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Entries in Presidential Emergency Board (3)

Friday
Jan222010

Pondering Washington Politics and Dilemmas over Airline Strikes

Things just happen when things move too far too fast.

Wow.  All I could say after Tuesday night’s victory for Scott Brown in Massachusetts was wow.  I am still in a head shaking wow mode as is much of the country.  Then again, this has been one amazing 40 days for the country when it comes to politics.  Much of the political power grabs have been occurring within the health care reform debate arena where the “Cornhusker Kickback” and the unions wringing a “Cadillac Plan” tax exemption out of the White House emerged.   

During these amazing 40 days, the airline industry was not immune from political meddling and arrogance that somehow manage to turn politicians into CEOs and airline route planners either.  Nevada Senator Harry Reid went so far as to write a letter to US Airways CEO Doug Parker expressing concerns about the airline’s decision to significantly downsize operations at Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport.   Reid’s letter provides a lot of fodder for comment, but there are a few I want to highlight.

Reid writes, “As I am sure you are aware, Nevada has been particularly hard hit by the recession affecting our nation.”  Hey Harry, have you noticed the U.S. airline industry lost nearly $60 billion during the 2K decade.  Or that airlines shed 150,000 jobs because of economic conditions that plague the country and, thus, this industry which is inextricably tied to the health of the economy?  Or that taxes and fees on airlines increased while the revenue environment deteriorated?  Or that you chose to pursue, and fund, a railroad serving a few rather than funding an air traffic control system and equipping an industry now serving the masses?  I suppose not.

Then Reid has the audacity to write, “Because of the commitment you have shown to Nevada, I have been a longtime supporter of your airline.  From the merger with USAir to accessing additional slots on the East Coast, we have worked together to build the airline into one of the premier national carriers.”  Wow, how arrogant is that?  Does that mean if US Airways pulls down Las Vegas, Reid will stand in the way of a commercial arrangement that would make US Airways stronger?  Then again, that line of thinking is more typical than atypical of this Congress and its view of an industry that facilitates commerce.

Politics are the rule of the day even with quasi-government agencies charged with minimizing instability within those very industries. The way the National Mediation Board is going about changing a 75-year rule that worked until organizing possibilities presented themselves at Delta Air Lines is another example of politics run amuck.

Speaking of the National Mediation Board

There is a lot of talk in the mainstream and industry press about airline strikes.  The process by which airline and railroad unions can strike is quite different than other industries – and it all runs through the National Mediation Board.  It is explained better by some reporters than others. 

This round of negotiations is the first since the restructuring negotiations of 2002 that resulted in significant salary and work rule provisions being stripped from many collective bargaining agreements.  Some of those negotiations were done under Sections 1113 and 1114 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code and others were not.  The current round of talks will involve the National Mediation Board in many, if not most, instances.  Complicating matters is the sheer number of cases already being negotiated under the auspice of the NMB.   And there are more cases on the way. 

As I write, all organized groups at both American and United Airlines (per a reader: except the IBT, PAFCA and IFPTE) are in mediation.  At some point, certain of those negotiations will have gone as far as they can before the NMB determines the two sides are at an "impasse".  Once an impasse is declared, then the parties are put into what is known as a “30 day cooling off period.”  If no agreement is reached inside that 30 day period, then either side is free to engage in “self help.”  Self help permits management to either “lock out” employees or to "impose its last offer" on the work force. The union can choose to withdraw its services – otherwise known as a strike - - or utilize other “work actions.”   The parties can mutually agree to continue talks until such point that further discussions are deemed fruitless by either side.

Dilemmas for Obama As He Considers a Request from Airline Workers to Strike

Going into this negotiating period and suspecting difficult, if not impossible, negotiations, I wondered aloud about how decisions would be made to release parties into a cooling off period.  I wondered aloud if strikes would be more prevalent than they have been in the past.  I have wondered aloud about who might be this decade’s Eastern Air Lines.  I have wondered just how the NMB is possibly going to manage this work load all the while promising a more speedy negotiating process as part of its new charge.  And recently I have been wondering how politics might affect NMB thinking when it comes to releasing parties from mediation. 

In my prior thinking I believed that this round would result in more Presidential Emergency Board proceedings to ultimately decide the terms of a contract.  A Presidential Emergency Board?  Yes, as the 30 day cooling off period expires and, more often than not, the union decides to engage in self help, there is a parallel decision that must be reached by the White House. 

The White House must determine how commerce might be disrupted if a certain airline were to go on strike.  That calculus involves, at a minimum, the level of unaccomodated demand in certain markets if one carrier were to strike.  Or said another way, can the remaining service in the market accommodate the passengers that cannot travel on the carrier they booked on due to the strike? 

