MAG Pilots Battle for Contract Compliance

By Lydia Jakub, Communications Specialist
Air Line Pilot, April 2005, p.17

At a time when the airline piloting profession has suffered inordinate hardship, assailed by a combination of bad economics, poor corporate leadership, and a willingness by many airline managements to totally disregard important provisions of collective bargaining agreements negotiated in good faith, ALPA is aggressively reaffirming its commitment to rigorously enforcing pilot group contracts. 

MAG Pilots at a Glance

About: Mesa Air Group includes Mesa, Air Midwest, and Freedom Airlines, and operates independently; as US Airways Express, America West Express, and United Express; and as a feeder for Midwest Airlines.

Pilots: nearly 1,700

Operations: MAG serves 182 cities, 41 states, Canada, Mexico, and the Bahamas

Bases: Kingman, Ariz.; Page, Ariz.; Phoenix, Ariz.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Little Rock, Ark.; Denver, Colo.; Grand Junction, Colo.; Washington, D.C. (Dulles); Athens, Ga.; Garden City, Kan.; Salina, Kan.; Hagerstown, Md.; Kansas City, Mo.; Asheville, N.C.; Charlotte, N.C.; Carlsbad, N.M.; Farmington, N.M.; Hobbs, N.M.; Massena, N.Y.; Du Bois, Pa.; Lancaster, Pa.; Pittsburgh, Pa; Philadelphia, Pa.; Charleston, S.C.; Huron, S.D.; Nashville, Tenn.; Brownwood, Tex.; Parkersburg, W.V.; Clarksburg, W.V.

Hub cities: Phoenix, Ariz.; Los Angeles, Calif.; San Francisco, Calif.; Denver, Colo.; Washington, D.C.; Chicago, Ill.; Las Vegas, Nev.; Charlotte, N.C.; Philadelphia, Pa.; Pittsburgh, Pa. 

Corporate headquarters: Phoenix, Ariz. 

Equipment: CRJ900s, CRJ700s, CRJ100s/200s, ERJ-145s, Dash 8-200s, and Beech 1900Ds 

Number of aircraft: 180 

Daily departures: Nearly 1,200 

Alliances: US Airways, America West Airlines, United Airlines, and Midwest Airlines

This is one of those lessons that pilot groups have had to learn time and time again: you can't just negotiate a contract and walk away. Getting managements to honor their agreements is a never-ending day-to-day battle that requires endurance, determination, and a pilot group that knows that its greatest strength is its unity. 

Mesa Air Group pilots learned this lesson firsthand when, after ratifying a tentative agreement by more than 75 percent in March 2003, they saw their agreement violated continually while it was being implemented, resulting in a labor/management relationship that disintegrated into management's stonewalling and a deluge of unresolved grievances. 

"We gave management every opportunity to follow our mutually agreed-upon contract and settle the grievances," says Capt. Andy Hughes, Mesa Air Group Master Executive Council chairman. "We were not going to stand idly by and allow management to continue to trample our contractual rights. Enough is enough!"

Flash back to October 2001 

The pilots of Mesa Air Group became the first group to open formal Section 6 negotiations after 9/11, serving notice to begin negotiations on Oct. 1, 2001. While a tentative agreement was not reached until mid-January 2003, the actual progress of events was relatively quick. 

Initially, management stalled and resisted negotiating with pilots. Management established a nonunion, alter-ego airline (Freedom Airlines) and began taking deliveries of 70- and 90-seat jets, which were put into revenue service, flying routes that Mesa pilots previously flew in Mesa airliners. In an effort to apply further pressure on pilots, Mesa management sought to modify the existing collective bargaining agreement with the pilots at its wholly owned CCAir subsidiary, offering jets to the CCAir pilots if they would underbid the Mesa pilots. 

