Thursday, May 14, 2009

Federal jury rules in US Airways pilots' dispute over seniority issues

USAPA logoA federal court jury in Phoenix ruled yesterday in favor of six America West pilots who brought suit against the US Airline Pilots Association (USAPA), the union that represents the pilots of US Airways. The jury was tasked with deciding whether USAPA has been fairly representing all of the more than 5,000 pilots of the merged US Airways, i.e., those who worked for America West prior to the 2005 merger, as well as those who worked for the 'old' US Airways.

The underlying issue is a dispute over seniority arising from the merger of America West and US Airways in 2005. US Airways pilots have favored merging the seniority lists based on date of hire. Former America West pilots rejected this method: since the 'old' US Airways had been in business much longer than America West, a seniority list based on date of hire would necessarily favor US Airways pilots.

The seniority dispute eventually went to arbitration about two years ago. The arbitrator devised a blended seniority list that put several hundred senior US Airways pilots at the top of the list, and then ranked the rest according to a ratio based on their status at the time of the merger. Furloughed US Airways pilots were put at the bottom of the list.

Then last year, the pilots voted out the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) as their collective bargaining unit, and formed a new independent union, USAPA, to represent them. ALPA had represented the pilots during the arbitration. Not surprisingly, the vote to certify USAPA was close. Of the 5,238 pilots eligible to vote, 2,723 voted for USAPA and 2,254 voted for ALPA.

Once certified, USAPA proceeded to press for seniority integration based primarily on date of hire. Most former America West pilots wanted the arbitrated method for seniority integration to be used.

Six former America West pilots ultimately filed the civil suit against USAPA, claiming the union was not fairly representing their interests. Yesterday the jury agreed with them by finding USAPA liable in the Duty of Fair Representation lawsuit.

USAPA plans to appeal the decision. In a press release issued yesterday after the jury's decision was announced, Mike Cleary, president of USAPA, said that the union "intends to appeal the case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and, if necessary, the United States Supreme Court."

“While USAPA would have, of course, preferred to prevail in the current setting, thereby allowing the pilot group to come together and work towards an improved contract, we fully expected and planned for this contingency,” said Cleary. “Again, given the facts of law, we are very confident of our ability to prevail eventually, in proving the absolute right of a union to bargain over the complete terms of its members’ working agreement. Having so planned, our legal team is already working on an expedited appeal and stay of any proposed injunctive relief.”

Pilots at the merged carrier have continued to work under separate contracts since the 2005 merger. A major stumbling block to negotiating a unified contract has been the contentious dispute over seniority integration.