Political Strength Equals Pilot Jobs

Susan Fager, Assistant Editor
Air Line Pilot
, June/July 2004, p.13

ALPA has forged strong ties in the political arena, starting with the Association’s first president, Capt. Dave Behncke, who believed that building and pursuing political affiliations would benefit the fledgling union and its members. Many of those ties continue today and aid the Association in its role as "the ultimate guardian and defender of the rights and privileges of the professional pilots who are members of the Association," as ALPA’s Mission Statement says.

In 1934, after a series of congressional hearings, President Franklin Roosevelt elected to cancel the airmail contracts that President Herbert Hoover had granted to independent airline operators earlier in the 1930s on the grounds that the contracts had been fraudulently awarded.

On an interim basis, President Roosevelt ordered the Army to fly the mail. Many Army pilots had received some basic instrument instruction during flight training, yet most of the airplanes they flew had no modern instruments. Although the Army fliers coped the best they could, the public outcry over the fatal crashes that occurred was loud and immediate.

Capt. Behncke kept his wits and turned the airmail crisis of 1934 to the advantage of ALPA and the airline piloting profession. Capt. Behncke knew that President Roosevelt would resolve the crisis and come out on top, and he wanted ALPA to be affiliated with the winner.

Once the crisis settled, ALPA was the only aviation industry group that had supported President Roosevelt. In March 1934, Roosevelt announced that he would restore airmail service to private operators and insisted that the new airmail contracts specify wages and working conditions for pilots. The Air Mail Act of 1935 rewarded Capt. Behncke and the pilots’ union with a federally mandated minimum wage for airline pilots.

In 1948, Capt. Behncke and ALPA were embroiled in the National Airlines strike. Because the airline’s owner, Ted Baker, had replaced ALPA’s crews, Capt. Behncke felt he had no other recourse than to take his cause to Washington, D.C., to bring political pressure on Baker and to get the airline’s operating certificate rescinded if Baker continued his actions.

Capt. Behncke knew that ALPA’s success in the National strike lay with President Harry Truman and that the key to a Truman victory in the 1948 presidential election lay with the labor movement. Capt. Behncke moved skillfully to ally the Association with the American Federation of Labor, which had provided ALPA’s union charter in 1931. As called for under the provisions of the Railway Labor Act, President Truman appointed a fact-finding emergency board to look into the National Airlines strike. In July 1948, the board sided with ALPA, criticizing Baker’s actions and suggesting arbitration to resolve the dispute, but Baker wouldn’t agree.

Although no one gave President Truman much of a chance of being reelected, he pulled off one of the greatest political upsets in U.S. history—and he owed it all to organized labor. The time came to pay off his debts, and one of those debts was returning ALPA crews to National Airlines cockpits. In November, with the election over and the writing on the wall, Baker finally signed an agreement with Capt. Behncke to end the strike.

Several decades later, numerous issues facing current-day airline pilots are still being played out in the political arena—the struggle to guarantee collective bargaining rights, to prevent foreign cabotage, to have a voice in shaping pension reform, to contain healthcare costs. That’s why in September 1988 at ALPA’s Executive Board, the Association’s leaders put forth, amended, and passed, and later amended again in 1990, a resolution stating: "The President of ALPA, with the advice and consent of the Executive Board, is authorized to endorse a presidential candidate whose positions and policies will benefit the careers of our members." ALPA’s leaders made clear that the union’s presidential endorsement was not intended in any way to mandate how an individual ALPA member should vote.

In 1992, the Association marked a historic first—its first formal endorsement of a U.S. presidential candidate, Bill Clinton, and the Association’s Executive Board and Board of Directors affirmed the endorsement.

In 1996, the Association commissioned a poll of its members on the subject of presidential endorsement. The survey indicated that 77 percent of those polled believed that the Democratic Clinton/Al Gore ticket would better serve their interests than the Republican Bob Dole/Jack Kemp team. At the May 1996 Executive Board meeting, the Board voted overwhelmingly to endorse Clinton/Gore in the 1996 election.

In the spring of 2000, the ALPA Executive Board voted to endorse presidential candidate Al Gore.

Just as previous ALPA leaders have done in years past, the Association’s current leaders, by forging ties and building relationships, will continue to follow their charge to protect and enhance the piloting profession and the safety, welfare, and employment of ALPA members.