Faced with this unprecedented assault from management, the Mesa pilots' MEC in early 2002 made several critical strategic decisions. First, it elected to pursue a "single carrier" petition with the National Mediation Board, seeking a Board ruling that all carriers that Mesa Air Group owned constituted a "single carrier," which should be subject to a single collective bargaining representative (a Mesa Air Group MEC) and a single collective bargaining agreement. If successful, such a petition would effectively end the "whipsawing" of the CCAir and Mesa pilots. Second, by unanimous vote, the Mesa MEC resolved that it would not accept any tentative agreement with Mesa management that did not include employment for all CCAir pilots and management recognition of a combined Mesa-CCAir integrated seniority list. Third, the MEC insisted that its Negotiating Committee seek a scope clause that would effectively bind the Mesa Air Group holding company in such a way that Mesa pilots would perform all flying of any entity that the holding company owned or controlled, pursuant to the Mesa collective bargaining agreement. Finally, the Mesa MEC recognized that with between two and four jet deliveries each month at Freedom, time was of the essence: the Negotiating Committee was directed to take every possible step to expedite the negotiating process. 

Shortly thereafter, in April 2002, the two sides met at an initial meeting designed to set dates and establish protocols for actual negotiating sessions. The first 3-day session occurred in May 2002. During that session, it became obvious to the pilots' Negotiating Committee that management was continuing its stalling tactics. Within days of this unproductive session, the Mesa pilots sought assistance from the NMB. With help from ALPA Representation Department attorneys, the pilots' Negotiating Committee made a detailed presentation to the NMB in Washington, D.C. In an unprecedented decision that left Mesa management stunned, the NMB immediately announced that the Mesa negotiations were being placed into NMB mediation after only 3 days of direct negotiations. 

"Our decision to involve the NMB so early in the negotiations process had never been done before," says Capt. Alan Taylor, MAG MEC Negotiating Committee chairman. "When Section 6 negotiations first opened, we allowed management several months to get the operations on track while many airlines, including our partners, were in survival mode. However, once it became apparent that management was again delaying the process during mediation, we took the next step with the NMB." 

Mediation, which began in the summer of 2002, initially seemed to produce positive results, and several contract sections were agreed upon. 

In December 2002, however, management again began to stall the negotiating process. ALPA leaders decided to ask the NMB for more help. The Negotiating Committee and its staff advisors made another presentation to the Board, at the conclusion of which NMB Deputy Chief of Staff Larry Gibbons was assigned to take personal charge of the Mesa negotiations. 

In January 2003, management offered the pilots' Negotiating Committee a "take it or leave it" agreement that included the sections agreed upon during the negotiations process, plus incremental improvements to the remaining sections of the current contract. ALPA immediately contacted Gibbons to schedule a meeting. When the parties met, pilot negotiators made clear that the proposal was unacceptable in its current state, beginning with the first section: Scope. 

After further discussion, management agreed to the pilots' scope proposal, which brought back the CCAir pilots who were furloughed, and captured Freedom Airlines, as well as any other present and future entity that Mesa Air Group operated. With a few additional changes, the Negotiating Committee and management agreed to a proposal. This proposal was sent to the MAG MEC, which conducted 23 road shows in 11 cities over the course of 18 days. MAG pilots, when given their chance to vote, overwhelmingly ratified the agreement by more than 75 percent. 

With the contract in place, the battle with management had only just begun. During contract implementation, the relationship between the pilots and management continued to disintegrate. It soon became apparent that management was not following the collective bargaining agreement, and grievances started to mount. Management, reverting back to the way it did business during negotiations, stonewalled ALPA, and many grievances were left unresolved while the two parties battled over the intent of the contract language.

Bringing management back to the table 

As pilots' frustration continued to mount, the MEC and Negotiating Committee tried many times in 2004 to engage management in discussions to resolve the pilots' outstanding issues. A 3-day meeting occurred in June 2004 with the understanding that these discussions would continue. Additionally, the Grievance Committee met nearly every month to address grievances through System Boards and resolve the issues amicably. Management's commitment to resolving the issues did not last long, and the MEC took decisive action by launching an aggressive contract-enforcement campaign. 

