Labor Day 2016: Strategies for Aviation

By Robert Mark on September 5th, 2016

Ed. Note: While this article was originally written back in 2008 and while many of the names of the top folks at the organizations have changed, the issues by and large have not. That said, I believe this is worth a few minutes of your time to think about the role of the labor movement in the U.S. We all know membership is down in 2016, but my real question is whether or not avoiding unions has created a better America. I’m not so sure. I’ve also reprised an earlier Labor Day podcast at the end of the story should you be curious for a little more to chew on. Happy Labor Day to all.

Rob Mark

Labor Day 2008: Strategies for Aviation

There’s nothing quite like Labor Day for a little reflection about the state of business in America.

imageThis year, there’s plenty to give us a moment’s pause too, because short of auto manufacturing, I can’t think of another American industry that is as unionized as aviation. Even FAA employs tens of thousands of union members.

But first a disclaimer. As the son of a union worker and the grandson of the president of a major American labor organization, I grew up listening to labor management battle stories and tales of tactical intrigue, honestly, I read and write about labor because I’m interested.

I also learned in my career that support for a union can be expensive in many ways. Sometimes it translates into alienation at work like friends avoiding you. Sometimes, the action can be much more violent as my family learned long ago. Support for the meat cutters union in the 1920’s cost my grandfather his life.

Despite a bucketful of disagreements with many of the labor perspectives I see plastered around the Internet and in the media, and notwithstanding the fact that I have paid dues to more than a few unions in my time – ALPA, PATCO & NATCA – I still believe the need for unions has not deteriorated in the past few decades.

I think the need is even stronger.

The Need Goes On

Surely membership has declined, but the need goes on for labor organization goes on for the same reasons unions evolved in the late 1800s in America … the inability of labor as individuals and their management to agree on what’s fair, whether it’s working conditions or wages.

What I find totally frustrating today is that many of our large aviation companies, like the airlines, appear to have learned very little from the battles waged a hundred years ago by meat packers, textile or steel workers. That means the airlines are doomed to repeat many of those same failures, from strikes to bankruptcies oblivious to their own roles in the chaos. FAA has also learned little about leadership and the treatment of its employees since 1981.

While I’m not so naive as to believe that the unions play no role in the labor strife at United or Southwest today or at the FAA or anywhere else, I do believe management’s failure to see value in listening to labor clearly demonstrates how little those same managers understand the effects of their decisions.

No company can flourish in spite of employees and no company can succeed without a management team to lead those employees down a sucessful path.

But as a group that claims to focus on shareholder value above almost all else, however, American management repeatedly misses simple opportunities to deliver that value, while demonstrating leadership at the same time.

Look at United for a moment. Does Glenn Tilton need to go? Certainly. But it’s not simply because unionized employees have developed clever tactics like Glenn or those attention gathering wrist bands. The entire board ought to be relieved of their jobs because Tilton is just one more in an endless series of board-chosen CEO’s to whom control is more important than anything else. There was a way to settle the latest pilot/management skirmish without dragging everyone into court.

At FAA, Bobby Sturgell suffers from the same ailment.

What would change look like?

As I suggested in an editorial elsewhere a few weeks ago, imagine for a moment if Tilton sat down for lunch with a hundred United employees, in a few of the base cities United still runs, and just listened to those people in a townhall-like meeting. Forget the union heavies for a minute. In fact, don’t even invite the union’s hierarchy. Just invite plain old ordinary everyday, pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers and gate agents. Don’t make them any promises. Then management won’t need to back down from anything and they can still have their precious control. Just listen to what they have to say.

And at FAA, why not try the same thing?

Imagine flying Bobby around to a dozen major and minor ATC hubs and convincing him to sit like he did at AirVenture with the rest of us and just listen. But, of course with a different end game in mind … with the notion that he might just might learn something that would give him or the agency an edge toward the future.

The problem today is that managers simply can’t imagine how anything that didn’t emanate from their own brains could possibly be of any use. And shareholders allow this kind of management to be passed off as leadership in the never-ending quest for more and greater dividends.

What management sometimes forgets is that they were hired to lead people to the ultimate solution of how best to develop shareholder value, whatever that takes and not to simply beat the stuffing out of those who disagree.

Happy Labor Day everyone.


