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© 2007-11, William Swelbar.

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Empathy for Ron Gettelfinger

What, Swelbar showing empathy for a labor leader? Yes. In fact, my feelings are not dissimilar to the emotion I felt for airline labor leaders a few years back, when the solvency of so many carriers was in question and some of the biggest went on to file bankruptcy. Trust me, no one wanted to be a labor leader in the airline industry following 9/11. Today, I’d bet that there is no human being that wants to sit in for Ron Gettelfinger, the damned-if-you do, damned-if-you-don’t President of the United Auto Workers (UAW).

On Tuesday, Fox.com posted a piece entitled: With GM's Wagoner Ousted, Should Union Head Have Met the Same Fate? In my view, absolutely not. In the early days of Swelblog.com I wrote a piece entitled Self Help in which I praised the negotiating strategy of the UAW. This was on October 11, 2007, long before the spike in oil prices, the freeze in credit markets and the downturn in the economy that has left consumers with little to no confidence in the future and contributed to a decline in consumer spending.

The contracts Gettelfinger negotiated at GM 18 months ago attempted to address many of the competitive disadvantages the US auto industry faced. Those negotiations resulted in, among other items: 1) freezing base pay for 4 years; 2) shifting a significant share of the burden of retiree health care from GM to the union; 3) creating a two-tier compensation structure in return for job protections for the current workforce.

Think about these terms. Unpopular? Anti-worker? Unsuccessful? Yes to all. But the new contract made significant ground in bringing about some of the necessary changes to a collective bargaining agreement born of decades of negotiation between the UAW and the Big Three carmakers and costs that had spiraled out of control. These were well-intended fixes to contractual language written when times were different – but the fixes allowed some historical language to remain. This was well-intended language that would only produce real benefit if the industry grew.

It is like pilot scope clauses: there is only value in the language when it happens. Some might argue this point – don’t scope clauses restrict airlines from even considering new routes/planes/partners when it would potentially violate scope – even when company growth presents itself? Only growth is not in the cards for U.S. auto industry, - or the US airline industry - at least not unless, and until, there is real change.

Just like the automakers, the legacy airlines continue to negotiate from outdated language. Most of these contracts were written when technological changes facilitated productivity improvements that could offset pay increases, and when targeted capacity growth would build airline markets where there was no evidence that the market could support new air service. At the time, collective bargaining agreements did more to ensure that labor would take advantage of technology change rather than to adjust work rules and expectations to account for the advantages new technology brought.

Unfortunately for the airline industry, there is no techological change on the horizon that will increase the speed of the aircraft in a meaningful way.

I have written many times here that the auto industry cannot make the necessary changes without a court-assisted restructuring. The same was true for the airline industry. The problem is that, even in bankruptcy, the airline industry still left decades-old and largely irrelevant language in their collective bargaining agreements. Bankruptcy was effective in dealing with the low-hanging fruit, but did not do enough to position the airlines for long-term success.  Simply, the flexibility to match the work force to the demand environment was not negotiated.

So here we sit with significant negotiations to be done at United, American, US Airways, Continental and AirTran. No labor leader at any of these carriers has stepped up the way Gettelfinger did 18 months ago when he was willing to challenge decade’s worth of old-labor ideas and ideals in return for better positioning GM in tomorrow’s world.

Lee Moak, the head of the pilots’ union at Delta, came closer than any other union leader in acknowledging that change was inevitable as the Delta-Northwest merger moved forward. Moak did what any first-mover in a merger world would do and negotiated the best deal for his members. The problem is that Moak did too good of a job given the state of international markets. I only hope he can hang on to what he negotiated.

We have new contracts getting done across the industry. Interesting and different mindsets at Alaska and Hawaiian have produced some very different agreements. Southwest ground workers have ratified a deal. Southwest has announced a tentative agreement with its flight attendants.

And Southwest this week revealed details of an agreement with its pilots that in my view will prove to be a mistake – with the company caving to the union and giving pilots too much specificity in scope. Southwest did show amazing restraint in agreeing to wage increases, but I had expected it to come without “handcuffs” on code sharing. With this contract, we can see quite clearly how Southwest is aging and facing many of the very same labor struggles that have long dogged the legacy carriers.

I feel for those employees that have “given back,” whether through concessionary contracts or at the demand of a bankruptcy court. But that doesn’t change the fact that the give back was from a level that was unsustainable and would have occurred, eventually, come hell or high water.

This current negotiating period is important to both management and labor. Hopefully, the airline industry will produce leaders like Gettelfinger that recognize that tomorrow has different challenges than yesterday, and that labor leaders have a crucial role in negotiating contracts that protect the workers who helped build the industry, while at the same time ensuring that US aviation can be competitive in the future.

Some call this approach “eating their young”. I call it smart. Because there is nothing that Gettelfinger and the UAW can do today to fix what was done 20 years ago. But labor leaders in the airline industry should do everything in their power to avoid the situation automobile labor now faces. Labor leaders who succeed in the long term will be those who set realistic expectations for their members, resist the urge to overpromise and, like Gettelfinger, recognize that change is inevitable and that labor can and should be a key player in making it work.

More to come.