Bringing Your Best to the Bargaining Table
Pilots learn the ins and outs of contract negotiation

Gavin Francis, Staff Writer
Air Line Pilot,
August 2004, p.13

More than 50 ALPA members, representing negotiating committees from a number of the Association’s master executive councils and one other airline, gathered in Herndon, Va., in May to attend ALPA’s annual Negotiations Training Seminar. The annual Seminar has traditionally given ALPA members who serve in leadership, negotiating, and committee positions an opportunity to learn the mechanics of negotiating, become acquainted with ALPA’s professional staff who support negotiations, familiarize themselves with the intricacies of the Railway Labor Act, and meet with National Mediation Board officials.

Based on the ever-more-challenging negotiating environment for labor, the Seminar was broadened this year to cover other key ingredients of a successful negotiating process—team building, strategic planning and preparation, and comprehensive communications. More bargaining simulations and participant exercises were also added to give attendees a chance to practice the skills being discussed.

"This Association does a lot of things," said ALPA’s president, Capt. Duane Woerth, "but the most important one is bargaining and enforcing contracts. Being well prepared for a contract negotiation is absolutely essential, and this Seminar is a fundamental part of that preparation."

"Any number of things can tank a negotiation," said Bruce York, director of ALPA’s Representation Department. "What fails is often not the bargaining-table talks but rather some other part of the planning process or member involvement and communications aspects. Coordinating all the elements is absolutely crucial."

York places a high degree of importance on keeping the pilot group’s members informed on the progress of negotiations. Devising a comprehensive plan to communicate developments to the pilot group is an essential component of any successful

"Airline contracts can take a long time to negotiate under the Railway Labor Act, and a lot can happen over that period to upset the process," said York. "That’s why planning must be comprehensive and periodically reevaluated. The length of the process also calls for extraordinary education efforts with the pilot group. You can’t just show up at the end of the process and say, ‘This is a really good deal,’ and expect that the pilot group is going to understand all of the steps and decisions that were made along the way."

"Nobody will fight for what they don’t understand," said Jeff MacDonald, supervisor of collective bargaining and representation. "If you want pilots to fight for health care or retirement benefits, you better make sure they understand what you’re discussing at the table."

"Typically, a solid plan, thorough communications, and pilot participation produce unity. And unity is critical to the success of the negotiation process," said Ken Cooper, assistant director of ALPA’s Representation Department.

But the current economic climate makes arriving at satisfactory resolutions especially challenging. Most observers acknowledge that there has never been a more difficult negotiating climate for labor in the airline industry.

"Understanding the environment is important for doing the best job possible," said Seth Rosen, longtime director of ALPA’s Representation Department and now an ALPA consultant and director of the union’s International Pilot Services Corporation. "We need to be able to recognize when the best deal we’re going to get is on the table, and then work aggressively to close it," he said during a special segment on restructuring negotiations that he led with Ana McAhron-Schulz, director of ALPA’s Economic and Financial Analysis Department.

All three of the NMB members—Chairman Ed Fitzmaurice, Harry Hoglander, and Read van de Water—and other NMB staff participated in an evening session of the Seminar to give their perspective on the bargaining process and on the NMB’s role.

In sessions on the mediation process, Representation Department Assistant Directors Bill Roberts and Steve Crable (formerly NMB chief of staff) advised attendees that the responsibility of achieving a successful agreement is entirely up to pilots. While mediators may form impressions about the reasonableness of a position, they don’t take sides. They participate to facilitate the negotiation process—not to make judgments about the content of the collective bargaining agreement or its outcome.

As Capt. Woerth highlighted at the start of the Seminar, and General Manager Jalmer Johnson reiterated at another evening session, ALPA training for negotiators is a key element of bargaining preparation. This kind of intensive training and preparation distinguishes ALPA from other organizations.