|Southwest pilots walk the picket line
Last week, the pilots of Southwest Airlines took to the streets outside of the airline's headquarters in Dallas to protest the lack of progress in their current negotiations. The union is not on strike, or even close to it, but is engaged in what is known as "informational picketing" to get their message out. Southwest Airlines' management and the pilots' union have been in negotiations since the pilots' contract became amendable in August of 2012.
If you'll recall, airlines are organized under the Railway Labor Act (RLA). Under the RLA, labor contracts never expire but become "amendable". Labor unions continue to work under the terms of the preceding contract until a new contract is negotiated.
The pilots' union at Southwest (SWAPA) contends that the airline has been dragging its feet in negotiations in order to extend the favorable terms of the preceding contract negotiated in leaner times. This standoff has continued for several years while the airline has been recording record profits. The airline, for its part, points out that a deal was reached with the union's negotiators last summer which included raises totalling 17.6% over the life of the contract. That deal was soundly voted down by the union membership.
So who's in the right? Has the airline been using the RLA to delay paying raises to its pilots, or have the pilots just gotten greedy in turning down a great offer by the company? Well, as per usual, it depends on with whom you speak. Each side passionately insists that their version of events is the correct one and that the other side is obfuscating. And also, as per usual, there is an element of both truth and falsehood in each narrative.
But my purpose here is not to adjudicate the differences between the two opposing sides, but rather to point out that pilot unions have a natural disadvantage when they attempt to take their case to the public though picketing and other public displays. The problem is that while many pilots in entry level jobs at commuter and cargo airlines do in fact make a very modest wage, by the time a pilot gets on board at a major airline, he or she is making decent coin. And on average, pilots at major airlines are solidly in the middle to upper middle class arena.
This presents a PR problem when trying to garner a sympathetic ear from a public who may feel that the picketing pilots' income is likely higher than their own. Taking any dispute over wages and benefits to the public inevitably invites an inquiry into and a judgement of what pilots actually make. And of course, helpful members of the press and airline managements are only all too willing to facilitate the discussion by providing actual numbers for public consumption.
Hence shortly after their picketing event, Southwest pilots were met by this headline in the Dallas Morning News:
High pay, job security and profit-sharing — and Southwest pilots are picketing?
The article was somewhat misleading but not factually incorrect. But it is the pilots who have the burden of getting across their message that having no cost of living raises since 2012 is causing their real purchasing power to erode due to the effects of inflation. It's not an easy message to convey while trying to avoid the "greedy" label.
Another difficulty is that many members of the public don't understand the nature of the pilot profession. For instance, public perception of a pilot's work week may be that pilots have a lot of time off. Some do, but many in the public may not realize that pilots can be gone for weeks at a time and miss many family events and holidays that someone in a traditional job would not. But as with compensation, taking their case to the public invites kitchen table discussions of what pilots should be paid and how much they should work. These discussions will probably not end up favoring pilot demands for higher wages.
Lastly, many members of the public don't have a good understanding of unions and unionism in general. This is due to the fact that with only about six percent of the private work force being unionized today, very few Americans have any experience with unions. With the high water mark of union membership in the US having been reached back in the 1950s and on a steady decline ever since, unions may be thought of by the public as an anachronism in today's economy.
I personally don't get too worked up about any of this. My feeling is that the underlying economics more or less determines wage rates. With an ongoing and worsening world wide pilot shortage in progress, wage rates will inevitably increase as the big four major US airlines have to compete to hire from a dwindling pool of prospective pilots to replace huge numbers of retiring Vietnam era pilots.
And on the bright side, informational picketing allows some of the more enthusiastic members of the pilots' union to expend their energies organizing these outings. It seems to help reduce the discomfiture in some pilots which is being made worse by the length of the negotiations. And it actually looks like a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I'll be working.