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Monday
May102010

The NMB Finally Issues Its Representation Rule: What’s Next For The US Airline Industry?

Today, the National Mediation Board issued a new rule governing union organizing that is probably the most controversial thing this government panel has ever done.

So, after sifting through 103 pages of legal citations falsely hoping that the rule as proposed in December would have been changed to address at least some of the opposition’s concerns, I now realize the truth: The NMB has become a political body.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a registered Democrat so this not a rant against all things Obama. But there are places politics shouldn’t figure so heavily and the NMB should be one of them.

The new representation rule comes as Delta and US Airways are suing the government over its proposed solution to the slot swap between the two carriers; and just a week or so since implementation of that visionary tarmac rule.  So yes, I am in a bit of a cynical if not downright snarky mood today.

In the final rule filed in the Federal Register, the National Mediation Board summarized:  “As part of its ongoing efforts to further the statutory goals of the Railway Labor Act, the National Mediation Board (NMB or Board) is amending its Railway Labor Act rules to provide that, in representation disputes, a majority of valid ballots cast will determine the craft or class representative. This change to its election procedures will provide a more reliable measure/indicator of employee sentiment in representation disputes and provide employees with clear choices in representation matters.”

In its proposed rule, the NMB is seeking to change the election process by which unions organize workers in the railway and airline industries. The new rule that will change 75 years of practice, would for the first time determine the outcome of union representation elections in the airline and railroad industries based on a majority of those who vote rather than current practice, where a majority of all eligible voters must support joining a union.

It doesn’t take a magnifying glass to read between the lines. The NMB is doing organized labor a big favor with this rule. So it is laughable to me that the Board describes the change as part of its “ongoing efforts to further the statutory goals of the Railway Labor Act.”  Funny, because the overarching statutory goal of the RLA is to minimize the disruption on interstate commerce stemming from labor-management disputes.  And this rule would likely do just the opposite, with unintended consequences, by increasing the likelihood of union activities that could yet be another destabilizing force in an industry that needs anything but -- a destabilizer that comes just as the industry tries to consolidate in order to stabilize.

The first 81 pages of the document were a little dry.  But starting on page 81 the dissenting opinion of NMB Chairman (and sole Republican member) Elizabeth Dougherty began: “I dissent from the rule published today for the following reasons: (1) the timing and process surrounding this rule change harm the agency and suggest the issue has been prejudged; (2) the Majority has not articulated a rational basis for its action; (3) the Majority’s failure to amend its decertification and run-off procedures in light of its voting rule change reveals a bias in favor of representation and is fundamentally unfair; and (4) the Majority’s inclusion of a write-in option on the yes/no ballot was not contemplated by the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) and violates the notice-and-comment requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).”

Ouch.  But no matter. The Final Rule will become effective on June 10, 2010, unless opponents use the courts to stop it.

Let the Lawsuit Begin

The industry, speaking from the Air Transport Association platform said:  "It is quite clear to us that the NMB was determined to proceed despite the proposed rule's substantive and procedural flaws, leaving us no choice but to seek judicial review." 

The unions, of course, took a different tack. The AFA-CWA, a big winner here as it seeks for the third time to organize flight attendants at Delta, made clear where it stood on any legal challenge. "We applaud the NMB for taking this historic and courageous step to bring democracy to union elections. By allowing workers to have a voice in these elections, whether it be yes or no [author adds: or by write in], will only bring benefits to all parties. We look to airline management and their third party supporters to respect their employees' voices and the concept that guides our country every day, and not to bog down this significant achievement in legal appeals."

Having now devoted four blog postings to this subject, I may qualify as one of those third party supporters. Not because I’m carrying water for airline management, but because I think this rule stinks just like the tarmac rule and decision by this administration on the slot swap.  The only hope I have with this rule is that the incumbent unions start to be smarter in their negotiation strategies.

Included in a statement by AFA-CWA International President Patricia Friend’s statement lauding the cram down rule is her insistence that job security is a union function.  What is job security in today’s world?  Is it contract language?  Or is it a strong company?  When I think of pilot scope language that is designed and negotiated for the sole purpose of protecting jobs I see 14,000 mainline pilot jobs lost and nearly 800 narrowbody aircraft taken out of service because the economics (largely unproductive labor) could not translate into profitable flying.  But that unproductive labor paid union dues – for awhile.

I have a lot of union experience.  I worked as a local union president.  I have experience as an advisor to labor in distressed negotiations.  I serve in a union-appointed Board of Directors position at Hawaiian Airlines. While I know there is strong flight attendant union leadership at Hawaiian, the same cannot be said around the industry and I note in particular American and United and US Airways.

From what I can see, airline unions are all about yesterday.  Bankruptcy did not fix the labor problems at airlines or the ability of many airlines to manage their costs with still-bloated income statements.  But still the unions want to look back, back when labor costs were even higher and productivity was at an all-time low.  If productivity was given in the restructuring negotiations, union-represented employees would be earning more today.  But I digress.

Let me be clear.  I am not saying that unions are all bad.  Good leadership on the union side and a willing management can make deals.  Look at the most unionized carrier in the US industry – Southwest – which thanks in part to a strong relationship with its unions has managed to pay well and do well in the marketplace by building a great corporate culture and making productivity and customer service a priority.

