United Pilots Picket for Better Contract After American, Southwest Counterparts Authorize Strikes

By Kenny Stancil, a staff writer at Common Dreams, from where this article was cross-posted.

Following what the Air Line Pilots Association called “more than four years of empty promises,” 3,000 off-duty United Airlines pilots represented by the union protested at major airports across the U.S. on Friday, demanding the finalization of a contract with higher pay and humane scheduling practices.

“Thousands of United pilots are picketing coast-to-coast today to deliver management a message they cannot ignore: Enough is enough,” Capt. Garth Thompson, chair of the United ALPA master executive council, said in a statement.

“United management needs to stop slow-rolling negotiations… and do the right thing for their pilots.”

“We have been stuck with an antiquated scheduling system and a contract nowhere near industry-leading standards,” said Thompson. “We want United to succeed as industry leaders, and every day that passes without an agreement is another day the best and brightest future aviators go elsewhere.”

United pilots—joined by ALPA president Capt. Jason Ambrosi, fellow ALPA pilots, and union supporters—demonstrated in front of terminals at airports in 10 cities as well as outside the company’s flight training center in Denver.

Association of Flight Attendants-CWA president Sara Nelson was among those who participated in an act of solidarity.

“I am proud to stand here today to send United Airlines management a message that the airline’s pilots have the full backing of their international union in their fight for the contract they have earned,” said Ambrosi, who leads the 69,000-member union and joined a picket line in Chicago. “United management needs to stop slow-rolling negotiations that have dragged into their fifth year and do the right thing for their pilots.”

Management has failed “to recognize the value pilots bring to the overall success of the airline,” ALPA said. “United pilots were there for customers during one of the worst times for travel in recent history, and they also helped United Airlines emerge from the pandemic stronger than before.”

Thompson, who called Friday’s nationwide informational picket a “resounding success,” stressed that “United pilots will always be there for our customers.”

“Unfortunately,” he added, “the same cannot be said about management, who seems to think that a last-minute cancellation of a United pilot’s scheduled day off, or abrupt trip reassignments that extend into planned days off, is acceptable for a United pilot’s family.”

“This old pilot contract impacts our ability to maintain a healthy work-life balance,” Thompson continued. “United pilots will deal with this adversity in our usual professional and safe manner. We will continue to work in 2023 despite staffing shortages in Air Traffic Control facilities, aggressive summer schedules, capacity constraints, and weather.” However, he noted, “United pilots want the company and the public to know that the bold ‘United Next’ growth plans cannot work without an updated pilot contract.”

“This old pilot contract impacts our ability to maintain a healthy work-life balance.”

The action by United pilots comes in the wake of a pair of successful strike-authorization votes by pilots at other airlines.

On May 1, 95% of American Airlines pilots voted to authorize a strike. (Of the airline’s 15,000 pilots, 96% participated, with 99% expressing support for a possible strike).

“We will strike if necessary to secure the industry-leading contract that our pilots have earned and deserve—a contract that will position American Airlines for success,” said Capt. Ed Sicher, president of the Allied Pilots Association. “Our pilots’ resolve is unmistakable. We will not be deterred from our goal of an industry-leading contract.”

“The strike-authorization vote is one of several steps APA has taken to prepare for any eventuality and use all legal avenues available to us for contract improvement and resolution,” Sicher noted. “The best outcome is for APA and management to agree on an industry-leading contract—achieved through good-faith bargaining—benefiting our pilots, American Airlines, and the passengers we serve.”

On Thursday, 97% of Southwest pilots voted to authorize a strike. (Of the airline’s 10,000-plus pilots, 98% participated, with 99% expressing support for a possible strike).

“This is a historic day, not only for our pilots but for Southwest Airlines,” said Capt. Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. “The lack of leadership and the unwillingness to address the failures of our organization have led us to this point. Our pilots are tired of apologizing to our passengers.”

Murray and other union leaders have attributed Southwest’s meltdown last winter to executives’ yearslong refusal to invest in much-needed technological upgrades despite benefiting from billions of dollars in federal aid during the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We want our passengers to understand that we do not take this path lightly,” Murray said Thursday. “We want our customers to be prepared for the path ahead and make arrangements on other carriers so that their plans through the summer and fall are not disrupted.”

United’s 14,000 pilots could be next in line to vote on strike authorization.

As The Associated Press reported Saturday, “Pilots at all three carriers are looking to match or beat the deal that Delta Air Lines reached with its pilots earlier this year, which raised pay rates by 34% over four years.”

“United has proposed to match the Delta increase, but that might not be enough for a deal,” AP observed. Citing Thompson, the outlet noted that “discussion about wages has been held up while the two sides negotiate over scheduling, including the union’s wish to limit United’s ability to make pilots work on their days off.”

The nation’s pilots “are unlikely to strike anytime soon, however,” AP reported. “Federal law makes it very difficult for unions to conduct strikes in the airline industry, and the last walkout at a U.S. carrier was more than a decade ago.”

