Roll over Sam Gompers

By Robert Mark on October 30th, 2006

As the first president of the American Federation of Labor back in the late 1880’s, Sam Gompers understood not simply the need for labor groups to preserve a necessary cohesiveness for success, but he also clearly saw the line in the sand between government interference with organized labor and the administration’s need to insure that a necessary element of the American economy should not fall victim to minor squabbles.

But if Gompers were alive right now, he’d probably be appalled at the state of American labor, for more reasons than one. My guess is that he’d find the chaos at Mesaba Airlines in Minneapolis of particular rancor. Mesaba is a regional airline that conducts most of its flying work as a feeder carrier for Northwest Airlines, an airline currently in bankruptcy. The Chapter 11 at NWA pretty much sealed the fate of Mesaba to some degree and that carrier too filed for bankruptcy. Pilots at Mesaba are members of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and Mesaba flight attendants pay dues to the Association of Flight Attendants.

As with most airlines since 9/11, someone quickly realized that the cost versus revenue equation most airlines operated under for decades was unsustainable. Airlines needed to increase revenues and reduce their expenses to survive, which is where employees come in as they collectively bargain with management for something which both can live.

Until a tentative agreement was reached with pilots and flight attendants on Saturday, however, the future at this airline looked bleak with a shutdown entirely possible as management screamed month after month for cost cuts that labor groups labeled excessive. Mesaba management was prepared to force new pay scales on employees while workers at the airline threatened to strike.

That was until October 23rd when U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Gregory Kishel granted an injunction against employees from striking if the company imposed new terms.

In all deference to the hard-working folks at Mesaba, the real issue at hand is much more significant than that airline stays in business.

Collective bargaining has always meant two sides – labor and management – arguing it out until an agreement is reached. One tool for management has always been the ability to lock out workers if the negotiations fail or for workers to strike if they believe there is no other choice. Both directions can inflict severe hardship to both sides, which is precisely why unions use the tactic at their own peril as air traffic controller members of PATCO learned in 1981.

Now the federal government has again decided to implant its own form of control into bargaining efforts for which they are not a party. The question is why, and why now?

Government meddling in labor relations, while not unprecedented, is actually rare. Could the recent election of a new president at ALPA however, a man some claim will be more militant than his predecessor, be indicative of someone redrawing that line in the sand that Sam Gompers did 125 years ago? And not a moment too soon.

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5 Responses to “Roll over Sam Gompers”

  1. Drake Ferruzzi Says:

    Dear, Rob

    I know that situations can get hectic between the airline and its employees but i believe unions are a good thing and that they are needed. I think it is also hard for airlines to make much of a profit when airlines are selling tickets really cheap to attract customers. I know this is all part of competition and not everyone can always be pleased. Some airlines will survive and others may not but as with every other type of business everyone can not always win. I hope it works out for the pilots and the airlines and hope to see better pay for regional pilots ecspecially and hope to see airlines finding a way to make money and suceed. I know things won’ t always work out but that is one the main points of unions, to figure out an agreement.

    Drake Ferruzzi

  2. Rob Mark Says:

    I think unions have always existed because they were needed Drake, way back to my friend Sam Gompers.

    Today though, unions are in a bind though, just as other associations, as they try to justify their existence. Plenty of people have grown up in the past 20 years believing unions are an ugly word. Many working pilots see the union as only a necessary evil which I think speaks to how “un-unionized,” they really are.

    Pilots join a union because they believe they should in order to maintain their standard of living, but think as individuals and hope someone else will handle the dirty work, like negotiations.

    The companies see this state of individual, wavering loyalty and use it to their advantage, I think.

    As far as pay scales going up at the regionals, it might be awhile for many since they have not finished coming down yet.



  3. Drake Ferruzzi Says:

    Thank you for answering my question but how much farther can the regionals come down? Don’t new co-pilots already qualify for food stamps at some regionals?


  4. rob Says:

    Unfortunately, I think salaries can always come down if the employees are willing to fold early. The trouble is how to know where the line is before you cross. I was just talking about that same issue here a few days back in fact.

    And qualifying for food stamps is not new. It applied to me when I flew for an airline 15 years ago. But then, I took the job knowing full well what I was getting in to.

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