But unenlightened and parochial thinking pervades the leadership ranks of many other airline unions.  The industry will continue to face change and challenges. Unions that adapt and are able to let go of the past will flourish.  Unions that cannot adapt to the new direction of the global airline industry will struggle to deliver for their members. 

And Why Are We Changing This Rule?

It is pretty simple and transparent.  Neither the AFA-CWA nor the IAMAW believes that they have the votes necessary to win an election in their efforts to organize the combined work forces from the merger of Delta and Northwest.  So labor prompted a friendly administration to change the union representation process to help them pick up these coveted new members – particularly on the Delta side where the flight attendants and maintenance workers have never been union.  Imagine how happy those former Delta employees must/will be?

Or, as the union leaders have clearly calculated, if you fail to win hearts and minds at the ballot box (as they have not once but twice) then change the rules. And despite an outcry and outpouring from the industry about the rule as first proposed by the NMB, the Board made no changes to address the concerns expressed by opponents. Instead the rules were relaxed even more to the advantage of unionization. Decrease the barriers to entry (union representation) and leave the barriers to exit high (no direct union decertification procedure).  So off we go to court.

As I have written before, it is not so much the rule change as the way the "politically neutral" NMB went about it.  With the tarmac rule it is the arbitrary nature of the three hours.  With the slot swap deal it is denying the incumbent carriers the right to sell what they invested in over the years and determine an adequate return on that asset.

I understand that most things governmental are heavily political.  But politics have had too much influence over this industry, and not for the benefit of the airlines or the hundreds of thousands of workers they employ.

More to come.

Wednesday
May052010

Mirror, Mirror On the Wall: What About US Airways After All?

One fascinating story resulting from the news that Continental and United intend to merge is what might happen to those on the sidelines, namely US Airways and American. 

Let’s begin with US Airways.  I have written before that US Airways’ route portfolio is inferior relative to other US legacy network carriers. I also have written before that US Airways is hamstrung because of its precarious labor position – a constraint primarily caused by the dysfunction in its pilot corps.

Immediately following Delta’s January 2008 rejection of US Airways’ overture, it was clear to me that US Airways CEO Doug Parker was right in his efforts to be a first mover in the consolidation arena. In making a run at Delta, Parker provided a blueprint for the industry to merge networks, and ensure air service to communities of all sizes, while at the same time reducing fixed costs. But something stood in the way then:  Parker’s pilots. He was hamstrung by pilot leadership blinded by the prospect of an unlikely outcome – a better seniority arbitration decision. [See note below:  Delta attempt came before seniority list decision was issued]  As I wrote then:  “For Parker, bringing labor along would certainly have proven expensive – and maybe just too expensive.”

Today the US Airways pilots await a decision from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals stemming from a lawsuit initially won by the former America West pilots after USAPA, the union that represents the US Airways pilots, refused to honor a binding arbitration decision on seniority integration.

Because of that circumstance—and the consistent objection by USAPA to every strategic initiative generated by US Airways management—last month I challenged speculation that United and US Airways could put together a merger where they twice failed before.

To be fair, as discussions proceeded between US Airways and United, it was becoming clearer to this observer that USAPA was beginning to understand and even embrace the idea that consolidation may not be a bad thing for employees.  The math is easy.  A $30 billion corporation is in better shape to provide for raises and long term employment stability than is a $13 billion company susceptible to geopolitical, oil and economic shocks.  But it remains to be seen if this was just USAPA being opportunistic or a sign that the union is changing its stripes.  As I will discuss below, a change in approach by USAPA will be necessary to secure an improvement in pay for the US Airways pilots in the short term and the benefits of consolidation for all US Airways employees in the longer term.   

Let’s Put Some Things into Perspective

In recent days, I’ve read many stories that attempt to etch US Airways’ livery on the next gravestone in the airline cemetery. But the rumors of the airline’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.  In theory, US Airways, American and other carriers should benefit, albeit indirectly, from industry consolidation.  Moreover, most of these stories missed the fact that this consolidation is taking place at the bottom of a recovery cycle, not at the top.  Assuming that the health of the US airline industry is inextricably tied to the health of the US macroeconomy, then a rising tide should float all boats.  Right? 

On May 3, Vaughn Cordle of Airline Forecasts Inc. published a white paper titled:  “United + Continental is Good News for all Stakeholders:  More Mergers are Needed.  Is American and US Airways next?” Cordle writes: “If the industry is not allowed to consolidate in the most rational manner, the result will be a continuation of the slow liquidation and the inevitable failure of US and AA, the two remaining network airlines in need of restructuring.  The most likely outcome would be an AA bankruptcy and outright liquidation of US.”

Cordle makes a case for consolidating US Airways and American citing expected future increases in fuel prices, airport charges, security and labor costs against the backdrop of less than credit worthy industry.  And these come before the industry begins paying to conform to inevitably new environmental regulations.  Don’t misunderstand, I agree that participating in consolidation is the best outcome for US Airways.   But I don’t buy the gravestone argument.  Let’s take a look at the fundamentals.

Everybody remembers America West Airlines.  A legacy-like model—that we all knew ultimately would be combined with another airline—around the turn of the century America West "flirted" several times before tying the knot.  Before its 2005 merger, America West survived and produced competitive margins through focused management, the support of labor unions that recognized the company’s place in the industry, and by offsetting a revenue generating disadvantage by maintaining a cost structure advantage.  Oh yeah, and the airline was based in Tempe, AZ and run by a guy named Doug Parker.  Sound familiar?

