Another airline gets tough with a union

United seems to fly path pioneered by American, Northwest, USAirways


WASHINGTON -- When United Airlines and its pilots' union opened contract negotiations last year, both sides vowed they had entered a new era of cooperation and would quickly seal and sign a deal.

So much for promises.

So little progress has been made that the pilots and airline are planning to take the dispute to the National Mediation Board next month, within days of the April 12 date the current contract expires.

The lack of progress ensures that United's innovative employee stock-ownership plan will grind to a halt when it expires in July.

"Unless you believe in miracles, the April 12 deadline will just sail right past," said Capt. Rick Dubinsky, who was elected chairman in the fall of the United Airlines unit of the Air Lines Pilots Association.

"The company is backpedaling instead of coming forward. I don't see us reaching an agreement by then."

Across the airline industry United's hard-nosed attitude toward its employees has become the norm, rather than the exception. Employee relations, in fact, have never been so tenuous.

Vigorous resistence

Flight attendants, pilots and machinists are trying to recapture some of the wages they gave up in the early 1990s when a recession threatened the airlines -- and the airlines are resisting vigorously.

In the past year alone:

American Airlines has gone to court twice to secure back-to-work orders against its employees.

In December, a federal court ordered pilots for Comair, a regional carrier owned by Delta Airlines, to end a sickout.

In January, Northwest Airlines, the nation's fourth-largest carrier, obtained a court order to search computer hard drives for evidence of a sickout conspiracy among its flight attendants.

US Airways threat

The tough industry tactics could take a new turn today if US Airways follows through on its threat to shut down the airline at midnight rather than try to operate while its flight attendants conduct random strikes around the carrier's system.

"Both labor and management are searching for new ways to create leverage and the management side has chosen the legal recourse," said Patricia Friend, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants and a United flight attendant.

`Enhanced productivity'

Chris Chiames, a spokesman for American, said: "We recognize that having happy, satisfied and enthusiastic employees helps us deliver a better product/service to our customers. The priorities of a labor union -- better pay, benefits, work rules -- are often shared by airline management.

"But the level of what can be delivered is balanced by the company's need for enhanced productivity and flexibility to help finance the priorities of the union. And it's at that point that both sides still have some work to do in reaching mutually beneficial outcomes in less confrontational ways," he said.

Virtually every major U.S. airline is negotiating a new contract this year with one or more of its unions.

Delta is bargaining with its pilots while fighting a union-organizing drive by its flight attendants. Northwest's battle with its flight attendants comes a little more than a year after a pilot strike shut down operations for more than two weeks. Only American is not negotiating a contract this year.

"US Airways' threat to shut down the entire operation -- is somewhat sophisticated for the airline industry, whose labor style is normally more primitive," said Neil Bernstein, an expert in the labor law that covers the airline industry.

"Nobody knows who will win. Neither side is employing dazzling labor techniques. When it is all over, we will see who was smart and who was dumb," he said.

Machinists are next

The hardening attitudes don't bode well for United's pilots or the airline's machinists, whose contract expires July 12.

While United has remained mum about negotiating progress, the carrier's pilots have made up for the company's lack of candor by disseminating the nonprogress reports to the 10,000 United pilots on a weekly basis. United declined again yesterday to comment on the talks.

Despite a pact signed in January by Dubinsky and Jim Goodwin, the chairman and chief executive officer of UAL Corp., in which the two sides promised to alter their negotiation tactics, little has changed from last year, according to the pilots' union.

Last week, "we met only one day in direct negotiations -- Monday. This is very similar to the pattern of last summer," Steve Smith, the chairman of the pilots' negotiating committee, told fellow pilots in an update posted on the Air Line Pilots Association Web site.

Dubinsky, saying he is "terribly disappointed" in United's toughened stance, said:

"Undoubtedly, there are going to be ripple effects from the other negotiations. But that won't change our expectations."

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