ALPA Organizing
Reaching Out to the Profession

By Ken Cooper, Assistant Director, Representation Department
Air Line Pilot, May 2004, p.14

Every encounter with a non-ALPA airline pilot—in airports, at layover hotels, and on jumpseats—is an organizing opportunity for you to help influence pilots elsewhere.

The protection of airline pilots’ professional standards depends on ALPA’s ability to organize and add new members across a broad slice of the piloting profession. Through the union’s Global Pilot Strategy, which the ALPA Board of Directors adopted in 1992, the initial representation of pilots flying for nonunion carriers and mergers with independent pilot unions has remained a priority for the union.

Of course, a frequent question is, "Why is organizing so important? Is it to help those pilots or to serve ALPA’s self-interest?" ALPA’s BOD strategy is underpinned by the belief that the interests of ALPA members and non-ALPA airline pilots coincide fully, and the Association organizes with that understanding. What ALPA is able to achieve in bargaining, lobbying, contract enforcement, safety, and almost every other area sets the standard for all airline pilots—ALPA and non-ALPA—so all airline pilots have a stake in making ALPA as strong as possible. Likewise, ALPA could achieve more for everyone if all airline pilots belonged to ALPA. This common interest is what makes these merger and organizing initiatives so important.

Organizing unrepresented pilots

Volume 1 of Flying the Line, George Hopkins’ history of ALPA, details the early union organizing efforts of ALPA’s founding fathers. Here, we focus on the Association’s more modern efforts to extend the benefits of membership to various groups of pilots, starting in the early 1980s, when so-called "commuter" carriers began service or grew to provide passenger feed from a host of small communities in rural and suburban areas around the country. These carriers aimed to fill a void created when recently deregulated larger airlines curtailed flying in smaller markets to pursue market dominance at key hubs and on primary routes. In the aggregate, these commuter carriers employed a few thousand pilots—most without union representation and working under generally substandard conditions dictated by entrepreneurial employers. In the early 1980s, ALPA leaders determined to undertake an organizing effort aimed at bringing these commuter pilots the benefits of representation and collective bargaining.

Just like today, at that time the interests of ALPA members and non-members coincided. Low wages, lack of benefits, and different regulatory and safety standards were unacceptable to unrepresented pilots.

"Back then, we did not have the ‘one level of safety’ concept that’s in place today," says John O’Brien, director of ALPA’s Engineering and Air Safety Department. "The commuter carriers were governed by FAR Part 135, with significantly less stringent rules governing a pilot’s maximum flight time and minimum rest periods. Several tragic accidents demonstrated a clear need for imposing tighter limitations, at least by contract if not by federal regulation."

Improving contract standards was also essential for ALPA pilots, to prevent undercutting of the higher wages in ALPA contracts and to prevent management from having the last word on such issues as pilot command authority—an area in which ALPA has had historic and important arbitration victories over the years. "Those were turbulent times," observes Bruce York, director of ALPA’s Representation Department, "with bankruptcies at Braniff Airways and Continental Airlines, among others. The adverse effect of the 1978 deregulation legislation was felt more profoundly in the early 1980s than before that, and carriers were trying to adjust to it by putting downward pressure on wages and benefits in a bad economy. Pilots were out of work, they were finding employment at commuter carriers, and they were staying at them longer than they first anticipated."

A small ALPA affiliate, called the Union of Professional Airmen (UPA), which represented commuter pilots, existed in the 1970s. UPA’s mission generally tracked ALPA’s purpose and objectives but with a very limited structure and resources.

York started his career after law school as UPA’s first and only contract administrator and was charged with helping pilot groups in negotiations, handling arbitrations, and organizing new groups. ALPA contract administrators helped out when the work got too heavy. "Organizing then was exceptionally challenging," he says. "Many pilots at these carriers didn’t view their jobs as career positions but as just a necessary step while logging hours on the ladder to larger equipment. Some others were very content to live in smaller communities and work at a family-run business." Despite limited resources and obstacles, UPA organized a few unrepresented pilot groups and negotiated initial collective bargaining agreements. "Negotiations were really hard—either because they were first contracts like the one at Comair or because the owners and their egos played a major role in negotiations. But in every case, the contracts established improved rates of pay and working conditions, and some even included 401(k)-type retirement programs," York says.

ALPA organizing resources and methods

As small carriers began to proliferate after U.S. airline deregulation, ALPA itself realized that the scale of organizing would be significant and that pilots needed one organization in order to provide effective representation. By mutual consent of the pilots concerned, UPA was dissolved in December 1981 and its 450 pilots applied for and were admitted to membership in ALPA. The eight airlines whose pilots joined ALPA then were Aeromech, Air North, Air Wisconsin, Altair, Aspen, Pocono, Ross, and Suburban.

