Why Airline Industry Unions Will Never Die

By Robert Mark on May 9th, 2007

Being married to a psychologist gives me a never-ending look at the insights those professionals use to tell when someone’s thinking has gone off kilter. 

Take being neurotic for example.

That’s when someone tries attacking a problem the same way – over and over – hoping it will lead to some different, possibly better, result. Of course, it never does. But that doesn’t stop some seemingly bright people from banging their heads against the wall trying. 

Now how about the airline industry where I spent a few years of my career. I always wondered why the unions like AFA existed for flight attendants, ALPA for pilots, the AMFA for mechanics, and the Teamsters for ramp workers and all the rest. People would point to the robber barons of days past as a primary need.

And the feeling was always mutual. Airline management doesn’t simply dislike unions, they truly hate them as the bane of their very existence.

But for all their complaints, airline management always seems to chose just the right tactic, at just the right time that absolutely guarantees unions are going to thrive in the industry, like the recent rash of hefty payouts. At American, United and Northwest they’ve been handing out cash as if the bucket is bottomless – Steenland at NWA gets almost $27 million for instance while the rank and file don’t get so much as a Wendy’s coupon – all in the name of rewarding the hard work of the execs who pulled those airlines back from the brink.

Since 9/11, there’s little doubt the airlines took it on the chin. But the problems they’re still dealing with today existed long before September 11th.

This sounds silly, but perhaps airline management apparently needs to have people spell it out for them.

Please let me try.

Aviation industry employees got it after 9/11 when everyone was hurting, hurting much worse than anyone thought possible. Certainly some employee groups were tougher to negotiate with than others, but they all pretty much fell in line and took huge pay and benefit cuts – pilots, flight attendants, ramp workers. Over 100,000 lost their jobs too.

Now that the industry is starting to show show black ink again, enough to offer a little bonus money, it is a really, really stupid idea to keep all the cash at the top.

See, what that does is make the rank and file think they were duped when they were told they needed to accept all those give backs until the company again began to see the light of day. And management adding to their portfolios and forgetting that they didn’t earn it all in a vacuum makes the mid and lower end employees kind of, well, mad.

Now if employees think they’ve been taken to the cleaners while management fattened their portfolios – and they know this because management keeps displaying behavior that confirms this – they’re going to probably become even madder than they are now.

After 9/11, the airlines had a chance to leverage the good will we all wanted to be a part of, sort of everyone pulling together for a common cause. Obviously, they blew that opportunity. After the PATCO strike in 1981, the FAA also had an opportunity to remake the system. They also lost their chance as the formation of NATCA just a few years later proved.

Let’s see now … we have a huge roster of really angry airline employees who realize that their efforts to help pull the companies back from the brink were valued in word only and we have a bunch of air traffic controllers who just had new work rules jammed down their throats last fall while Marion keeps telling them “That ship has sailed,” and to simply get over it.

I think I have this right (and please tell me if I don’t).

As the summer travel season heats up and more airliners try to squeeze their way into even more congested airspace, the airlines and FAA will once again be expecting Herculean efforts from these employee groups to make it all work, right?

And they all hate unions … OK, I’m working on this now.

So if they all hate unions so much, why is it they seem to continually give these employee groups so much ammunition to carry on the fight and more than enough motivation to continue to increase union membership in this industry?

And management thinks that no matter how shabbily they treat employees, that people like Prater at ALPA or Forrey at NATCA are just going to sit back and take this … forever?

And management and the White House assume all of the rest of us are also buying into the desperate need for aviation user fees to fund all sorts of system upgrades too, right?

I’m thinking this is probably way beyond neurotic.

But I do have a good shrink I can suggest.

She doesn’t specialize in airline or FAA management yet. But she does know how to deal with crazy people when she sees them.

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8 Responses to “Why Airline Industry Unions Will Never Die”

  1. Nancy Molitor Says:

    Wow, this is so clear and well written, its obvious that shrink you live with has done her job! Great story!!

  2. B N Sullivan Says:

    Speaking as a psychologist who actually does specialize in aviation (as a researcher, not as a therapist/counselor) I agree that you have got it exactly right.

  3. AArecallUS Says:

    In a fight for our jobs at American Airlines, Please visit this blog http://trustno1-1.blogspot.com

  4. Matt Says:

    Nice job. Proud NATCA member here. Thanks for the mention and understanding of our situation.

  5. Dave Says:

    thanks for the inclusion of NATCA. If anything you underestimate the dificulties facing controllers and our Union. Great article.

  6. Robert Mark Says:

    I underestimated the scope of the problem?

    When I even mentioned the possibility of a deeper problem with NATCA a few months ago, a few of the folks from the union tried to hand me my head.

    But you’re right there in the thick of things, I believe. Can you tell us a bit more detail about the problems you think air traffic controllers and the union are facing?

  7. Larry Says:

    There are so many problems that the FAA has “messed” with NATCA over, too many to list here, you would be better served to visit the former NATCA President’s Weblog: http://www.themainbang.typepad.com/

    Thanks for some union truths!

  8. Dave Koch Says:


    You are certainly “right on” with your evaluation of the management-pilot/controller situation.

    I was working in the top levels of both United Airlines management and ALPA through the deregulation transition years (1978 – 1985). I was on the pilot’s side, but I have to hand it to management–they figured out how to very effectively put it to the pilots.

    Of course, management just did, and continues to do, what the dynamics of a deregulated industry and the new corporate culture require. No matter how onerous their actions are, they are doing what their BODs and Wall Street demand (and what they can get away with).

    In my opinion, it was the ALPA leadership that lost the battle for the pilots. The pilots could have won the battle if they had simply stuck together, gone to a national seniority list and established through negotiation industry-wide standard pay scales.

    My hope is that the swinging pendulum will start moving in the other direction.

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