Today US Airways does suffer from about a 12 percent stage length adjusted unit revenue disadvantage versus its legacy carrier peers.  But it also enjoys about a 12 percent stage length adjusted unit cost advantage versus these rivals.  Despite the revenue generating deficiency, for the first quarter of 2010 only United among the legacy carriers saw a bigger increase in total unit revenue than the Tempe-based airline.  Like the rest of the industry, US Airways continues to see its corporate revenue and booked yield (passenger revenue per revenue passenger mile) improve.

Maintaining a Cost Advantage Is Critical for US Airways

And this revenue disadvantage is offset by US Airways continuing to maintain a cost advantage.  For the first quarter of 2010, only Delta saw its unit cost (operating expenses per available seat mile) increase less than US Airways when compared with all legacy network carriers. As a result, US Airways’ pre-tax margins show little to no difference when compared to other legacy carriers.  In fact, during the first quarter, US Airways saw a pre-tax margin improvement of 7.2 points, which compared favorably to its peers. The cost advantage the carrier enjoys cannot be overstated nor can the company hide behind the fact that the vast majority of that difference can be found in lower labor costs.  By contrast, United and Continental are only now beginning to navigate what it might cost to buy labor peace, particularly among the pilot groups. 

One imperative for US Airways will be to educate employees about the difference between US Airways when compared to Delta and the new United.  If US Airways’ unions push the company to match rates paid by other carriers with significantly bigger networks, more profitable hubs and less capacity dedicated to the US domestic market, then Cordle just may be right in predicting the potential for liquidation.

But what if the unions recognize US Airways position in the industry and adopt a longer term approach?  What if US Airways can maintain its current cost advantage?  Or enough cost advantage to offset the company’s structural revenue deficiency?  What if the airline get its internal labor house in order so that old US Airways and old America West contracts are one with matching seniority lists and affordable economics?  Is that really any different than America West at the beginning of the last decade?  Is this any different than United going back to Chicago in 2008 after being snubbed by Continental and getting its house in order?  I think not.

In the US Airways route structure, Philadelphia and Charlotte are gems.  I will concede that Phoenix is confounding given the extent of direct competition from Southwest Airlines.  And while US Airways does enjoy a 23 percent unit revenue advantage versus its low-cost competition, it also carries a 29 percent cost disadvantage when adjusted for stage length.  No legacy carrier has more direct exposure to Southwest.  But this is not new and it is not a death knell.  Parker and his colleagues have been successfully managing this challenge for 15 years.  Rather an important part of the education of US Airways employees and unions need to fully understand the importance of keeping costs low.

It’s Hard to Kill an Airline

In my view, an airline today is like a cockroach.  You can beat it, burn it, kick it and starve it, but it doesn’t die easily.  And over the last ten years Doug Parker has defied even a cockroach’s odds on numerous occasions. Remember, we are at the bottom of a recovery cycle – a fragile recovery cycle to be sure.  US Airways cash as a percent of twelve month trailing revenue is comparable to its legacy peers and relative to its size (revenue), comfortable.  Compared to its peers, the company also has fewer debt obligations to be repaid as a percent of revenue over the next two years.

This is not to say that US Airways does not have its issues – some that are easier absorbed by consolidated balance sheets that produce a higher cash cushion.  And there are plenty of sensitivities that can disrupt the company’s vulnerable cost advantage:  1) a 1 percent change in mainline unit cost ex-fuel cost the company an additional $60 million per year; and 2) a $1 change in price of a barrel of crude cost the company $34 million assuming that crack spreads stay at today’s levels resembling historic norms.  On the other side, as little as a 1 percent change in unit passenger revenue bolsters the company’s top line by $93 million.

Also US Airways’ labor unions need to recognize the value of cooperation and moderation in the near term.  Those unions also need to consider that “moderation” could mean significantly improved pay—if they are prepared to eliminate anachronistic scope restrictions and improve productivity.  And they need to see that there is a big pay day if US Airways is involved in industry consolidation, and that their behavior—and the terms of their collective bargaining agreements—will play an important role in determining whether that pay day occurs.

Message to US Airways’ Labor Generally; USAPA and AFA-CWA Specifically

Git’r’done. Enough already.  The pundits who suggest that US Airways is dead do so partly in recognition of the dysfunction of union leadership at your company.  They are not all together wrong.  But most are not aware that there may be recognition by US Airways’ labor leadership that their members may actually benefit by participating in consolidation.  To participate in a strategy designed to promote industry stability requires labor stability as well – and this is an area that needs improvement at US Airways particularly among the two unions representing flight crews, USAPA and AFA-CWA. 

Some suggest in comments to this blog that management is keeping the groups apart to save a few bucks.  If that is what they are doing, then shame on them.  But no one can make me believe that this is the case.  What's in it for Parker to do that?  Also it is in everyone’s best interest to negotiate joint collective bargaining agreements with competitive productivity and scope language that permits a company to navigate the complex competitive landscape and to have a single seniority list for the various class and crafts of employees.   And it is critical to both shareholders and employees that impediments to mergers be eliminated from collective bargaining agreements.

What makes this round so damn difficult is that every carrier is now a little different and it stems from an individual carrier’s portfolio of flying.  For this reason it is increasingly difficult to compare costs at one carrier to another and, as such, pattern bargaining should be a practice of the past.  If airlines engage in union efforts to chase the best contract – even when their networks don’t pay the tab -- then they deserve their place in the airline graveyard.  The price of buying “labor peace” is too high if it means an airline can’t ultimately support or survive its own labor cost structure.