In the era where 80+ percent load factors are the norm, the case for suggesting that demand can be accommodated by the remaining service is increasingly difficult.  It was already starting to get difficult when the Northwest pilots decided to strike in August of 1998.

So if Obama, in this case, determines that a strike would provide too much harm to certain air travel markets, he could stop the strike and order a Presidential Emergency Board to be convened… just like President Clinton did in 1997 when the American pilots chose to strike.  In the case of a PEB, a panel of neutrals, usually arbitrators, is formed to hear the economic case presented by each side.  If the parties cannot agree, then the panel will suggest a "non-binding" settlement.  There is still the possibility of a strike and also the possibility that Congress could legislate a settlement to avert such strike – more than likely the settlement offered by the PEB.

But that is a long way down the road.  I only raise the issues in this piece because politics prior to Massachusetts at least would seem to be nothing more than promises made to special interests (unions) in a dark room in order to garner their support for Obama.  And it worked and has worked.  But might things change?

Compunding the complexity of White House decisions in this round is the possibility of interstate commerce disruption when government stimulus money is in play.

Dilemmas for Airline Labor As They Decide to Strike

About the only thing that you can predict is that a strike at a major, legacy airline will more than likely result in yet another tombstone in the airline graveyard.  Said another way, if a union wants to strike one of today’s legacy carriers, I can see a lock out, use of replacement workers or the sale of assets to another airline that does not include employees.  Ultimately, the majority of the flying done by the striking airline will be replaced. Should a strike result in the liquidation of an airline, the flying will be done by companies that can do it more efficiently – which means fewer jobs.  And that cuts against this administration’s agenda too – doesn’t it?

As hard as it might be for unions to understand, not enough was done on the productivity side of the equation during the restructuring negotiations.  Yes, a judge presided over most of the restructuring negotiations.  But the unions were largely permitted to “pick their poison” when it came to making contractual changes with pensions being the exception.  The poison chosen was to reduce pay more than it needed to be reduced in order to preserve work rules. The tenet that rules the day in any union caucus room is that you can never get work rules back.

In order to get more money in the pockets of workers, more efficiencies need to be found in this industry.  For unions, that will mean fewer dues paying members.  But, this smaller work force would be earning more cash compensation.

One can only hope that a Presidential Emergency Board fully understands the tradeoff between pay, benefits and productivity.

Tuesday
Nov102009

Is the Proposed NMB Rule Change Wright or Wrong?

I had made up my mind that I was not going to write anything more on National Mediation Board activities, at least until after the scheduled public hearing on December 7 in Washington. Isn’t it interesting that the date for the hearing is synonymous with Pearl Harbor Day?  I digress.

I have heard from many people regarding the two recent NMB pieces I posted on this blog.  Most of the comments have been private and along the lines of:  “How can you oppose something so fundamentally akin to our democracy? “And “How can you possibly be against anything that is so aligned with the Constitution of the United States? “

Negotiation and Compromise Were Wright

As I think about my feelings, I reflect back on the reasons I helped American Airlines a few years back in its campaign against Southwest’s push to repeal the “Wright Amendment.”  After all, Southwest’s CEO Herb Kelleher had made a deal in 1979 (or maybe 1978, or maybe 1977, or maybe earlier)when he agreed to the Wright Amendment’s limitations on Southwest’s flying from Dallas Love Field.  Then, in 2004, for reasons unstated but not hard to figure out, Kelleher wanted to undo that deal and expand his airline’s ability to fly nonstop on new routes from Love to points beyond the eight state limit that had been legislatively imposed. 

The Wright Amendment was negotiated with a purpose and a commercial issue at its core.  The law was largely designed to promote stability in the Dallas/Ft. Worth airline market as a then-fledgling DFW Airport came online.  In my work on the campaign, I was often asked how I could oppose unfettered competition in the Dallas marketplace. My reasoning was simple: I believed repeal would lead to dangerous instability in the airline marketplace, particularly for American at a time when all legacy carriers were on life support.  Southwest's motives were largely intended to take advantage of commercial weakness.   

When I assessed the Dallas market and the potential impact on American if the Wright Amendment was immediately repealed, the tenets of a compromise played themselves out in the analytics. That analysis supported a phased-in repeal that immediately allowed through ticketing for Southwest at Love Field.  It certainly was not my place to suggest that compromise.  That compromise came only after a lot of hand wringing among politicians and senior airline executives alike.  But it assured more stability in the market and will ultimately lead to what Southwest sought:  Come 2014, it will be "free" to fly to any and all domestic points from its home base in Dallas.

A Cram-Down Would be Wrong

Based on what we know today, the National Mediation Board through its Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) seems to leave very little room for negotiation or even compromise as to how representation elections should take place.  This, despite concerns raised from not only management interests but from other unions with interests as well.  Interesting, and disturbing, behavior for a quasi-government agency with the mandate to reach agreements with parties rather than provoke, and perpetuate, actions that lead to disruption and delay, don’t you think?  