The contract-enforcement campaign included many facets, but most importantly kept the pilots informed. The MEC agreed early on that the only way to engage and unify the pilot group toward this contract compliance goal was to fully communicate with the pilot members as events transpired. Informational picketing was also scheduled for the beginning of December 2004 for pilots to vent their frustration and send a clear message to management that the contract must be complied with. 

With the contract-enforcement campaign in full swing and informational picketing on the horizon, management began to recognize the gravity of the situation and entered into formal discussions with ALPA in November 2004 to resolve the many outstanding grievances and quality-of-life issues. 

During an MEC Special Meeting 2 days before the picketing, the Negotiating Committee updated the MEC members and recommended that the informational picketing be postponed because of the depth of the Committee's discussions with management. As the goal was to bring management to the bargaining table and resolve the many outstanding grievances, the MEC agreed to postpone the December 2004 informational picketing. Additionally, the MEC requested weekly status updates from the Committee to track the progress of the discussions and determine whether to start picketing. 

With the 2004 holidays fast approaching, the Negotiating Committee and management continued their discussions. During these meetings, management introduced several of its issues, such as rates for a narrowbody operation and a 2-year contract extension. 

The language in the pilots' current agreement is clear: management could operate any aircraft and determine the rates with no fear of operations coming to a halt. These rates would then be negotiated with ALPA, and if no consensus was reached, the issue would be resolved through the mediation/arbitration process under the auspices of the NMB. However, as these negotiations were going well and pilots' issues were being addressed, the ALPA team took management's issues under consideration, and several proposals were exchanged. 

These issues turned into sticking points, as management offered a package deal that it later deemed its final offer. The package included a 2-year contract extension and rates for the narrowbody operation that were well below even the lowest in the industry. In an MEC Special Meeting in mid-January, MAG CEO Jonathan Ornstein and MAG President and COO Mike Lotz addressed the MEC members and discussed their final proposal. Afterward, the MEC discussed management's proposal and further instructed the Negotiating Committee members, who in turn submitted a counterproposal resolving the grievances and addressing management's issues in a fair and equitable manner. Management was not seeking a counterproposal and closed the door on the negotiations.

"Contract compliance now!" 

The MEC rescheduled informational picketing at corporate headquarters in Phoenix, Ariz., for Feb. 8, 2005, to coincide with Mesa Air Group's annual shareholders meeting. This picketing would go on regardless of whether ALPA and management came to consensus on resolving the issues at hand. Pilots' issues would no longer be held hostage to the whims of management. The pilots demanded contract compliance-nothing more than what ALPA and Mesa Air Group management had agreed on. 

"A double standard existed between the expectations for the pilots and management," says Capt. Hughes. "As pilots, we are bound to live up to the terms outlined within our contract, but for some reason, management seems to be held to a different standard. This dichotomy must end; otherwise, our airline will never realize its full potential." 

Five days before the picketing event, management again engaged with the ALPA Negotiating Committee, proposing to address the outstanding grievances individually, without linkage to any contract extension or rates for new aircraft. 

Less than 24 hours before the picketing was set to begin, the pilots reached a tentative settlement with management addressing many of their contract-related issues. 

However, this settlement did not resolve all of the grievances, as 25 remain deadlocked and will be sent to arbitration and 8 will be sent to mediation/arbitration for a binding decision. (Both parties agreed to continue meeting in an attempt to settle these unresolved cases.) 

Even though a tentative settlement of some of the issues had been reached, the picketing proceeded according to plan. Pilots came to picket from as far away as the East Coast to demonstrate to management and the shareholders their frustration with the continuous contract violations. News media interest in the pilots' crusade for contract compliance was immense, and their story was on all possible news media-print, radio, and television.

Looking toward the future 

The pilots of Mesa Air Group take pride in their airline's tremendous growth and know that they are the key to its success. 

"This tentative agreement was the first step toward improving employee relations," Capt. Hughes concludes. "We continued with our plan to picket and will maintain the aggressive contract-enforcement campaign to demonstrate that we are not willing to accept anything less than total contract compliance. To achieve our goal and ensure that management adheres to the contract, we will use every available avenue afforded us under federal law."