These negotiations, whether at United, Continental, American or US Airways, are about the future of the airline industry as we know it.  As such, the negotiations are about more productivity and flexibility in return for higher wages.  Fixed costs must be removed.  And a union’s demand that a company carry more employees to do the same level of flying as a competitor simply creates a structural disadvantage any rival can exploit.  For a standalone US Airways, the company is in a position to survive given the up cycle ahead.  But come next the down cycle, or geopolitical event, or oil at $100 . . . then all bets are off.  So at US Airways, the negotiations need to be about ensuring the company's relevance while supporting industry consolidation.

Mirror, Mirror On the Wall: In a couple of years give US Airways a call. 

More to come.

Wednesday
Nov042009

The National Mediation Board: From Honest Brokers to K Street Politicians

Something is just not right about the speed with which the National Mediation Board issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) to amend the Railway Labor Act

I’m guessing that the reasons had more to do with politics than good policy. Something is just not right.       

In its proposed rule, the NMB is seeking to change the election process by which unions organize workers in the railway and airline industries. The new rule, which would change 75 years of practice, would for the first time determine the outcome of union elections based on a majority of those who vote rather than current practice, where a majority of all eligible voters must support joining a union.

What is laughable about this change, at least to this observer, is that the Board describes the NPRM as part of its “ongoing efforts to further the statutory goals of the Railway Labor Act.”  Funny, because the overarching statutory goals of the RLA is to minimize the disruption on interstate commerce stemming from labor-management disputes.  And this rule would likely do just the opposite: increase the likelihood of union activities that could wreak havoc on our nation’s commerce.

Never do I remember the use of the formal NPRM process to make such a significant change to labor law.

But before we go too far, it is important to note the dissenting opinion of the Chairman of the Board.  The NPRM was issued by NMB members Harry Hoglander and Linda Puchala – the two Democratic appointees on the three-member Board. The Chairman, GOP appointee Elizabeth Dougherty, in a formal dissent challenged the action of her fellow Board members

 “Regardless of composition of the Board or the inhabitant of the White House, this independent agency has never been in the business of making controversial, one-sided rule changes at the behest of only labor or management,” Dougherty wrote.  And it is this very mindset of Hoglander and Puchala in the drafting of the NPRM that smacks of politics, disregard for prior practice and arrogance in refusing to address subjects of similar importance in the labor arena, including the ability of employees to decertify a union and a union’s right to demand the personal contact information of employees they hope to organize known as an Excelsior list.

Let’s Talk Stability

On September 28, 2009 I blogged in a piece titled:  Airline Industry Eyes on the National Mediation Board,  that looked at this very issue..  The rule change was sought by labor – the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO as part of its efforts to make it easier to organize airline workers. But the proposed rule is loaded with the potential for unintended consequences, particularly for incumbent unions that might be the target of “raids” by competing unions encouraged by the possibility of picking up new members in an industry already heavily unionized. 

Stability is one issue Chairman Dougherty addresses in her dissent, albeit for different reasons:

 “The Board has repeatedly articulated important policy reasons for our current majority voting rule – including our duty to maintain stability in the air and rail industries,” she writes. “This duty stems directly from our statutory mandate to ’avoid interruption to commerce or the operation of any rail or air carrier.’ The Majority attempts to ignore this important statutory mandate by claiming that only our mediation function is relevant to keeping stability in the air and rail industries. This argument has no merit. The statute does not limit our mandate to only mediation, and it is disingenuous to suggest that our representation function does not play an important role in carrying out our duty to maintain stability in these industries. Moreover, the Board has repeatedly in the past raised this policy issue in conjunction with our representation function.”

But it is just that stability that would suffer in the case of more frequent labor disputes and work actions designed to cripple a carrier’s service.

Some will say that disruption of interstate commerce was one thing in the 1930’s when the RLA was last amended and yet another thing in 2009 to justify making changes to 75 years of practice.  Not so fast.  In the 1930’s, interstate commerce consisted more of construction materials transported by train.  Today’s economy is about “just-in-time” delivery of every commodity imaginable and that includes the crucial role of airlines in getting business travelers to and from their destinations.  Time sensitive materials and travel are critical to today’s economy and fundamental to the service modern airlines provide.  So avoiding disruption is as applicable -- if not more important -- today as it was then.

Why Should You or I Care?

I have been asked by many really smart people why I oppose this change. After all, it would only put in place the very election practice of majority voting that is at the core of our democracy.  From that perspective, I could easily wrap myself in the flag and say the change sought by the unions makes absolute sense. 

But let’s give it a closer look. Our election practices were established by the U.S. Constitution. The 12th and 17th Amendments changed the rules for electing Presidents and Senators, but only after careful deliberation.  And just as the Constitution establishes the framework for the establishment of the Federal government and its relationship with states and citizens, the RLA establishes the framework for the resolution of labor-management practices in the railroad and airline industries. 

I am not a lawyer. But I do know that there is much learned discussion around the issue of original intent as it pertains to the Constitution.  Changes can be made and have been made to that ruling document.  Similarly, changes can be made to the RLA.  But that should happen only after careful deliberation. Moreover, it should not occure on the whim of two NMB members.  I hesitate to even suggest that these changes are being imposed by the Obama Administration on a struggling industry as a way to pay back labor for its support during the campaign, but it is beginning to smell that way.

