By Rob Wiley, Staff Writer
Air Line Pilot, August 2003, p.18
For Capt. John Sluys, chairman of the ALPA International Membership Committee, accepting an airline flying job and joining a union should be equally positive events in a pilot’s professional life.
That’s the way it worked for Capt. Sluys when he accepted a first officer position with Alaska Airlines in 1991. He felt equal pride in signing on with the Seattle-based airline and in joining the Air Line Pilots Association. But one thing he found needing improvement was a better welcome from his union.
" We take a lot of
things for granted when we go to work, and we don’t know why they are
the way they are. Most of those things have occurred because the
Association has worked hard to ensure they occur."
—Capt. John Sluys, Chairman, ALPA International Membership Committee
"We have to make that first impression a great one," he says. "We just can’t give up that opportunity."
Capt. Sluys felt strongly about that initial contact between new members and their union. He sought a leadership role within the Alaska Airlines Master Executive Council. He lost his first try at such a role in 1993—losing a close local race for first officer representative—but he immediately went to the MEC chairman to volunteer for whatever work needed to be done.
The chairman steered him toward the MEC Membership Committee, which was losing its chairman. After learning what was expected and what was being done on behalf of new members, Capt. Sluys says, "I thought there had to be more, that we could do more. That’s really where things started for me."
The national ladder
His initial goal as chairman of the Alaska Airlines MEC Membership Committee was to organize member classifications within the MEC so that all members of the pilot group were listed in the right base and in the correct seat, so they would be properly represented at MEC meetings. When the MEC Committee reached that goal, he turned to the bigger picture.
"From then on, I wanted to help the pilots gain a better understanding of the benefits and responsibilities of being an ALPA member," says Capt. Sluys, who also later served a 3-year stint as Alaska Airlines MEC chairman (2000–03).
"I found that the average ALPA member does not have a very clear picture of what the Association does and what it does not do," he says. "I felt the only way to change that was to educate the members.
"One of the ultimate responsibilities of the MEC—and its Membership Committee—is to properly introduce new members to the Air Line Pilots Association."
When Alaska Airlines began hiring pilots again in 1995, Capt. Sluys started searching for more materials to support his push for education. The best advice he received was to give the new pilots a hearty welcome, pass out the proper forms, and collect their signatures. Capt. Sluys wondered why more wasn’t available from a union with impeccable credentials for improving aviation safety and working conditions for tens of thousands of pilots.
"I suggested to staff members and ALPA-wide officers that I needed more than words and forms," he said. "I felt that new members needed to get an international welcome. This Association has been around for more than 70 years; why didn’t it have something to help its Membership Committees do their jobs?"
Frustration over the lack of up-to-date materials with which to welcome new union members led Capt. Sluys to join with Membership Committee chairmen of other MECs in a resolution to create an ALPA-wide Membership Committee in 1996. The Executive Board voted at the September 1996 meeting to form the Committee. Capt. Sluys, a driving force behind the resolution, was named the Committee’s first chairman, a position he still holds.
The first order of business for the ALPA-wide Committee—creating a proper welcome for ALPA and airline industry newcomers—was accomplished by working with ALPA’s Communications Department to prepare a video explaining the Association’s legacy, ALPA services, and the benefits of belonging to an international union of airline pilots.
The video was followed in quick order by a guidelines manual for use by MEC membership committees, an educational seminar, and a Power-Point presentation tailored to individual pilot groups.
Members of the ALPA-wide Membership Committee sought a positive, pro-industry welcome, one that emphasized the necessary partnership between the airline industry and union members. Committee members wanted to take the high road in touting the benefits of belonging to a strong union and of working for an equally strong carrier.
"We have to realize that a newly hired pilot is thrilled—thrilled—to be working as an airline pilot," Capt. Sluys says. "We must be positive about airlines in addition to being pro-union when we welcome new members. Our livelihood depends on the viability of the carrier we work for, so why would we want anything bad to happen to that carrier?
"Fortunately, ALPA’s effect on the airline industry has been so positive that talking about the Association and its benefits in a productive, proactive manner is easy. ALPA’s accomplishments are something people can sink their teeth into, whether it’s their first experience with a union or not."
Capt. Sluys says that the ALPA-wide Membership Committee seeks to strengthen membership in pilot groups at all ALPA carriers by supporting each MEC’s Membership Committee with suggested guidelines and ideas, organizational assistance, and consistent materials, such as the Guidelines Manual, videos, CD-ROMs, and outlines.
"Pilots are standardized creatures," he says. "We have to do things a certain way. We’re trying to make things easier for people so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time their leadership changes.
"That’s really what the ALPA-wide committees are all about—providing support for the pilots at the 42 airlines whose pilots ALPA represents and all their differing needs and concerns."
