When unions at American Airlines threw in with management at US Airways in their takeover attempt during American’s bankruptcy that seemed naive. US Airways workers stood to gain a great deal as salaries would be bought up to higher American levels. However the idea that new management would be beloved by unions seemed at odds with their history. At US Airways there was never even a combined pilot contract achieved following the 2005 merger with America West.
American Airlines has said they want to take care of employees so employees take care of customers, although many employees are clearly unhappy with the company.
The airline has made clear that flight attendants aren’t responsible for doing more work as they roll out new products. Although that’s not how flight attendants see it especially with premium economy where staffing models treat those passengers like regular economy.
The carrier has cracked down on flight attendants renting out their seniority. They’ve imposed a new discipline regime. Flight attendants have significant concerns with the airline’s profit sharing.
There’s almost a schizophrenic approach, not wanting to do anything to rankle the front line while still wanting to change their business practices. And it hasn’t succeeded in achieving the sort of happy work force that takes care of customers they’ve talked about. If anything American’s management suffers from Munich syndrone, failing to learn the lessons of 1938 that appeasement increases aggression.
This week American’s flight attendants picketed corporate headquarters.
Among the Issues we are extremely concerned about:
- Improperly Programmed/Failed New Scheduling Systems
- Punitive Sick Policy Effective October
- Toxic Uniforms Still Making Us Sick
- Fume Events / Unhealthy Cabin Air
- Optimizer Creating Inhumane Work Conditions
The carrier gave out employee raises but can’t get a mechanics contract done with with outsourcing a sticking point. Maintenance is now dragging down the airline operation.
On Thursday American’s Executive Vice President of People and Communications Elise Eberwein said, “I can’t imagine why a company would fear unionization or fight it, [t]hat’s old-school thinking.”
“We have 27,000 flight attendants, and you can’t possibly synthesize all those views without some mechanism to bring them forward,” Eberwein said.
A few years ago, reservations agents wanted to add stand-up, sit-down desks, an issue that came up in a meeting with union leaders, she said. The company made the improvements.
That’s a view perhaps most closely associated in the industry with Pat Patterson, United Airlines President from 1934 until 1966 (he became President after his boss was banned from the industry as government mail contracts were returned to airlines in the wake of a disastrous effort at military trasnport of mail in the wake of the Air Mail Scandal).
Patterson believed that unions were closer to the needs of workers than managers, and could best manage things like scheduling for the airlines.
American Airlines has unions so I suppose it doesn’t make sense for Eberwein to say anything else. But the suggestion that you need a union to ‘synthesize’ dispersed and tacit knowledge from employees simply flies in the face of reality.
By the way Delta’s primary competitive advantage is its techops which keeps older planes not just flying but flying on time. They’re non-union, as are Delta flight attendants who provide a higher level of service overall than American crew. Delta offers greater profit sharing, and currently higher pay than American gives its mechanics (though American says they would happily sign the Delta deal).
Southwest of course is unionized but they still manage to fire poor performers. That way other employees do not have to work beside shirkers and pick up their slack, and aren’t demoralized seeing colleagues rewarded just as much as they are despite not putting in the effort.
Employees need to be paid fairly if a company is going to retain them and get top performance. But that’s not enough. People need to feel like their work matters that it’s part of a larger purpose. And they need to like and respect their colleagues.
Seniority in scheduling and pay has a lock-in effect, it doesn’t just protect the jobs of underperformers it creates a set of golden handcuffs that prevent good employees from leaving for a company where they’d be happier — since they’d give up pay and priority to start at the bottom somewhere else. People stay in unhappy positions feeling they have little choice within their industry.
At American you don’t hear much about ‘going for great’ anymore and a year ago the mission of the airline was described as never losing money again which hardly inspires the front line.
As we enter Labor Day weekend, it’s important to remember that union shop or not management cannot abdicate its responsibility to select and retain the best talent while transitioning out employees who aren’t a good fit for the company — ensuring that everyone inside the business is able to respect the contributions of their colleagues. And management has to set a vision that inspires employees to be their best.
That may be easier to do in a non-union environment, but it’s also not impossible in a union one, provided that negotiations are approached from a perspective of giving each employee their due and not outsourcing management of the workforce to the unions themselves. We save how that worked out in Animal Farm.