Should the Industry Really Care?

The fact is, this proposed rule change is aimed at a single airline, Delta, which is less-unionized than any other legacy carrier.  And as the nation’s largest airline following its acquisition of Northwest, Delta is clearly a tempting union target.

So should anyone other than Delta really care? There is probably plenty of water cooler discussion taking place in Dallas, Chicago, Houston and Phoenix to name a few airline headquarters. One can only imagine that, in their view and on one hand, it is high time that Delta has to deal with the same labor challenges that have burdened other airlines for decades.

Delta is unique in the industry in its ability to offer above industry W2 compensation in return for work rule and commercial flexibility.  That’s been possible because Delta isn’t constrained by union contracts that limit productivity, add rigid work rules and protections and add other fixed operating costs.  Under unionization this past practice and fact becomes a question mark.

But I believe that the industry should be concerned about this Board action, both in impact and in precedent. Assuming the rule is implemented as I believe it will be, then all airlines with unrepresented work groups should prepare for union organizing activity unlike anything this industry has seen in two decades.  AirTran, jetBlue, Republic/Frontier and SkyWest should stand ready.

Let me be clear.  I am not saying that unions are all bad.  Good leadership on the union side and a willing management can make deals.  Look at the deals done in 2009.  Look at the most unionized carrier in the US industry – Southwest – which thanks in part to a strong relationship with its unions has managed to pay well and do well in the marketplace by building a great corporate culture and making productivity and customer service a priority

On the other hand, unenlightened and parochial thinking pervade the leadership ranks of many airline unions.  The industry will continue to face change and challenges. Unions that adapt and are able to let go of the past will flourish.  Unions that cannot adapt to the new direction of the global airline industry will struggle to deliver for their members.

Will unions grow stronger and gain members under the new rule? Probably. Does the NMB appear politically-motivated? Absolutely. That’s a real problem.

Today, several airlines are negotiating collective bargaining agreements under the auspice of the NMB. Whereas in the past the parties would have been sent back to the bargaining table to work out their differences, we might in the near future see a reckless use of the release process by a politically motivated Board.

[Note:  I am currently a local AFA appointed board member at Hawaiian Holdings, Inc. where the ALPA represented pilots have requested a release from mediation.  Writing on this topic is purely my own view on happenings at the National Mediation Board and in no way is intended to represent the views of Hawaiian Holdings, Inc., Hawaiian Airlines, Inc., or represent the views of local HAL AFA President, Ms. Sharon Soper.  The opinion stated is solely that of William Swelbar.]

What Does it Mean for Airline Unions?

I always watch with interest what James Hoffa and the Teamsters Union say about the airline and railroad industries.  In a November 3, 2009 Wall Street Journal article by Mike Esterl and Melanie Trottman on this very subject, Hoffa is quoted in support of the proposed change: “This reform lets workers choose a union the same way they choose the President of the United States,” he said. Whichever side gets the most votes, wins.”

But I’m guessing that Hoffa’s real goal is something else entirely. Because Hoffa and his Teamsters Union split from the AFL-CIO, they are free to raid another union by petitioning the NMB to organize workers represented by a different union.  The leaders of AFA, the IAM and ALPA ought to start looking over their shoulders now, because another union might be standing in the shadows. And that union might just be aiming for dissatisfied members that – whether out of anger toward the incumbent union or the struggling economy – might just be open to considering switching allegiances in hopes of getting a better deal. After all, under the RLA it takes only 35 percent of the workers in a “class or craft” to sign a card showing interest in a union.  And then, under the proposed rule, only a simple majority of the minority would be necessary to vote the incumbent union out. 

Imagine how tempting the prospect of signing up new dues-paying members from any number of small railroads around the country, whether for the IBT, the SEIU, or any other aggressive union that shows little interest in abiding by the etiquette of the House of Labor?  In industries in which two-thirds of workers already are represented by unions, a raid targeting disgruntled employees (an unfortunately large group in the airline industry) would present the best opportunity for a union to gain “market share.”

One can only assume that the strategists at the TTD and the AFA-CWA have thought all of this through. They must be counting on passage; otherwise, why would the AFA-CWA and the IAMAW have moved to withdraw their applications for single carrier determination at the merged Delta that is necessary to initiate a representation election?  And the fact that they’ve come this far leads me to believe that they have some pretty powerful friends in Washington, D.C.

Something is just not right

.     

Monday
Sep282009

Airline Industry Eyes on the National Mediation Board

The Railway Labor Act (RLA), which governs labor relations in the rail and airline industries, has been around longer than the airlines flying today.  First passed in 1926 and amended in 1934, it is designed in part to ensure that labor disputes in these key industries can be managed in a way so that they don’t interfere with the nation’s critical commerce.

Decades later, we can all point to the RLA and find certain aspects of the law that should be changed.  And that’s a worthwhile discussion. As long as it’s based in the understanding that the purpose of the RLA was to promote stability and not to disrupt interstate commerce with labor strife.  In its own quirky way, it accomplished these two inherent objectives. 

Now some in organized labor want to inject instability on top of an already unstable industry architecture.  Labor leaders insist they want a more predictable, efficient system. The question is whether the reform being sought will bring unintended consequences?