A few years later, ALPA established an Organizing Department, headed by John Bradley, then an assistant director in the Representation Department, and having two staff members, Dennis Higgins (former Continental Master Executive Council chairman) and Del Bunce. Over the decade of the 1980s, more than two dozen new pilot groups joined the Association.

ALPA’s Organizing Department disbanded in the mid-1990s in favor of a team approach for each situation. Each team includes interested pilots from the group being organized, other airline pilots who are already ALPA members, and staff members of various ALPA departments. Over the years, the pilots of carriers including Air Atlanta, Air Cal, Air Virginia, Comair, Henson, Metro, Midway, Precision, Royale, and others have joined ALPA.

Organizing pilots represented by independent unions

Not all of the pilot groups new to ALPA in the 1980s flew for FAR Part 135 commuters. In September 1978, a midair collision with a single-engine airplane near San Diego, Calif., claimed one of Pacific Southwest Airlines’ B-727s. All passengers and crew were lost. PSA had begun as a low-cost carrier operating completely within the confines of California, but had expanded its operations to include cities in Oregon, Washington, Nevada, and Arizona. (In the mid-1980s, PSA was acquired by, and merged into, US Airways, which retained the "PSA" name and assigned it to the former Jetstream International Airlines, a wholly owned subsidiary of US Airways.)

In 1978, an in-house (independent) union, the Southwest Flight Crew Association (SFCA), represented the PSA pilots. The SFCA came to ALPA to get help with the complex and costly accident investigation for which it lacked the expertise and resources to participate effectively. The carrier was also alleging that the PSA flightcrew’s actions caused or contributed to the accident. The late Harold Marthinsen, then director of ALPA’s Accident Investigation Department, spent countless hours on the case, eventually helping to persuade the National Transportation Safety Board that the PSA flight crew was blameless.

The SFCA’s leaders, and a host of PSA pilots, gained a quick, intense, and lasting appreciation for the quality and depth of ALPA’s resources—not only in accident investigation, but across the board. With contract negotiations looming on the horizon, these pilots had a strong desire to secure ALPA representation and an efficient organizing campaign proved fruitful. The PSA pilots joined ALPA in 1981.

Pilots of American Trans Air (now ATA), Business Express Airlines (now part of American Eagle), DHL (now ASTAR Air Cargo), and Tower Air (now defunct) all replaced their prior union representation with ALPA through the National Mediation Board representation election process.

While ALPA actively encouraged and helped the Business Express pilots and the Tower Air flightcrew members make that transition, the DHL and American Trans Air pilots came into ALPA through a different effort. In both cases, an internal group solicited sufficient authorization cards in favor of an independent union and then petitioned the NMB to conduct a representation election. On NMB secret ballots, space is also provided for the voter to designate a "write in" representative of his or her choice in addition to the petitioning union. At both DHL and American Trans Air, the overwhelming majority of voters "wrote in" ALPA, and the NMB then certified ALPA as the pilots’ representative.

"The transition to ALPA was everything we had hoped for, and a lot more," says Capt. Erik Engdahl, ATA MEC chairman. "The real proof came at contract negotiations time. I was chairman of our Negotiating Committee, and the support we got from ALPA at the bargaining table with staff from the Representation and Economic and Financial Analysis Departments was light years ahead of what our previous union provided," says Capt. Engdahl. "We got a great contract, and we could not have done that if we had not voted in ALPA. And after the contract was settled, the ALPA staff did not just disappear—they are still there to this day helping us with contract enforcement and on-going problem solving."

The ALPA/CALPA merger

ALPA became an international labor organization with the Canadian Air Line Pilots Association merger in 1997. Joining ALPA at that time were the pilots of 10 airlines—Air Alliance, AirBC, Air Nova, Air Ontario, Bearskin, Calm Air, Canadian, CRA, Kelowna Flightcraft, and Northwest Territories (see "A Historic Union," February 1997). In 1999, the pilots of Air Transat and of Canada 3000 also organized into ALPA.

Canadian Airlines, the largest of the airlines in Canada whose pilots ALPA represented, grew quickly and positioned itself as a potent competitor to Air Canada. That prompted Air Canada to acquire and merge with Canadian in 2000, but in an election required under Canadian law at that time, the much larger Air Canada pilot group voted to retain their independent representative called the Air Canada Pilots Association. ALPA continues to represent nearly 2,000 pilots of five carriers in Canada.