“Under U.S. law, airline and railroad workers can’t legally strike, and companies can’t lock them out, until federal mediators determine that further negotiations are pointless,” the outlet explained. It continued:

The National Mediation Board rarely declares a dead end to bargaining, and even if it does, there is a no-strikes “cooling-off” period during which the White House and Congress can block a walkout. That’s what President Bill Clinton did minutes after pilots began striking against American in 1997. In December, President Joe Biden signed a bill that Congress passed to impose contract terms on freight railroad workers, ending a strike threat.

Regardless of the legal hurdles to a walkout, unions believe that strike votes give them leverage during bargaining, and they have become more common. A shortage of pilots is also putting those unions in particularly strong bargaining position.

Although Congress is highly unlikely to permit an airline strike, disgruntled pilots could still cause disruption through “work to rule,” Arthur Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University, told AP.

“They could say, ‘We’re not working any overtime,'” said Wheaton. “I don’t anticipate the pilots trying to screw up travel for everybody intentionally, but bargaining is about leverage and power… having the ability to do that can be a negotiating tactic.”

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  1. ambrit

    We will see if the Government gets involved and imposes a contract, as they did to the railroad workers.
    The threat of a strike is a union’s main tool. Remove that threat and you neuter the union.
    Sooner or later, someone must call the elite’s bluff and disrupt an industry or two. Reagan broke the Air Traffic Controller’s strike because he had a scab workforce available to replace the striking workers with, the Military Air Traffic Controllers. Where will the replacements for several thousand striking civilian commercial air pilots come from? I am sure that there will be some, but thousands?
    Anyway, stay safe and do not fly in small aircraft along with any politicians.

    1. Joe Well

      >>here will the replacements for several thousand striking civilian commercial air pilots come from? I am sure that there will be some, but thousands?

      Just a thought: there are many, many post-Boomer-age pilots who are working for starvation wages. Also, many who got a pilot’s license but gave up their dream rather than work for those starvation wages. Senior airline pilots are kind of like tenured university professors…they think they are indispensable, secure, and the public loves them, but their decades of selling out the younger generations make that doubtful.

      1. Kurtismayfield

        Ok I need to see your stats on this. No retired boomer pilot is out there working for starvation wages. If they are still working as a pilot they are making good money, and most are probably doing quite well in retirement.

        As far as the whole reservoir of untapped pilots out there, I doubt that is very deep.

        1. ambrit

          I remember reading that “retired” Air Force pilots were a big part of the commercial pilot supply source. Remember that Air Force Pilot covers a lot of ground, figuratively speaking. There are combat aircrew, plus logistical aircrew, artillery spotter pilots, and, no doubt, Imperial Shuttle Craft spacecrew. Also remember that commercial pilots fly generally large and high energy tin cans with wings. Not exactly the same as flying a single engine Bellanca under Visual Flight Rules. So, extra training and experience will be needed. That further limits the “scab pool” for any Oligarch Control Policy Initiative.

    1. JonnyJames

      The only “choice” we are offered is superficial. Democracy Inc. is purely for public relations. It’s time we moved past the ridiculous D or R charade.

      “The US is an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery”

  2. tevhatch

    Hope those better conditions included safety. One of my mentors was in charge of United’s maintenance and represented them in setting minimum safety standards with FAA and Boeing at MSG-3 meetings. He finally retired from an activity that gave his life purpose rather than participate in future corporate manslaughter.

  3. Pablo

    Let’s all recall the PATCO Union busting Reagan did while he was President. Neutering Unions has been a priority for the Political Wh#re Class in Washington D.C.for quite some time. Note how all these Free Market advocates are suddenly slavering for Government intervention to break a Union–once again. The Rail Workers tried it recently. You can take that as a template for what will happen in the future.

  4. dirke

    First, the railroad workers should have just walked out and ignored Biden. I know a railroad engineer. The railroad companies made massive profits and shared little of it the union workers. The engineer I know was driving trains two shifts (16 hours) a day. By law you can not work back to back shifts. A lot of the time he was working on less than five hours sleep. This went on for over two years. He took his retirement and walked after the forced contract. If 80 % would of walked out, what would Biden have done? Send out the US marshals and force all the workers back to work at gun point? Of course you can fire them all. But who would replace them. The railroad are all under staffed and are having problems hiring people. So now the same thing applies to the airlines. So if the pilots just walk out until they get a reasonable contract that they want. Who’s going to fly the planes? It takes a least a thousand plus hours of flight time or more to get a commercial pilot license. Where are you going to find 20,000+ pilots. Would Biden order military to fly them? How safe would that be? Or, he could round them all up at gun point and put them in jail and/or use them as forced labor. In the US on two groups are indispensable, upper management and high government officials. All other workers are replaceable. In my career, I showed management that some of us are not replaceable. I directly caused two divisions of major companies to close. This cause around 4000 people to lose their jobs.

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