The First Airline Strike (TWA)
Air Line Pilot, September 2001, p. 14
By Capt. Karl Ruppenthal (TWA, Ret.)
Hitler’s defeat and the end of World War II marked enormous changes for U.S. airlines. With the end of years of shortages and rationing came an enormous pent-up demand for travel. During the war years, the airlines’ schedules had been reduced to bare skeletons, providing little service simply because the carriers had few airplanes and even fewer pilots—the military had commandeered both.
War’s end meant that the airlines could once again acquire all the airplanes they might want—not just new ones from the factory but also hundreds of used airplanes from the military at bargain prices.
Before the war, the venerable Douglas DC-3 was the industry standard, with more of those 21-passenger airplanes in service throughout the world than the combined total of all the other airliners. But war’s end changed all that. The airlines could now acquire the much larger, much faster DC-4s and Lockheed Constellations. Because of their greatly increased size and speed, one of these new airplanes could do the work of six or eight DC-3s. They were far more productive. Further, they were but precursors to the far more advanced airplanes then on the drawing boards. A technological revolution was in the offing.
A revolution of a different sort was brewing in the airline boardrooms. For years, strong, charismatic individuals, most of whom had once been pilots, had headed the important airlines. The famous Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker led Eastern; Gen. C.R. Smith steered American; pilot-visionary Jack Frye headed TWA; and W.A. Patterson, a capable, no-nonsense banker, ran United.
Each of these men had certain idiosyncrasies, which the pilots recognized (and sometimes used to their advantage). Rickenbacker believed that his captains were the best in the industry. They reputedly would bring their flights to destination when the weather was so bad that the other carriers cancelled. While he was a tough negotiator, Rickenbacker could usually be counted on to give his beloved captains a raise.
United’s Patterson was more democratic. In his book, copilots were important, too. More than once, contract negotiations with United had produced an increase in copilot pay. They often were the best-paid in the industry.
Traditionally, ALPA negotiated with one airline at a time. Whichever airline was next in line to negotiate a contract (and that was usually TWA or American) would be asked to meet the industry standard. That airline was asked to match the captains’ raise that had been negotiated on Eastern, the copilots’ raise negotiated with United, plus some improvements in working conditions.
The airlines had complained long and loud about these tactics, which they called "whipsaw negotiations." Now, they determined to do something about it. They proposed industrywide bargaining, under which all pilots would be covered by one nationwide contract. Pay and working conditions on every airline in the industry would be standard. The entire airline industry would negotiate but a single contract with ALPA, and contract negotiations would occur no more frequently than once a year.
Under this arrangement, all pilots would be subject to one industrywide contract. The two rates of pay would be $l,000 per month for captains, and $300 per month for copilots. Pilots would be paid no formula pay—no gross weight pay, no mileage pay, no pay for training, no pay for weather delays, no pay for any other items that current contracts cover.
A spokesman for the airline industry summed up the industry position: an airplane was an airplane was an airplane. All airplanes were pretty much the same.
At that time, the airlines had no formal programs for training their pilots. Copilots basically learned what they could from the captains with whom they flew. They were commonly considered to be trainees, under the tutelage of the captain with whom they flew. Thus, reasoned the airlines, copilots were entitled to no more than a trainee’s pay. During the war years, the airlines had had an acute shortage of pilots. The shortage was so great that meeting the Army’s need for transport would have been virtually impossible unless pilots on wartime transport duties flew more than 85 hours a month, which had long been the industry standard. After much debate and considerable soul-searching, ALPA agreed to a wartime extension. To ameliorate the shortage, and to help in the war effort, flight-time limitations would be waived for the duration of the war, and pilots might fly as many as l00 hours per month (they were sometimes prevailed upon to fly even more).
And so, the airline industry proposed an increase in allowable monthly hours. The pilots’ monthly pay would be based on the assumption that all pilots could be required to fly l00 hours a month. They also proposed relaxation of the on-duty limitations.
As the war wound down and U.S. industry returned to peacetime, much of industry—including the airlines—was in considerable turmoil. Wartime legislation provided that no one would be disadvantaged because of having served in the armed services. The law provided that their jobs would be preserved.
On the airlines, the seniority system meant that the pilots who returned from military service often displaced other pilots who had been deemed essential to keep the nation’s airlines running and who had not gone off to war. These pilots had stayed at home to make it possible for the airlines to provide at least skeleton airline service. As the servicemen returned, they frequently displaced other employees. Considerable disruption resulted. For a pilot who was accustomed to flying as captain, being "bumped" back to copilot status because of the return of a more senior serviceman was particularly painful.