Organized Labor, President Obama and the National Mediation Board

Recently, the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department (TTD) asked the National Mediation Board to change 75 years of practice regarding representation elections. The practice in place today requires that a union win with a majority of employees within a “class” or “craft” in order to be certified as those workers’ collective bargaining representative.  The TTD, running interference for the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), is seeking to make a major alteration to the practice that would put the union in place if it gets “yes” votes from a majority of those voting, not a majority of all employees in the class or craft.

This issue promises to provide some insight into the power of organized airline labor in the Obama Administration. Clearly, labor played a key role in electing the President.  But to date, labor has not reaped the successes many expected in the early months of the new administration.  Will the administration pressure the National Mediation Board to make this change?

After 75 Years, Why Now?

It is pretty simple and transparent.  Neither the AFA-CWA nor the IAMAW believes that they have the votes necessary to win an election in their efforts to organize the combined work forces from the merger of Delta and Northwest.  So labor hopes that a friendly administration will change the process to help them pick up these coveted new members – particularly on the Delta side where the flight attendants and maintenance workers have never been union.

Or, as the union leaders have clearly calculated, if you fail to win hearts and minds at the ballot box (as they have not once but twice) then change the rules. 

The AFA-CWA failed twice in its efforts to organize Delta flight attendants. In their last campaign, only 40 percent of eligible flight attendants even voted. And under NMB procedures, those who don’t vote are counted as a “no” vote regarding union representation. 

After months of delay in seeking to have Delta and Northwest declared a single carrier – an administrative procedure necessary to hold an election for union representation – the AFA-CWA petitioned the NMB for the single carrier determination in July.  The IAMAW followed in August, but is not seeking to organize the entire group of eligible employees in various class and crafts of Delta and Northwest employees.  Unfortunately, an election cannot proceed until the TTD’s request of the NMB has been decided upon.  Therefore, more hurry up and wait for affected employee groups. 

The TTD asked the NMB to change election procedures on September 2, 2009.  Since that time, various groups opposed the change in formal comments to the Board. Opponents include the Air Transport Association, the Regional Airline Association, and the Airline Industrial Relations Conference.

The TTD’s position is that the NMB’s policy is “clearly inconsistent with the longstanding, widely accepted understanding of a democratic election process in the public arena.”

I could wrap myself in that flag -- I guess. And as I read through the various filings, I understand the legal arguments being made. But I am not a lawyer.  So I am going to think about this in another way.

Majority Rule

The “majority rule” issue that is at the center of the TTD’s request seems to have a philosophical bent toward stability:  If a majority of workers in a class or craft want a union to be its collective bargaining representative, the union then has a mandate to bargain with the employer.  With less than a majority support, how effective can a union be in representing the work group?  If the ultimate weapon of the union is the ability to engage in “self help” (the RLA term for strikes, work stoppages, hiring replacement workers and other actions either side can take if the negotiating parties are “released” from mediation), then how effective can the union be in forcing the employer to improve pay and working conditions if more than half of the workers choose to work during a declared job action?

With nearly 150,000 airline industry jobs lost since 2002, it is easy to understand why labor is concerned about the decline in its ranks. Delta has long been a tempting target for unions. Only the pilots and two smaller groups of workers are now unionized.  Delta is a non-union airline by industry measures.  So unionizing the world’s largest airline could be a big step for unions trying to replenish their membership roles following the industry’s restructuring period.  Simply, labor wants to change the majority rule because union activists are those that vote. 

In AFA’s last election attempt at Delta, one assumes that 60 percent of eligible flight attendants didn’t vote because they knew that not to vote was a “no” vote. A clear majority said that they were not interested in changing the labor dynamic at the airline.  But the majority of the 40 percent who did vote supported the union. 

Now enter Northwest and its 7,000 flight attendants. Prior to the merger, they already were members of the AFA-CWA.  Add those votes to the mix and AFA-CWA should easily get a majority of the combined work force.

Fragmented Labor Meet a Fragmented Airline Industry

Today’s AFL-CIO is not the same force that it was during its "New Deal" heyday.  Then, the labor movement was consolidated and spoke with one voice.  Today it does not.  Two large and powerful unions, the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), recently broke from the AFL-CIO to form a rival coalition.  That defection has created a fragmented labor industry in which the old rules no longer apply. Already, unions in rival coalitions have tried to “raid” members from other unions – something the old rules prohibited. Herein lies the rub.

Arguably, one of the fundamental issues that airline labor has struggled to recognize and reconcile in a constructive way is the fragmented airline market.  Yes, fragmentation leads to hyper competition, but it also creates an unstable industry structure.  This unstable structure has forced airlines to seek wage cuts and productivity gains from labor in order to prevent competing airlines from entering markets and stealing the incumbent carrier’s traffic and revenue - and to live to fight another day.

In my view, changing long-established rules that are intended to promote stability has the potential to exacerbate an already unstable situation. Consider the scenario played out by AMFA following restructuring at United.  Because AMFA is not an AFL-CIO union, it could raid - or threaten to raid - at will mechanic groups at those airlines where unions had gone along with deep concessionary agreements under bankruptcy or other financial pressure. In fact, it won a few elections along the way only to lose later when they failed to deliver on their promise of securing “snapbacks” and wage and benefit increases the industry simply couldn’t afford.

I have seen many airlines struggle in negotiations with AMFA-targeted groups.  In many cases, the company and the incumbent union could probably have reached agreement earlier but for the union’s fear that by agreeing to some perceived negative change to the agreement, they would invite a raid from AMFA hoping to steal their dues-paying members.  This created a destructive and mercenary element to contract negotiations that too often delayed deals and hurt airlines and their employees.