To fulfill those responsibilities, Capt. Sluys relies on two volunteers—Capt. Peter Nakhoul (Allegheny) and First Officer Bob Beck (United), both charter Committee members. Other charter members were Capts. Howard Coldwell (TWA) and John Murray (Northwest). F/O Beck is nearing retirement.
Capt. Sluys is currently looking for a few good ALPA members to step up and continue the Committee’s work. The requirements are simple: a computer-literate pilot who doesn’t mind some hard work. He’s also looking for variety, saying "I would like to have a representative mix of what the Association is, because membership issues vary from one airline to the next."
To keep the Membership Committee running smoothly, Capt. Sluys spends a day or two each month at ALPA’s Herndon, Va., offices. He also spends about a half day each month conferring with MEC and LEC Membership Committees throughout the United States and in Canada, and he tries to get the ALPA-wide Committee together four or five times a year for day-long meetings.
The Committee coordinates its efforts with several departments at ALPA’s Herndon Offices, with most of its support coming from the Membership Services Department. Department Manager Joan Gallahan serves as the Committee’s staff liaison. The Committee reports directly to Capt. Paul Rice, ALPA vice-president-administration/secretary.
"We also make use of ALPA’s Communications Department on a regular basis," Capt. Sluys says, "depending on it for presentation and artwork support, communications ideas, and video specialists.
"And because of current budget restraints, we’re focusing on enhancing ALPA’s website, www.alpa.org, instead of some other, more costly initiatives, and the Communications Department provides website support."
Before ALPA’s current budget crunch, the Membership Committee had hoped to send every Association member a CD-ROM highlighting as many ALPA resources as possible. Funds to complete that ambitious task were not available. The Committee instead has turned its efforts to improving how Membership Committee information is presented on the ALPA website. Capt. Sluys says the Committee wants to make the web as user- friendly and interactive as possible.
Explaining the benefits of belonging to ALPA is a big part of introducing the union to new members. The Committee works closely with the Association’s Retirement & Insurance Department. Membership Committee members also stay informed about the activities of other ALPA-wide committees and the Association’s direct service departments.
And the Committee must also know enough about the Finance Department to explain the dues system on a basic level with new members.
"If we’re the ones who are going to be educating the members, then we need to know what’s going on at all levels of the Association," Capt. Sluys says. "The only way to speak effectively about anything is to understand it, so we basically have to know what each ALPA department is doing for the members."
The Membership Committee also coordinates educational efforts with the Education Committee, chaired by Capt. Frank Mayne (Delta). It’s a chance to get the union message out to perspective members before their careers actually start. The ALPA tradition of promoting aviation safety and representation, in fact, may even push young college students to better understand ALPA’s role in aviation.
Twice a year, Capt. Sluys joins Capt. Mayne in a pilgrimage to meet with aviation students at Purdue University, where both serve on Purdue’s Aviation Technology Industrial Advisory Committee and review the Aviation Department’s curriculum.
Up and running
As with any goal-oriented leader, Capt. Sluys finds satisfaction in tasks accomplished and frustration at delays encountered along the way. He and his Committee set stringent deadlines in their initial efforts and met just about all of them.
"Our biggest accomplishment is that we have a product-and-support structure in place that provides any new membership volunteer with the resources to do his or her job," Capt. Sluys says. "No volunteer has to do it alone. As an Association, we owe every one of our member pilot groups help with any issue it may have, and I think our Committee has provided the tools to do that."
But this product-and-support structure wasn’t created without resistance. Even though the Committee has made maximum efforts to allow for individual differences at carriers, frustrations are still inherent in the system. Capt. Sluys says that the Membership Committee recognizes that just as each collective bargaining agreement is different, so are the ways the Committee can help.
Some airline managements don’t want union representatives speaking with their new hires; others don’t offer dues checkoff. The negotiated agreements of the pilot groups differ, sometimes radically, he notes.
For pilots who seek pattern bargaining, that sometimes creates frustration. The best way to deal with frustration is patience, he says. That’s been a big part of the ALPA-wide Membership Committee’s task: working through the frustrations to get the ALPA message where it needs to be. And it’s a never-ending job that should not be taken lightly, Capt. Sluys says.
"The Membership Committee hopes that ALPA members will appreciate what our fellow pilots have done to enhance our careers and protect our interests," he says. "The most effective advocate for airline pilots in this world are the members of the Air Line Pilots Association and our colleagues in the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations.
"I think all members have some understanding about what ALPA has done for them and their careers," Capt. Sluys says, "but it needs to be more apparent to them. We take a lot of things for granted when we go to work, and we don’t know why they are the way they are. Most of those things have occurred because the Association has worked hard to ensure they occur."