Less evident, but acutely important, were the problems caused by returning colonels and generals. Some of them were very competent executives on loan from the airline executive suites. They, too, returned home from the war expecting to return to the offices they had temporarily vacated. They, too, often "bumped" the presidents, vice-presidents, and other officers who had taken their places for the duration. Well-regarded Paul Richter returned to TWA as executive vice-president, seeking to displace John Collings, his wartime substitute. And Gen. C.R. Smith returned to American, where Ralph Damon had served as president during the war years. For reasons never made public, Damon was selected to head the effort to restructure industrial relations in the airline industry and to institute industrywide bargaining.
At that time, Howard Hughes was TWA’s controlling stockholder. He and TWA President Jack Frye made an exceptional team. They were bold and inventive. Further, they had vision. TWA was the first airline to fly nonstop from coast to coast (albeit with an occasional refueling stop in Kansas City when westerly winds were strong). TWA was the first to pressurize its airplanes, the first to provide coffee freshly brewed on board, the first with in-flight movies. Hughes and Frye dreamed of round-the-world schedules. They were full of ideas. But they were novices in dealing with contract negotiations.
The year was 1946. For various reasons (or perhaps by default), TWA was chosen as the battleground for the proposed industrywide contract. Aided by various professionals from the Air Transport Association, Ralph Damon was designated as the industry’s chief negotiator. Although the negotiations were held at TWA’s headquarters (which were then in Kansas City), TWA’s executives had no formal role in the negotiations.
The parties talked for many weeks but made virtually no progress. The two sides were simply too far apart. TWA’s pilots wanted a contract with TWA that would provide some modest pay increases. But Ralph Damon and his people insisted that they would negotiate for the entire airline industry and not just TWA. They insisted on an industrywide contract with flat pay coupled with an increase in allowable monthly hours. The negotiations had much talk but no give.
Many fruitless days and countless hours of talking made clear that the parties could not reach an agreement. Neither party would budge seriously from its initial bargaining stance. The negotiations were completely stalemated.
Privately, several of the pilots on the negotiating team admitted that they were in a particularly difficult spot. Some of them were in a financial bind, as were a number of their friends. In returning to their airline domicile from their previous military base, they had incurred moving expenses. Some had no savings. A monthly guarantee of $1,000 sounded like a lot of money to some captains. And the Damon team offered a raise of $20 a month to copilots who were already on flat pay, because for pay purposes they were considered as trainees.
But the pilots had to look beyond their immediate financial needs. An industrywide contract would cost ALPA an important bargaining tool: It could no longer play one airline against another. It could not secure an advantage for the captains on one airline, followed by a raise for the copilots on another. Airline contracts would no longer recognize that the needs of pilots flying for short-haul carriers differ widely from those of pilots on long-haul routes.
Gone would be wage differentials for flying faster airplanes, for heavier airplanes, for night flying, for training, for deadheading. If flat pay became a reality, negotiating raises of any kind would be much more difficult.
Further, what if the proposed industrywide negotiations should founder? Did anyone really believe that the pilots would be allowed to strike?
If industrywide negotiations failed, pilots could, in theory, strike; but that would be unthinkable in America, a country dependent upon reliable airline service. The strike and the threat of a strike would forever be foreclosed from the pilots.
The TWA pilots’ Negotiating Committee spent many hours in meetings devoted to strategy and tactics. They had many frank, and sometimes heated, exchanges. The negotiators were told of copilots who had bought houses and were behind in their mortgage payments. Some desperately needed more money, and they needed it soon.
Bush Voights, a highly regarded TWA captain, was a member of the Negotiating Committee. He tried to intervene with Howard Hughes to persuade him to break with the industry. Hughes had often asked Voights to be his copilot when he flew a new airplane or engaged in some flying adventure. Other captains asked Richter for his help. But to no avail. While Richter had returned to his former desk at TWA, he appeared to have been shorn of his authority.
The Negotiating Committee could find no easy way out of the dilemma. It could capitulate and accept what Damon had offered. It could continue the fruitless negotiations forever. Or it could call a strike on the airline. And so, with great reluctance, the Negotiating Committee recommended a strike. It would be the first real strike in the U.S. airline industry, and a strike for which neither side was well prepared. The TWA pilots had authorized a strike on March 26, 1946, by an 812–9 margin.
The pilots’ Negotiating Committee, together with the TWA Master Executive Council, announced the strike, stating that the airline would be shut down as of Oct. 21, 1946.
And then the problems began. Although the pilots in general agreed that something drastic must be done, to some the idea of a strike was abhorrent. We consider ourselves to be professional people, they argued. True professionals do not strike. (This was well before the day when strikes were called by teachers, nurses, doctors, and various other professionals.)