Recent growth by merger—Continental and FedEx

A historic achievement at ALPA’s 2000 Board of Directors meeting paved the way for further growth through the merger with independent pilot unions: The assembled delegates adopted what has come to be known as the Pilot Unity Resolution. At its core, the Unity Resolution promised full ALPA membership to any pilot who was a member in good standing of an independent union at the time such union merged with ALPA.

The particular situation prompting the Unity Resolution involved the proposed merger between ALPA and the Independent Association of Continental Pilots (IACP). While representatives of the IACP and ALPA had come to terms on a merger agreement, a vote in favor of that agreement by a majority of IACP members was a critical requirement of the process. Concern existed in the IACP that some number of Continental pilots would reject the agreement under the mistaken belief that ALPA would somehow retaliate against them for their willingness to cross the picket line in the 1983-85 strike against the management then. The Unity Resolution allayed these fears, and a sizeable majority of IACP members voted to approve the merger. As a consequence, more than 7,000 Continental and Continental Express pilots joined the Association in June 2000. (See "One Vision/One Voice," June/July 2001.)

When the IACP officially merged with ALPA in May 2001, the three IACP officers—then IACP president and later Continental MEC chairman, Capt. Pat Burke; then IACP vice-president and later Continental MEC chairman, Capt. John Prater; and then IACP secretary-treasurer, First Officer Nick Tulloh—wrote to ALPA’s president, saying, in part: "Without the hard, unstinting work of the entire ALPA leadership, we could not again stand here as brothers, united in a common goal—the preservation of our profession. Without the long hours given freely by ALPA Pilot-to-Pilot volunteers, we could not stand here as brothers, committed to the safety of those who put their lives in our hands every time they step aboard our aircraft. Without the support provided by the MEC members of the many ALPA airlines, we could not stand here as brothers, true believers in the possibility of a global brotherhood of airline pilots."

The successful merger with the IACP was a prelude to ALPA’s merger with the FedEx Pilots Association (FPA), which was completed exactly one year later, in June 2002, following an overwhelming 91 percent vote by FedEx pilots in favor of the merger agreement. (See "Riding Out a Hurricane," July/August 2002.)

Following their hiatus from ALPA and their unfavorable experience being represented by an independent union, more than 4,000 Federal Express pilots came back to ALPA membership. Then FPA president and later the FedEx MEC chairman, Capt. Dave Webb, at the ALPA Executive Board meeting in May 2002, said that FedEx pilots "made an individual decision to take charge of their careers, and I support and applaud them." Capt. Webb then quoted from remarks of former FedEx MEC vice-chairman, Capt. Rick MacGibbon, to the ALPA BOD in 1996, the last previous appearance of the FedEx pilot leaders before an ALPA governing body. In an emotional speech, Capt. MacGibbon pledged that the FedEx pilots would return to ALPA. "When we as ALPA members fail to appreciate why we are part of a strong national union," Capt. MacGibbon said, "the union comes apart, one member at a time…. We all have our differences. Our differences can be either our strength or our weakness. Expose that weakness, and management will use it to undermine our union. Conquer our differences, and we will gain the strength of our union." Capt. Webb, as he quoted Capt. MacGibbon, noted that the FedEx pilots did return to ALPA.

What’s next; what can you do?

Talks continue with individual pilots at non-ALPA carriers who express an interest in becoming members. But ALPA’s president, Capt. Duane Woerth, and its other leaders have expressed their clear preference to initiate organizing/merger activity in concert with pilot leaders at those airlines who share ALPA’s vision that one organization can best represent all airline pilots and are willing to work toward that goal.

In the meantime, every encounter with a non-ALPA airline pilot—in airports, at layover hotels, and on jumpseats—is an organizing opportunity for you to help influence pilots elsewhere. To that end, here are some things you can do:

• Emphasize the things you share as pilots and ALPA’s strengths such as local autonomy and decision-making for individual pilot groups, representation, safety support, and lobbying clout.

• Don’t assume that non-ALPA airline pilots know about our democratic structure and programs.

• Everyone has gripes, but be careful how you describe your own. While we don’t hide the fact that not every member agrees with every decision, those decisions aren’t imposed on pilot groups. Rather, they’re made on both the national and local level by a majority of representatives voting democratically.

• Ask about and listen to the concerns of non-ALPA pilots rather than lecture them about how ALPA could help.

• Follow up on contacts if an airline pilot wants more information about a problem, issue, or ALPA service by contacting the ALPA Representation or Communications Department. If the pilot is hostile, leave the door open for future contact.

With your help, ALPA will carry out its pilot unity initiatives and help all airline pilots preserve the profession they share and love.