Southwest Airlines Faces Major Union Problems, Becomes Just Another Airline

Southwest Airlines suspended 105 ground workers for between 45 and 90 days. Their union, the Transport Workers Union, says Southwest did it to punish them for attending union meetings.

Naturally, the truth is far more complicated than that and paints a far bleaker picture of what the workers did — and relations between Southwest and the TWU (as well as many of their other unions).

The union held a meeting on November 18 in Southern California, and Southwest workers skipped work en masse to attend. Not a single ground worker showed up at Burbank airport that day. Other West Coast stations found themselves understaffed by surprise as well.

The next day Southwest Airlines suspended 210 employees with pay pending an investigation. Half of those received the 45 to 90 day suspension without pay, presumably because Southwest didn’t have strong enough evidence for the behavior of the other 105. The TWU calls the suspensions, before the holidays, “Grinch like.” (The union doesn’t coin a phrase for the inconvenience to the airline and its passengers from the coordinated job action last month.)

Southwest and this union have been in negotiations since 2011. This year Southwest’s flight attendants and pilots have each rejected tentative agreements.

  • The contract for these ramp, operations, and cargo agents expired in 2011
  • The contract for pilots expired in 2012
  • The contract for mechanics expired in 2012
  • The contract for flight attendants expired in 2013
  • The contract for material specialists expired in 2013

Southwest’s workforce is nearly 85% unionized, and finds itself actively negotiating 7 contracts at once.

Southwest didn’t go through bankruptcy like its major domestic competitors, and faces higher costs than low cost carriers like Spirit and Allegiant. With fuel costs low, work groups at the major US carriers have been getting raises. So labor expectations are on the rise, while Southwest finds itself squeezed (though buoyed by low fuel prices).

While they’re growing in their home at Dallas Love Field, they find themselves a different carrier than they were in their youth — with a culture of ‘fun’ and ‘teamwork’ with limitless growth ahead of them. Now they’re a major domestic airline, operating in a highly unionized environment. In other words, they’re just like everyone else.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Just another example of how unions poison workplace relations, hurting their members, the corporations they work for, and the customers they serve.

  2. Or an example of how greedy companies don’t share the weath when times are good, and demand workers feel the pain when times are bad.

  3. Southwest fares are no longer competitive on the routes I fly unless you max out the checked baggage allowance.

  4. When companies become publicly traded, corporations put the squeeze on the little guy who depends on a paycheck to feed their families. It’s all about the bottom line for the investors.

  5. Spot on Joelfreak.

    It’s been nearly 35 years since a major labor action in the US and, not surprisingly, the working class standard of living has been declining during that time.

  6. I have to agree that Southwest flights are pricier than the other major airlines now. I often don’t bother spending the extra time to check the southwest website for their prices anymore . Southwest can’t really give in to the unions and be competitive

  7. @Steve: It’s really a contest between employees (unions) and investors to see who can grab the most money. With the benefits having flowed mostly to investors in the last few years, I expect to see a least one major strike against Southwest in 2016 or at the latest in 2017. Either that or a series of very generous contracts. Either way, the investors will not like it.

    Southwest is all growed up.

  8. Southwest contracts, which fall under the Railway Labor Act, do not expire. They become amendable. Big difference! I don’t know what the issues are, but obviously they are large. Southwest has some of the best management-employee relations in the airline industry. So whatever caused 210 employees to skip work, has to be a very big deal.

  9. Better get your act together and start working together and not jeopardize customer safety!!! I have precious cargo that flys with you exclusively and I am NOT feeling very comforted knowing all this while they are about to board the plane this week!!

  10. For workers: during the 1980s when you had a pension and it changed to a matching 401k did you get a pay raise? When the matching 401k was halted, did you get a pay raise? When raises were lowered, did you get a benefit bonus to cover that? Don’t blame workers.

  11. Since Gary Kelly took over from Colleen Barrett, the whole “Southwest Experience” has changed…and not in a good way. I have flown about 50 flights a year with them since 1991 and the carrier is a shadow of its former self. Numerous flight attendants will even talk with you about the problems. In no particular order:

    a) they’re late, especially on flights toward the end of the day
    b) they nickel and dime you unlike the past
    c) their Rapid Rewards program took a huge hit when they went revenue-based
    d) the fun atmosphere is much rarer now than in the past

    They still have much to offer (no penalty changes, a good and growing network and, of course, the Companion Pass) but it is sad to watch. Not surprised they would use anti-union tactics at all.

  12. What the union calls “attending a meeting”, in Europe is called a one day strike. Just ask Lufthansa….

  13. @Joelfreak – Did you miss the part where Southwest has been increasing pay due to low fuel prices, or did you conveniently ignore it? Those workers should all be fired for skipping work to attend a union meeting. They knew damn well what they were doing was screwing over the company they worked for, but they didn’t care one bit.

  14. Jason & Tom – yes & yes.

    WN is no longer a low fare airline. Not close.

    “Nothing to hide”? Plenty to hide.

    For starters, limiting the customer’s ability to compare fares with other airlines.

    Also, enough already with the clapping noises at the end of the commercials.

  15. @Ken

    Maybe you need to read it again. OTHER Airlines have increased pay as fuel prices have dropped. NOT Southwest. I do NOT , however, support inconveniencing customers. Both sides need to calm down and meet somewhere close to the middle.

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