Thursday, July 31, 2008

United Airlines' shocking lawsuit against its own pilots

by B. N. Sullivan

Yesterday United Airlines made a shocking announcement: they have filed a lawsuit in federal court against their own pilots. The suit alleges that the pilots' union, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), and certain individual pilots, deliberately organized "unlawful job actions that resulted in hundreds of flights being canceled and impacted thousands of customers and employees."

From the United Airlines press release about the suit:
The lawsuit seeks a preliminary injunction against ALPA and four named pilots for organized sick leave abuse in opposition to the company’s plan to reduce its fleet size and furlough pilots and to pressure United into renegotiating terms of a collective bargaining agreement that remains in effect through 2009. The lawsuit also seeks an end to a public campaign of intimidation that discourages pilots from picking up additional flying, effectively engaging in a slowdown.
This lawsuit is beyond belief, and the press release announcing it is disgraceful.

Let's get this straight. There is a labor contract in force between United Airlines and its pilots, but the airline is bringing suit, complaining not that the pilots are in violation of their contract, but because they are working according to the rules of the contract. A refusal by some pilots to pick up additional flying -- that is, working on what had been scheduled as their contractually legal days off -- is construed as a slowdown? Nope, I don't buy it. It sounds to me like the problem is poor manpower planning.

Aside from what is apparent on the surface -- that the pilots are not obligated to pick up extra trips -- there are other factors at work here as well. In short, United Airlines has done little in recent years to inspire the confidence of its employees, or to motivate them to work above the requirements of their contracts out of the goodness of their hearts.

Here we have an airline which, during its bankruptcy, begged its pilots and other line employees to agree to huge concessions in pay and benefits. They agreed to the concessions in order to save the airline and their jobs. In addition to having their salaries greatly reduced, their company-funded retirement plans were sacrificed and replaced with paltry pensions administered by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). Then, after emerging from bankruptcy, top company executives were (and continue to be) awarded huge bonuses, while line employees' pay concessions have not been restored.

It is well known that the airline is flying crews at, or close to, the maximum number of hours allowed by FAA rules, with allotted rest time -- particularly on multi-day trip layovers -- at or close to the legal minimum. Yet United Airlines is formally complaining that some pilots are refusing to pick up extra trips, i.e., flying on what should be their days off.

In fact, pilots and flight attendants alike say that they are tired all the time, and feel pressed to show up for work even when they don't feel well. To quote a buzz phrase I hear all the time, "Crews are sick and tired of being sick and tired."

Now United Airlines is preparing to furlough close to a thousand pilots in conjunction with retiring 100 aircraft as a capacity reduction move. ALPA has been negotiating with United Airlines since before the furlough announcements to try to lessen the impact of the capacity reduction on pilot livelihoods, but the talks yielded "meager progress," according to union officials.

To my knowledge, there is no provision for trading contractually accrued sick leave time for monetary compensation upon furlough. So who would be surprised if some pilots -- knowing that they are about to be furloughed -- are taking off some time that is due them by the terms of their contract? (Who knows: they may even be using some of their accrued sick days to search for a new job!)

United Airlines has launched an unfair publicity campaign against its pilots by publicizing the lawsuit it has filed, knowing full well that the pilots would not be able to publicly present an immediate rejoinder. It is apparent that most news media reports about the suit are relying solely on publicity supplied by the airline. Since the pilots' union is named as a party to the lawsuit, ALPA officials have had to refrain from commenting on the details of the suit pending a review of the legal case by the union's attorneys.

United's flight attendants, who are not a party to the suit, are not subject to these constraints. They have issued a public response, condemning the airline's lawsuit against its pilots. In a statement to the press, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), the union representing United Airlines flight attendants, accused airline management of "a very serious attack on employees by issuing an inaccurate and misleading media statement concerning the pilots at United Airlines."

Greg Davidowitch, President of AFA's United Airlines chapter said:
"This latest union-busting tactic is condemned for what it is: a corrupt attempt to distract workers and travelers of United Airlines from the failures of current executives. Their actions add nothing to the debate over the future of our airline, but instead serve to further inflame an already poisonous labor relations atmosphere.

"The notion that any frontline employee of United Airlines is responsible for the failures of United executives is laughable. Not content to destroy labor relations, and to destroy the passenger experience, the geniuses that run this airline have also destroyed shareholder value in the past year. With all the major metrics of corporate performance at an all-time low, current management has lost its reason to continue in charge of the airline."
Mr. Davidowitch called the United Airlines lawsuit against its pilots a "new low in labor relations." I certainly agree.