Another question worth asking, but unresolved, is if a majority rule provision were replaced whether a minority of the class and craft could then move to force an election to decertify the union?  (The RLA would seem to be silent on this subject) Imagine the destabilizing effect of that situation.  Just about any tentative agreement I can think of would have elements or aspects that may not be palatable to some vocal minority.  So if an agreement ultimately passes by a razor thin margin, the vocal minority begins a campaign to replace the union that made the deal, looking to a new union that will promise that it can accomplish what the incumbent could not.  And so it goes.......

I may be going out on a limb here, but I’d guess this is a scenario that the Teamsters have already thought through in trying to change the RLA.  The minority rule should allow for raids that could bring new members into the Teamster ranks.

Concluding Thoughts

There’s a real risk to the change the union seeks, particularly during a collective bargaining cycle like this one in which the expectations of employees are so far from most airlines’ ability to afford. There is enough instability in this industry without creating a situation that would bring even more.

Labor has asked the NMB to move toward quicker resolutions of cases on the docket.  But the debate over the RLA must also consider the perspective and concerns of incumbent unions who will be hard pressed to make a deal that offers airlines something of what they need – namely, greater productivity – without facing a raid from a hungry competitor.  A hungry competitor that will promise anything without the corresponding responsibilities of working with management and putting together agreements that serve the long-term best interests of the companies and their employees.. 

It is the burden of management to make very difficult decisions based on the competitive environment in which they operate.  In this labor environment, union leaders could very well face the same challenges and be forced to make decisions that are not in the best interests of dues paying members but in the best interest of the institution. And that would be just one unintended consequence of a change in the rules of the game in order to “possibly” achieve a short-term gain.

The alteration sought by the TTD would prove to be a bad NMB policy change I fear -- particularly when one of the most important goals of the new NMB is to resolve cases in a timelier manner. 

Friday
Sep262008

“Capital Is Global, Labor Is Local”

The title is not my words but rather those of the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA). On Tuesday of this week, I sat on a panel with Captain Paul Rice of IFALPA to discuss consolidation at the ACI World Conference in Boston. Captain Rice is a most articulate and passionate speaker when it comes to issues important to labor.

As our panel progressed in its discussion, I challenged Captain Rice on his use of his phrase describing events occurring in the industry on consolidation. My basic assertion was: that labor is capital and its flow is being hindered by seniority and other fundamental union rules that probably will not serve tomorrow's work force as currently designed. Restrictions on the flow of capital, or anything, are good for no one. The Boston Beacon reported on our panel.

Yesterday’s Northwest – Delta Shareholder Vote

There is no event currently taking place that highlights the “Labor is Local” mantra more than the pending Northwest - Delta merger. Susan Carey of the Wall Street Journal writes: Northwest's Unions Face Tough Reception at Delta. This comes on the heels of the Association of Flight Attendants – CWA testifying before Congress earlier this week that the rules for union elections at airlines need to be altered. Ah, we are again back to that contemporary law that governs airline labor relations: the Railway Labor Act of 1926 as amended in 1936.

What is interesting to me is that unions negotiate hard to have Sections 3 and 13 of the Allegheny-Mohawk Labor Protective Provisions in their contracts. In February of this year, I wrote a piece entitled: F + E = LPP^DL: Fairness and Equity; Seniority Integration; Union Representation; and Lee Moak Again. Delta had offered these protections to its employees ahead of the announcement of a deal, and they did not have to bargain for it.

There will almost certainly be elections among the IAM and AFA-CWA work forces but now union leaders are concerned that, under NMB rules, a ballot sent to an employee that is not returned is counted as a no vote therefore making a representation election most difficult to win. Just as it has been for years and years.

But like any election, isn’t it up to the union to convince potential new members that being represented by a collective bargaining representative is better than not being represented at all? So, if labor is going to ask that we review only Sections of the Railway Labor Act that serves their local interests only, I say no. If labor is going to ask that an Act of Congress that is more than 70 years old be amended to address issues and concerns that prevent the US airline industry from fully participating in global capital flows because current labor capital says no, then I say yes.

If nothing else, the two mature airline industries in the US and Europe should be able to find common ground that separate continental seniority lists could provide.

Monday
May052008

Yawn

This post represents the longest period between pieces for me since I started swelblog.com in October of 2007. Change has been the theme to date. Change will continue to be a theme. Bloggers typically are not sources for news. Instead we rely on reports from the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, Bloomberg and other trusted sources for the news and views.

Last Monday, Susan Carey and Melanie Trottman wrote: Continental Rejects Merger Overtures. The subtitle read: Move Marks Rebuke to Rival United; Shifting Alliances? OK. That story ran on A1. Today Susan Carey writes a piece entitled: UAL Merger Discussions With US Airways Intensify. The subtitle reads: Companies See $1.5 Billion In Savings, Synergies; Decision Within 10 Days. Yawn. This story ran on B1. And of course the story comes replete with the now familiar disclaimer: “according to people familiar with the matter”.

In the past, news of airline mergers and potential structural changes in the industry had an air of intrigue and suggested something new in the age old debate was about to emerge. Not this time. Throughout this current period of M&A discussion, I have hoped for something that suggests a path toward transforming of the industry. Something different. Something that tests the current shackles that tie the industry to the same old, same old.