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8 Responses to “Labor Day 2016: Strategies for Aviation”

  1. Bill Says:

    It all seems to have gotten worse in the past 7 1/2 years too. With outsourcing of Good American jobs (to only be replaced by Walmart jobs), and the growing grotesque pay disparity between corporate executives and the employees of the companies they “lead.” The entire mindset seems reminiscent of the Robber Barons of the 1800s.
    This November we should all remember that John McCain is no friend of labor either (with some kind of special ill-will toward airline pilots in particular for some reason – probably because they have the audacity to make a descent wage).
    The republican mouthpieces (Rush, etc) think wages should be strictly “market based” (no minimum wage, etc) which means they don’t want to have to pay, nor to they think they should pay, a single penny more than it takes to keep someone from walking out the door and where the next guy won’t even take a job there.

    Yes, it would be nice to live in a world where unions were not necessary – but it’s not this world today.

  2. Robert Mark Says:


    I always thought McCain disliked airline pilots so much because he simply thought he was better than all of them put together.

    Maybe he was turned down by United when he applied!

  3. Max Flight Says:

    Rob: Since our conversation this morning I’ve been considering your point about the need for the “two sides” to sit together and just listen to each other. The more I think about it, the more obvious it seems and the more profound the impact could be.

    Years ago I managed a department that included union-represented employees and salary employees who were not represented. In those days, it may have well been two companies with completely different management styles. The polarization extended all the way down to the way people were treated on a simple, basic, human level. I couldn’t understand why you’d treat people differently.

    These days at the company, the union/management relationship isn’t perfect, but it is vastly improved. A large part of the change is through communication between the parties and an increased understanding of mutual goals. There is much more participation by represented employees in the decisions that impact their lives every day.

    A possible extreme example of the power of cooperation, communication, and shared interests hit me when I visited a Norwegean division for a three day business training session. It wasn’t until the end of day 2 that I realized one of my classmates was the head of the union. You couldn’t tell him apart from the other participants because he had the same objectives as us members of “the management team.” We were all in it to improve the competitiveness of the business, and it didn’t matter if you were “managememt” or “union.”

    It was a beautiful thing. It can be done.

  4. Ron Heimburger Says:

    SouthWest management people top to bottom chairman/CEO to station manager sit down with their employees (oh by the way did we mention that all of LUVs non-management groups are unionized) on a scheduled very frequent basis.

    LUV conducts quarterly scheduled training- and fun weekends- with their regional management and union personnel. (like a weekend in PHX training and communication with ground and FA personnel and regional management personnel on Saturday.

    nice party good people bonding time on Saturday night.

    Recap meeting notes and assignments and send everyone home by 1200 Sunday.

    And then follow up communication on the content and assignments from the meeting.

    LUV spends the most training/education money per employee of the US carriers.

    An investment by both parties.

    Continental began picking up several of these LUV initiatives when Gordon Beutheum (sic) took over. And they continue measuring what is important

    To the customer

    To the ASM cost

    And then visibly reward employees for superior performance.

    When I worked at UAL in the early to mid-1970s Eddie Carlson new CEO (no airline experience ran the highly successful Westin Hotel UAL sub) visited all of the UAL facilities and held town hall meetings including notes assignments and feedback (note above) and helped to re-align the UAL management and employees.

    Frank Borman tried the same at Eastern. But they were dead poisoned – and gone but did not realize it yet when he tried.

    I wish that I could give Tilton any benefit of the doubt about his tenure at UAL. But he has refused to get out of EXO (UAL headquarters) …

    To try to understand the airplane business

    To try to understand the passenger needs

    To try to understand the employee work requirements and how to help them with technology

    His goal has been to suck up to the bankruptcy judge and now the new board and maximize his (and his lawyer cronies team) take home and retirement pay.

    And now that they have extracted the maximum cash that they can suck out of this company he is preparing to exit before the circus again goes into Chapter 11 in the next 12 months. (But he is rich and I am not!!)

    And UAL will jettison another 5,500 employees under his strategy of trying to reduce expenses to save themselves Damn creative.

    EVERY Management needs to talk/listen to employees.

    Did not intend this to be a Labor Day blog.

    (I was only a union member when I sailed as a deck officer in the Merchant Marine closed shop.)

    Ron Heimburger

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  6. Jeff Kanarish Says:


    Nothing has changed in the last 8 years.

    Jeff Kanarish
    Pilot, Delta

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  8. Bill Says:

    Decades of flat worker wages and triple digit executive compensation growth prove the point is still if not more relevant than ever

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