Air Line Pilot, July/August 2002

President’s Forum: Playing Hardball with Collective Bargaining

Recently, U.S. airline managements dramatically increased their efforts to garner political support for the McCain-Lott "baseball-style" arbitration bill, by forming a coalition called Communities for Economic Strength Through Aviation (CESTA). They hired former members of Congress and recruited communities as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to join this coalition. At best, this is a "solution" in search of a problem.

While the RLA is not perfect, and collective bargaining under that law can be drawn out and frustrating for everyone involved, good-faith collective bargaining and compliance with existing contract language on management’s part could provide a real solution for improved airline labor relations. Have you ever noticed how managements’ definition of successful "labor relations" applies only to concessionary bargaining?

ALPA has, since the early 1940s, successfully negotiated hundreds of contracts under the RLA, and only a few bargaining disputes required the pilots to strike. We have a long history of accommodation and much experience with voluntary interest arbitration on specific contract items. Our limited experience with forced arbitration is that neither side is very happy with the result and must often negotiate or litigate a final resolution of the arbitrators’ decision.

Final-offer selection arbitration, the dispute-resolution model used in setting baseball salaries, is, on the surface, clean, swift, and as the title indicates, final. If the two sides cannot settle the dispute with bargaining, they take their bottom-line position to a third party for a ruling. The arbitrator chooses one position over the other. Let me repeat that—the arbitrator picks either the management or the employee proposal—there is no middle ground, no compromise, no negotiation.

This model may work for one-on-one salary dispute resolution, but I cannot believe that such a black-and-white technique can effectively resolve the complex contract negotiations we undertake for our bargaining units. How would final-offer arbitration apply to airline pilots? Under provisions of a bill currently before Congress—the Airline Labor Dispute Act, S.1327—the Secretary of Transportation can declare an "air transportation emergency" and force arbitration upon finding that a labor dispute involving an airline serving a hub airport threatens to injure the local economy, foreign commerce, the balance of payments, or U.S. national security or foreign policy. Translated into English, that means every airline labor dispute.

Under this model, Comair pilots would not have been allowed to strike in 2001 even though that carrier was less than 1 percent of the total marketplace, because a strike would affect a hub airport (Cincinnati). Under current law, a Presidential Emergency Board can be established only in a national transportation emergency. Even the Bush Administration couldn’t find a way to call the Comair strike a national emergency. Under the McCain-Lott bill, a national emergency is not required—any minor inconvenience at a hub airport is enough to stop a strike.

But even this egregious provision is not the worst part of the McCain-Lott bill. If you read through the fine print, you discover that the bill is really not a true arbitration process. The bill contains language that prohibits the arbitrator from selecting the union’s proposal for a multitude of reasons if the union’s proposal increases costs, and no stipulations prohibit the arbitrator from selecting a management proposal for any reason. The McCain-Lott bill should be called what it is, the Management Cramdown bill.

While the overwhelming majority of airline employee contracts are settled without a strike, one of the main objectives of McCain-Lott goes far beyond eliminating that weapon. This bill would effectively remove the National Mediation Board from the bargaining process because the Secretary of Transportation could intervene at any time. In other words, there would never be a 30-day cooling-off period during which advance passenger or cargo bookings often are negatively affected, which gives managements incentive to settle.

If you believe that the McCain-Lott bill would effectively end collective bargaining for airline workers, you are correct. All ALPA members must communicate directly with their U.S. Senators and Representatives. Every ALPA member must contribute to the ALPA-PAC. Currently, only 10 percent of our members contribute, and this surely is not going to be enough to counteract the airlines’ well-oiled and financed political machines.

This is no drill. This is not a meaningless spring training game. This is the World Series of airline collective bargaining where the stakes have never been higher. You owe it to yourself and your family to become personally involved in the outcome.

s/Duane E. Woerth