What History Teaches Us
By Capt. Paul Rice, ALPA Vice-President--Administration/Secretary
Air Line Pilot, June/July 2005, p.8
|The United pilots took a stand on behalf of the entire piloting profession to eradicate the notorious B-scale wage plan that airline managements wanted to impose|
Where were you 20 years ago? In school? In the military? And what was the world of the airline pilot like then?
The U.S. airline industry was in turmoil 20 years ago. Unions were under attack from a Republican Administration. We had few friends in Congress. The adverse effects of President Reagan’s firing PATCO strikers in 1981 still rippled through labor halls. Frank Lorenzo had kept the ALPA-represented Continental pilots on strike for 2 years. ALPA was in terrible financial condition--the cost of the Continental strike was taking a heavy toll on the union’s cash flow.
And then, on May 17, 1985, United pilots were forced to strike for some 29 days--a bold decision considering the labor-relations atmosphere of that time. The United pilots took a stand on behalf of the entire piloting profession to eradicate the notorious B-scale wage plan that airline managements wanted to impose--a scale that never ended or merged back into “normal” pay rates.
Going on strike at that time was risky. The Reagan Administration was more than lenient with big business. Replacement workers had been hired both as air traffic controllers and at Continental. Replacement flightcrew members came to United in droves. United restarted operations on Day 1 of the strike and kept a small operation going, and many of us on the picket line thought we had flown our last flight as an airline pilot.
The lessons ALPA learned during the United pilots’ strike can be applied to how well we will survive in the turbulent airline industry of today.
Lesson 1--A sacrifice from individual ALPA members to benefit the profession is a worthy endeavor. Sometimes our efforts cannot be just about us as individuals, but they must be about the profession as a whole. A healthy profession cures a lot of ills.
Lesson 2--Employee groups working together for a common goal will get management’s attention. The United strike lasted some 29 days--that’s a long time, but certainly not as long as Southern, Continental, or Eastern pilots were on strike. Although the United MEC and management had come to a negotiated agreement to put us pilots back to work shortly after the strike began, we remained on strike to protect the jobs of the flight attendants, who had supported our job action. So we also made a sacrifice for another employee group.
Lesson 3--A mighty endeavor requires mighty preparation. Strategic Planning Committees, Family Awareness programs, and even ALPA’s Major Contingency Fund have all evolved from lessons learned 20 years ago--that we must plan, save, and prepare for cataclysmic events. Otherwise, we have lost before the battle begins.
Lesson 4--Unity is the foundation of our success. We won the strike--although some say no one wins during a strike--we brought all of the pilots back to work. After another fight, we won seniority recognition for 570 pilot trainees who walked the picket line. Eventually, all the flight attendants returned to work. United grew and began hiring again. But management failed to change until we started rattling our sabers once again--this time with an economic fight. With the ESOP, we finally got management’s attention. Initially, the ESOP appeared successful. But with the dramatic increase in the value of the ESOP shares that each pilot held, the pilot group began to fragment. Some pilots wanted even greater value for their ESOP shares, and some wanted to be made whole for their investment in the airline. Unfortunately, management never really changed and took advantage of both a divided pilot group and the “spirit” of the ESOP to facilitate further forays into our collective bargaining agreement--much to the detriment of the pilot group. The ESOP eventually crumbled as the airline filed for bankruptcy protection, but the “spirit” had died long before. In the end, all that the pilots had invested in their “employee-owned airline” was lost.
How can ALPA members apply these lessons to today’s world? We have to support bold leadership. We have to develop cooperation and cohesion among our airline employee groups. We have to develop a closer bond with pilot unions throughout the world. We have to look for common goals--sometimes, a common adversary, sometimes, an internal goal, within our union. And as we do that, we need to work collectively to fight off threats of foreign cabotage, foreign ownership, and other adverse legislative initiatives. We need to organize non-ALPA carriers.
With many external forces adversely affecting the U.S. and Canadian airline industry, we find our environment much like that of 1985--an industry in disarray and the need for the entire, ALPA-wide pilot group to be pulling in the same direction--working forward for the profession rather than each of us putting individual emphasis on our own individual needs.