Something like British Airways testing the ownership limits and investing in American and/or Continental. Deal is intended to highlight the importance of the subject as the US and EU negotiate Phase II. Or, labor agrees to a single collective bargaining agreement that makes changes to scope that opens up the globe to new revenue sources all the while protecting US jobs and ensuring that growth will largely remain with the US carriers involved. In return, labor wins meaningful equity in the deal and ties compensation to the same metrics as management. The changed compensation structure begins the process of aligning interests in the company's success.

But I think the market will be the ultimate driver of change. Not the carriers themselves. But maybe that is the good news in all of this and honestly, the only way it can get done.

Transition v. Transformation (Labor Actions Hold A Key)

No matter what direction the industry was going to fly following the emergence of Delta and Northwest from Bankruptcy in early 2007, the subsequent five years or so was going to be a period of transition. The era was sure to be marked by increased competition from non-US carriers; higher oil prices; an economy that was tiring; and more than likely a recognition that no carrier that filed for protection probably had done enough, or tried to preserve too much, given the trajectory of the oil curve.

Then we were going to be faced by the demands of labor to return what was conceded during the restructuring period. Because that is the way it has always been. Right? So maybe it is labor, and their ultimate actions, that is the transition. The transition to transformation? And this transition holds a high probability of the death of an icon.

We already schooled on the many labor issues surrounding Delta and Northwest. But United and US Airways provide their own interesting twists. And those twists begin with the pilots.

No group of pilots has even approached the unrealistic and "head shaking" behaviors of the American Airlines’ pilots except for the former US Airways pilots (US Airways East). These are the pilots that chose to form an independent union by selling an unachievable (from this writer’s opinion, anyway) overturn of an arbitrator’s decision regarding seniority integration of the former America West and US Airways pilots.

But if United and US Airways do decide to join hands, some very interesting possibilities come to the fore. With 5,000 United pilots represented by ALPA; 2,200 former America West pilots that largely voted for ALPA I would guess; and the 2,700 or so former US Airways East pilots that bought the pipe dream sold by the USAPA upstart – an election for representation is all but ensured. And ALPA would likely win. The integration would more than likely get done - yet again. This is the best hope for the former US Airways' East pilots who should recognize that they were fortunate to have found a way out of Chapter 22.

As for the concept of rent sharing discussed in the previous post, a combination of United and US Airways would result in less transfer of capital from the deal and into hush money paid to labor given the relative proximity of average salaries and productivity levels of the two groups.

A United – US Airways combination would also prove most interesting for the flight attendant group as the AFA-CWA represents not only the United class and craft but each the former US Airways and former America West flight attendants as well. From my perspective, this could very well become a “game changer” in the AFA’s attempt to organize the current Delta flight attendants. AFA will be put under the spotlight as to how the union will deal with the integration of its own members that are sure to have varied interests.

As for the other represented groups in the United – US Airways combination, labor stories exist but they are less headline making than what could go on with each the pilots and flight attendants in this scenario.

Over The Weekend, A Comment From a Reader

In my most recent post, Swelblog.com: Let’s Just Continue the War of Attrition, cp5000 commented: “Bottom line is that in a free market, management and labor are free to do whatever they please and capital should be able to make its way to those companies that make arrangements with their work groups that make sense to the providers of capital. Letting the market place sort this all out is difficult for a politician, particularly for a politician from an area that will lose jobs due to the workings of the market. However, our political leaders should be able to see that the pain experienced by some in the past has led to many benefits today”.

cp was speaking to events like the loss of TWA that arguably provided for the opportunity for jetBlue to be granted the slots necessary at JFK that were instrumental to its successful start. The demise of Pan Am was critical to United building Asia and gaining early access to London Heathrow. It could be said that the loss of Eastern ultimately created the vacuum for AirTran today as it has morphed from its prior incarnation as ValuJet. And Southwest has just “triangulated” its way through it all and now has its footprint in all four corners of the US domestic market..

Charlie Bryan’s Tombstone Would Probably Like Some Company

Whether it be the integration of seniority, the overreach for corporate rents by various stakeholder groups, or the failure to recognize that the historic patterns of bargaining and capital recycling are over – labor will definitely play a role in this transition period.

In a post on October 21, 2007, I wrote a piece where I was addressing employee and community entitlement to employment and air service. “Defining Entitlement Economics: all are conferred a lifelong right to employment and/or abundant service despite the fact that the economics of the US airline industry, particularly its domestic operations, have changed significantly since the early 1990’s”. Nobody is entitled to a lifelong right of anything.

Why this period is not viewed as an opportunity by labor and policymakers, I just do not know. Instead opponents will point to executive compensation; service problems; loss of service; a menu of potential dislocations; and just plain ignore the economic reality that this industry needs to figure out how to make money. Period. That is the only thing that will benefit everyone.

Yawning at United – US Airways and the drumbeat in anticipation of it. Not sure if I am just weary of the tired refrain of executive compensation and entitlement of economics and seniority; or if bored because the arguments and scare tactics remain the same all the while the world around the arguments continues to change; or if oil is just sucking the oxygen out of the industry and limiting the interesting things that could be done proactively. But I will be patient as some great stories and perspective will emerge.

Or maybe it is simply because I celebrate five decades of life on Thursday. I probably should have written this piece on Mayday. But it is Cinco de Mayo.