As I wrote in my last blog, as drafted the NPRM smacks of politics, disregard for prior practice and arrogance in its refusal to address key subjects 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 me be clear here:  I have no issue with the rule change per se.   But I have major problems with how it is being done.  In a real world application of NMB mediation cases, doesn’t the Board provide one or both parties “political cover” in reaching an agreement that might otherwise be politically unpalatable? That sure as hell is not the case here. 

The Wright Amendment was a politically and commercially-charged issue between two airlines and two cities that also had national implications because airline activities so often do. Changing the union organizing process under the Railway Labor Act has implications beyond airlines and airline unions as well. I believe that by changing the rule, the NMB will be creating more instability on top of an already unstable airline marketplace.  And that has national implications. How many industries have interdependencies on the airline and railroad industries?  A stimulus question indeed.

The truth is that some at the NMB are looking to do nothing more than change a rule that would initially make it easier for unions to organize a largely non-union airline (Delta) and add/retain thousands of dues-paying workers to union ranks. But the ramifications have much longer-term implications that very clearly favor one side (union supporters) over the other (those who oppose unionization).  That’s one upshot of a draft rule that ignores rail and airline employees’ right to decertify a union or provide their personal contact information to union organizers.

It sounds to me like either the NMB and its proposed rulemaking should be put on ice, or a Presidential Emergency Board be convened in order to make sure that all input be considered.  At least in a PEB, history suggests that neither party will be totally happy. Inside baseball tells us that means a good deal has been reached.

In this case, like Wright, compromise would be right but only after all sides have had their say and issues heard and considered. Because otherwise, something tells me that the outcome will be wrong.

More to come, for sure.

Sunday
Dec232007

Putting a Few Packages (of Airline Industry Issues) Under the Tree for Readers to Unwrap

Labor

In an industry that is associated with 3-letter identifier codes and with labor’s expectations that “concession recovery” is right around the corner, we should start to think about replacing NMB with PEB. Oh I know that a PEB requires time with the NMB, but …… I never remember a time where neither labor nor management has any meaningful leverage entering a negotiating cycle. I open with this one because trains and Christmas trees are synonymous.

Along those same lines, and with labor’s “one trick pony” leverage point being executive compensation, maybe we should be questioning whether the seniority system really works for airline labor and management. Imagine a real free market where individual airlines actually bid for individual labor's services? Would this type of a "free market" cause airlines to rethink their individual approach to invest in product similar to that provided by the global elite carriers? Free agency has generally been good for compensation levels – average and otherwise.

Isn’t it interesting to see AMFA being challenged on multiple fronts? Most observers expect them to lose their challenge from the Teamsters at United. It seems to me that this is nothing more than a story coming full circle. Just as AMFA challenged the IAM and won at each United and Northwest, by making promises it could not keep while exploiting situations where concessions could not be avoided. It is most interesting to note that by early 2008 AMFA could be gone from its two largest properties. OverPromise and UnderDeliver will be a term discussed more and more over the coming 3 years.

US Economy

With nearly $1 trillion in mortgage resets coming in 2008, doesn’t consumer spending have to be affected at some point?

It has been a long time since I remember reading so many stories and analysis which offer the mixed signals du jour on the direction of the US economy. From recession to inflation, the gamut is covered. The job market and manufacturing have each cooled which suggest a slowdown. Yet the consumer continues to lead the way as retail sales remain strong. But profit margins are less suggesting costs are exceeding the ability to price. Go figure. There is always demand at some price – the US airline business sure captures that concept.

US Government

With New York JFK and Newark operations capped by the US government, and the industry applauding the actions, which major US market will be affected next? What exactly does “new and real” capacity mean when considering a leasing of capacity program?

Remember when jetBlue was lauded as the best capitalized startup in US history? If something were to result in jetBlue failing, what would happen to those JFK slots “given” to the carrier?

Was Virgin America late to the party, or is their timing right? I am intrigued by their recent city pair market choices.

Is it really possible that Singapore Airlines will be serving the New York – London market and the Houston – Moscow – Singapore market in addition to New York – Frankfurt, Los Angeles – Taipei, Los Angeles – Tokyo, San Francisco – Hong Kong and San Francisco – Seoul by the end of 2008? Yes -- the signs of what lies ahead. Where is the home country?

Miscellaneous

Wouldn’t it have been ironic if the New England Patriots went 19-0 and won the Super Bowl, when in the same year the Miami Dolphins went 0-16? Well we know half of the story.

Aren’t you just tired of the same voices making statements that it just cannot be done because it hasn’t worked in the past?

Happy Holidays,

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