Many pilots, of course, feared that the company might try to break the strike. It could operate some flights using management personnel, and it might persuade some pilots to join their ranks. The strike could disintegrate.
Some pilots questioned how they would get home. If the strike began when they were on a flight to Detroit, how would they get to their home base in Kansas City? And what about the pilots stationed in Frankfurt, Rome, and Cairo? Questions concerning money abounded.
The strike begins
Not only did the paychecks stop coming for pilots, they stopped also for the flight engineers, the hostesses (now known as flight attendants), the mechanics, and the other ground personnel. ALPA had no strike fund, and most of the other employees were not even organized.
Some pilots in Los Angeles, New York, and Detroit managed to get part-time or temporary jobs. But in Kansas City (TWA’s largest domicile), the situation was more difficult. TWA was one of the city’s largest employers. With so many TWA employees out of a job, the city simply did not have enough available jobs to employ them. Even when an employer had a vacancy, most were reluctant to hire someone who they knew would be temporary. They knew that when the strike was over, most employees would return to TWA.
ALPA President Dave Behncke had his hands full. He was doing his best to bolster the Negotiating Committee on holding the line, to get the negotiations restarted, and to provide at least some money to the out-of-work pilots.
That last item was not an easy job. ALPA had no strike fund; further, it had no surplus funds at all. Some pilots had never joined ALPA. If dues were raised or an assessment for strike benefits for the TWA striking members was begun, pilots might simply quit the union. Some pilots did not fully appreciate the fact that the battle was not just between the TWA pilots and TWA management, but was a battle that would profoundly affect them all. Such pilots might continue dutifully to pay their dues, but refuse to pay strike assessments. And then what?
For several days, ALPA leaders discussed the importance of strike benefits. After all, they reasoned, the TWA That they alone should bear the trauma and uncertainties caused by a strike, in addition to all of the financial costs, was simply not fair.
Eventually, the ALPA leaders voted to pay benefits to the striking pilots. The actual amounts voted were minimal, but the ALPA board members felt that these amounts were about all that the nonstriking pilots on the other airlines would be willing to contribute. But a significant precedent was established: ALPA would pay strike benefits to pilots on an authorized strike.
Persuading many pilots to pay their strike assessment was difficult. ALPA had virtually nothing in its treasury, and the strike assessment funds were slow in coming in—so slow that they were not paid to the striking TWA pilots until many months after the strike had been settled.
While the financial pressures on many of the pilots were substantial, for many of the hostesses, they were severe. Poorly paid, they lived from one paycheck to the next. And when those paychecks stopped coming, the hostesses could not pay the rent.
Bob Overman, a well-liked, senior captain in Kansas City, addressed that problem. At a general meeting of all Kansas City pilots, he described the seriousness of the problem. Then he passed the hat, asking every pilot who possibly could do so to contribute. Emergency loans were made to those pilots and hostesses who were truly in distress. And thus began the first airline credit union in America. Not only did TWA formally establish a credit union, ALPA did likewise.
Further, ALPA members in general began to appreciate the value of an emergency plan. ALPA’s Board of Directors took a realistic look at the Association’s finances and bolstered them. Then, perhaps for the first time, the pilots recognized the importance of a realistic strike fund—not just pious hopes that striking pilots could somehow be compensated, but actual funds on hand, which could be useful in contract negotiations, since their existence could convince recalcitrant management that a strike could actually take place. And, of course, funds could be sent quickly to striking pilots in the event a strike actually was called.
The TWA strike of 1946—the first real airline strike—was a seminal event. Its impact on the U.S. airline industry was doubtless greater than any other. That strike prevented the airlines from instituting industrywide bargaining.
Had it not taken place, pilots today would be flying 100 hours a month, with no consideration whatsoever for the type of airplane they fly. In 1946, all captains would have received a salary of $1,000 a month—no training pay, no sick pay, and no deadhead pay. Pilots flying a B-747 would receive no more than those flying a Fokker Friendship, a DC-3, or any other airliner.
And pilots would have virtually no possibility of negotiating improved pay or working conditions under threat of a strike. That was clear then, and it is even more clear now. The nation could not afford, and would not permit, a nationwide shutdown of the airlines. The threat of a strike as a negotiating tactic would no longer exist.
Capt. Ruppenthal was a member of the TWA MEC during the strike and later served on the pilots’ Negotiating Committee for various contracts, as MEC chairman, and as executive vice-president of ALPA for a short time. He later earned a Ph.D. and taught at Stanford University.