air Wisconsin pilots heard an all-too-familiar story in 1993. Sold by United (which had bought Air Wisconsin for its slots at O’Hare), the carrier would need "enormous" concessions to keep the airline flying, its new owner told Air Wisconsin employees.

The Air Wisconsin Master Executive Council chairman, Capt. Carl Fleming, remembers that pilots were particularly hard hit: an 11 percent hourly pay cut, pay cuts for any cancellations due to weather or mechanical problems, more concessions in work rules. The pilots, to keep their jobs, agreed to "close to 35 percent of our earning capability in concessions," Capt. Fleming estimates.

Fast forward to June 1999, when the pilots began negotiations on a new contract, or to now, when negotiations are continuing under the auspices of a mediator. Despite the company’s consistent profits, management has balked at restoring many of those cuts (pay rates were improved somewhat in 1998), and pilot negotiators are frustrated with management’s "seemingly unmotivated approach" to the contract talks.

The Air Wisconsin MEC, like Delta’s, has installed a Strike Preparedness Committee and been granted a Major Contingency Fund allocation (up to $2 million) for its efforts.

In addition, they’ve tapped into the expertise of other pilot groups at ALPA to assist in their preparations.

"The United pilots have just been fantastic with what they’ve shared with us," in terms of planning assistance and advice, Capt. Fleming says.

The MCF allocation will be invaluable in helping fund the strike preparations. Protracted negotiations, particularly by smaller pilot groups, present particular challenges, Capt. Fleming points out.

Although Air Wisconsin has approximately 650 pilots on the property, close to half are still on probation and thus not paying dues. "ALPA has worked with us along those financial lines," he adds.

Capt. Fleming says the pilot group expects to be in negotiations "pretty much nonstop" through March, "and we’ll have a pretty clear picture of how this is going" by the beginning of April.

By that point, the group will have been in negotiations for 21 months, Capt. Fleming says, and is "ready to demonstrate our resolve" if they should have to take their frustration to the next level.