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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
Nov172009

Self-Help or Self Sacrifice or Self Fulfilling Prophecy? What Will This Accomplish?

This week, Terry Maxon of the Dallas Morning News  wrote about the “surprised” reaction at American Airlines when a correspondent on NBC’s Today Show reported a “potential strike” at the airline following the holidays.

The show was a bit vague on its sources, but my best is that Laura Glading, President of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, is working her media list to drum up a little coverage for the union’s latest negotiations gambit.

I consider myself a pretty good historian on most things airlines over the past 30 years.  And I remember the APFA’s divisive and destructive Thanksgiving strike in 1993 that attempted to bring the airline to its knees over the critical holiday travel period.  Last year, the union “celebrated” the 15th anniversary of the strike with a campaign they called “Remember November.”

For this year’s anniversary, the union is doing its best to remind the company of the pain it could again impose in a campaign that all but threatens another strike . . . this one called “Got Guts?” 

To be fair, the APFA has made clear that they do not plan to disrupt American’s operations over the holidays.  However, the union did say it was prepared to strike next year if no contract agreement is reached by January, with Glading saying she will consider asking the National Mediation Board for a “release” from negotiations – the first step toward seeking the right to “self help” under the Railway Labor Act.

First, let’s review the rules.  The NMB will grant a release only if it believes negotiations are at an impasse, and the bar for that is set pretty high.   A release would then open a 30-day “cooling off” period.  Only after that point and if the parties fail to reach agreement can either side engage in self help --  which for a union means work stoppages or strikes and for management allows a company to impose its “last offer” at the table or lock out striking workers.

So let’s be perfectly clear.  The union can’t strike now, no matter what the alarmists may say on Today. There is no guarantee that the NMB would grant a release. And even then, the RLA has several protections built in – the cooling off period and the prospect of a Presidential Emergency Board – to prevent the kind of work stoppages that could ground an airline and impact interstate commerce.

So why is the flight attendant union playing it out this way? Why on one hand are they talking strikes (which in some cases proves reason enough for passengers to “book away” from a particular airline) and on the other hand trying to reassure passengers that their holiday travel plans are safe?

Because that’s what unions in the industry too often have done. . . talk out of both sides of their mouth – paying lip service to their commitment to passengers while at the same time making demands and engaging in work actions that threaten the airlines’ ability to do business.

The Boeing Lesson

Let’s consider the real impact of strikes.

Last September I wrote here:  “In what is starting to be a rather ho-hum event in the aerospace/defense world, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) have decided to strike the Boeing Company for the second time in three years. Is this a “yawn moment” or a precursor of things to come as the airline industry begins in earnest the renegotiation of concessionary contracts?”  

In its negotiations, Boeing was looking to balance its economic offer to the union with added flexibility in its contracts the company needed to address the ups and downs in the business cycle.   The IAMAW was not willing to comply. So Boeing ultimately settled with the union, but not before further damage was done to an already fragile relationship. 

The real story, however, played out a few months later, when Boeing announced its decision to build a second production line to build the 787– not in Washington, its corporate home for decades, but in the right-to-work state of South Carolina.

Washington State officials reportedly worked hard to try to convince Boeing to stay, but at the end the state’s governor said the company’s decision to build the line in South Carolina came down to one thing: its difficult relationship with the Machinists union and a failure to reach a no-strike deal. 

And the pain may not be over for Washington’s IAMAW workers. At some point Boeing will need to begin manufacturing replacements for today’s 737 and 777 lines.  Where will those planes be built? 

What is particularly telling in this case is that the IAMAW was publicly dismissive of the fact that the union’s actions had anything to do with the company’s decision to add capacity in South Carolina. 

This is typical of labor of late.  But at some point unions in this space – whether airline or aerospace -- need to recognize the fundamental flaw in their collective bargaining agreements that too often work to choke productivity rather than promote it.

Looking ahead, I believe that the current round of airline negotiations must continue the transition/transformation underway in the US airline industry and address the sticking points in its contractual relationships with its labor force.  These include pay (which is unlikely to return to 2001 levels)  and productivity (which unions resist for fear of losing dues-paying union jobs).

The crux of the problem for labor as I see it is a failure to appreciate the delicate balance between pay and productivity. Without recognition that balancing the formula is critical, the industry, and individual carriers, will continue to find a more efficient means of doing the work.

Sadly, productivity is driven at its core by seniority and all the protections I’ve discussed in the past that unions provide so that long term members feast while newer members are left to feed on the scraps. 

Despite many of the gut-wrenching changes and cost cuts during the last negotiations cycle, the industry did nothing to restructure seniority – the “third rail” on union politics.  In my view, organized labor’s blind commitment to preserving seniority lies at the heart of a race to the bottom.  Yes, the revenue environment contributes more than its fair share to airline’s financial woes, but at some point labor has to accept responsibility for the role of these Depression-era ideologies.  The reality is that, last time around, airline wages were cut more than necessary because of union insistence on preserving seniority and limiting productivity.

Back to the Cabin

So it is in this environment that the APFA waves its strike threat like a red flag in the bullring.  The APFA website even features a report the union commissioned highlighting the failures of airline deregulation and the economic pressures on the industry. On a recent trip to Washington, Glading joined AFA-CWA President Pat Friend in urging the Obama Administration to “stabilize an industry that's not working” and reverse the “damage done” to the traveling public.

Call me nuts, but I’m guessing that Glading’s talk of a strike runs counter to her desire to “stabilize” the industry.  Perhaps other carriers would benefit from the union’s effort to ground the country’s second largest carrier in terms of revenue. But American – and all of its employees – wouldn’t see many benefits.

Or am I to believe that glorifying 1993 and rallying her members to strike in one of the most difficult times in airline history would alleviate the “damage done” to travelers?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the U.S. industry needs to do a better job of managing labor costs in boom and bust cycles in which fat contracts are approved in boom years only to require painful and at times draconian cuts when the cycle turns down.

Tellingly, and perhaps predictably, the unions are hoping a labor-friendly administration in Washington will help them gain new power in the industry – evidenced also by their efforts to change election rules at the NMB to make it easier to organize workers (even if the AFA-CWA, which is trying to organize at Delta, is hiding behind the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department to do it.)

What’s happened in Detroit over the last year is a pretty good indicator of what happens when an industry fails to get its costs in line with the market.  A smaller airline industry can’t absorb the same costs – including labor costs – that it did ten years ago.  Already we’ve been at this restructuring thing for more than five years and it’s pretty clear that the market has spoken.

So I’m really confused by what the APFA thinks it will get in return for a strategy that will only hurt the company that employs its members.

I don’t know what a strike buys anyone in this fragile business environment except, perhaps, an unpleasant ending.  Where I do agree with Ms. Glading is the importance of recognizing history.  I, for one, remember Pan Am, Eastern and TWA.  At the time, most believed those proud companies could weather any storm.  And I’d guess there may be another airline on that list before this cycle is complete.

If the past eight years have been rough and tumble, imagine what the next few years could be like as airlines reach pressure points in contract negotiations.   In that case, I can only imagine what would be left to celebrate on the 20th anniversary of APFA’s Thanksgiving Strike.