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Monday
Aug042008

The Summer of 2008 ……..

Rather than proving who is right, can’t we just recognize that much is wrong?

Will it be the sequel to the Summer of 2000? An early opening to “goose season”? Or a leading indicator of what is to come as we enter the post – 9/11 labor negotiations season? Or all of the above? With only a short amount of time to check the news as I continued my tour of the domestic US last week, I am talking about the news that United Airlines filed suit over a perceived abuse of sick leave by its Air Line Pilots Association unit, or some of them.

Between the USAPA; APA and the United pilots, we have the beginnings of something good – in a perverted kind of way. Yes we will have the sympathizers; the empathizers; the hypothesizers; the criticizers; and of course the legitimizers. But the something good is the continuation of extinguishing 50 years of bad labor practices. It is a painful and necessary process begun in 2002. I was addressing a group last Tuesday, and as the talk continued there seemed to be one theme that emerged from those carriers that have better labor relations. [Answer] They were not in existence prior to 1978, or were in a fledgling state, when the industry was deregulated.

Yes you can argue that Continental was a pre-1978 carrier. But by the time the Old Continental finished its second or third trip through the bankruptcy process, the whiteboard of outdated contractual language was virtually clean and it looked very little like its legacy self. And take advantage of the ability to rewrite the construct they did. Management made the effort to be inclusive of its battered work force. Employees were grateful to be acknowledged by a management team that promised to include them and to reinvent the airline; execute on their plan to do so; all the while implementing a better employee relations environment.

Fast forward to the Summer of 2008. Continental now finds itself at the top, or near the top, of total compensation in each class and craft of employee when compared to its network legacy carrier brethren. But they are also a highly productive work force when compared to their network legacy carrier brethren which permits the higher compensation. Somehow the importance of this relationship gets lost on union leadership. It is this relationship that provides Southwest the leeway to improve the earnings of its work force - and I am not suggesting that the hub and spoke carriers with senior work forces can realize the levels of productivity generated at Southwest.

The pilots at American Airlines somehow believe that they gave up amounts similar to the amounts conceded by their counterparts at United and US Airways. Not close. Not even in the zip code. And now they want it all back. The irony is: if the United pilots are actually calling in sick and standing in the way of the most efficient operation that can be run during the peak summer season, then this does smell some of the Summer of 2000 when Dubinsky brought the airline to its knees and the airline gave them an unprecedented contract.

The one subtle difference between the two periods is that the Summer of 2000 was about negotiating a collective bargaining agreement that followed a failed ESOP arrangement. The sad part was that the collective bargaining process was about negotiating a fixed-cost agreement that would somehow compensate for the failure of a risk-based stock ownership regime. It cannot be done but there has to be a hybrid that is good for all stakeholders.

The Summer of 2008 is about preserving a few more jobs against the backdrop of an industry in need of capacity cuts.

The Summer of 2000 collective bargaining agreement lasted all of 15 months before United filed for bankruptcy. First it was wage reductions. Then it was productivity. Then it was the pensions. Pension terminations are where I have sympathy. Relatively unproductive work forces in this environment do not get much sympathy as deregulation was as much about removing the inefficiencies as it was about making air travel affordable to the masses. Would I like to see some wages restored to help ease the rise in the price of fuel and food? Yes, but……….. risk needs to be shared. For both sides, using the collective bargaining process to further complicate contract language that is outdated only serves to make for confrontation over a sense of entitlement.

Are we ever going to ask the hard questions:

1. Are 30+ sections of a collective bargaining agreement really necessary?;

2. Why is it good practice to continually modify and expand on paragraphs that were originally written long, long ago when route networks were vastly different and air traffic control was much less burdened?;

3. Is the seniority system really the best way, or is it time to consider changing the seniority system going forward for those that ultimately hire on and will be the backbone of the US airline industry tomorrow?;

4. As we approach 150,000 lost jobs, isn’t it time to begin planning for the industry of tomorrow? This can be done while preserving much of what the legacy employee has today and creating a compensation system that best reflects the industry’s reality of macroeconomic ebbs and flows;

5. Are we ever going to try and fix it or are we just going to continue to lay blame? And that holds true for both sides. But when I see APA so resistant to a change in their sick leave policy, and in turn file a lawsuit, well, the type of necessary change seems so far away.

So as we read stories about how United and its pilots negotiated a standstill pact at the end of last week, more and more stories will appear about the deplorable labor-management relation in the airline industry. It takes two sides to negotiate. It takes two sides to recognize that writing new language that will somehow “right” the old language is just bad practice. It is 2008, not 1938.

We write about change; we read about change; we recognize that industry conditions change; but somehow the more things change, the more they stay the same. And the more they stay the same, the further we are from finding a successful industry construct.