Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Union Guy

I've talked about unions at the regionals. This is a story about a special breed of pilot - The Union Guy.

You'll find a wide range of attitudes about unions in this profession. There are a few pilots who are dead set against unions in general, or are convinced that their union is out to ruin the company. Some tolerate unionism as a neccessary evil. A few simply dislike the way their union does things. Some see the union as a useful tool for positive change, and a handful of these get actively involved in it. And then there is The Union Guy. Every airline has at least one pilot who is vocally and rabidly pro-union - and by extension, anti-company. With so many pilots who are at best ambivalent about their unions, being known as the union guy isn't exactly an honor. Given the typical personality, though, I think most are clueless about the stigma or just don't care.

A few weeks ago I flew with the union guy at my airline, K. He used to be a representative on the MEC, and is still very vocal about union issues. His reputation had preceeded him: I recognized the name as soon as I printed out my trip key. He turned out to be a very nice guy, and I enjoyed flying with him - but we had some pretty lively discussions.

Some union guys are ticked off at the company for some past grievance. So far as I can tell, K has no specific complaints; his rabid unionism is more an outgrowth of a personality that's spoiling for a fight, a gleam in the eye daring you and the world to take him on. When talking about our contract negotiations next year, he was almost giddy at the prospect of a dirty, drag-down, all-out brawl.

"Oh, it's gonna get mean!" K practically gushed. "They're gonna try and take every cent we have coming, they're gonna bend us over, but we're gonna grab 'em by the balls and squeeze, it's gonna hurt and we're gonna get what's comin' to us!" He threw a grin my way and started to giggle. "It's like Robin Hood. We're just taking from the rich and giving to the poor. I'm all over that sh**! Taking from the motherf***ing rich, that's right!" I decided to throw a little flame-bait his way. "Just like United in 2000, eh?" I queried with a sideways smile. "That's right!" he exclaimed, missing my point (that United pilots essentially sank their company by getting greedy in negotiations that turned decidedly mean).

K never missed an opportunity to opine what a dirty bunch of crooks were in our management. Regarding one of our assistant chief pilots, he burst out: "Oh sure, he comes across as this really nice guy who invites you into his office and has nice chats about airplanes - but never forget, as his one arm is around your shoulder, his other hand is in your f***ing pocket taking all your f***ing money!" After every parking checklist, K would erase the cockpit voice recorder (CVR), and then shout into the microphone: "F*** you, [so-and-so]!" (a middle-level manager in flight standards). He'd turn to me with a grin: "He already knows what I think of him, but I'd love to have him hear that!"

Later we had a discussion about why it was so hard to raise the standard of living at the regionals. I said that market forces were neccessarily stronger than any union right now, given the large numbers of qualified pilots looking for work. "Sure, there's a lot of excess pilots," K responded, "but it's against their long-term interest to work at shoddy operations for peanuts." Well, K, a guy has to feed and shelter his family. "Well if everyone would stick together, it wouldn't be an either/or proposition!" True that - but that's far from the true situation. Here's the problem: That guy flying the jet for peanuts thinks it's a good deal because he was previously flight instructing for even less, and before that he was paying for flight time.

"Why is that?" demanded K. "Why do people pay for flight time? The airlines should pay for their training." I was so incredulous upon hearing that, I didn't know how to respond. "That's just not going to happen, because there will always be enough people willing to pay to learn to fly because they're attracted by the same things that made you become a pilot rather than an accountant or something," I began. "Starting out by paying for flying means that simply getting paid, no matter how little, is going to be a step up. The only way we'll ever change the market forces is through a change in culture among newer pilots, where they also expect to be compensated as professonals, the same way that aviation culture has changed over the last 30 years to where it's no longer acceptable to scab at a striking carrier." K nodded slowly. "You're right about that; it's tough to change the culture when new pilots are coming in all the time, but we as unions need to reach out to pilots who are just starting out."

K actually was somewhat ambivalent about the Teamster's being our union. "The Teamsters are not an airline union. They know nothing about airlines and they are new to representing airlines," he said. "That has cost us." However, he continued, "ALPA would be completely wrong for us. They represent [XYZ Co] pilots, and it would be a conflict of interest. We know that everywhere they've had a similar conflict, they've backed the mainliners over the regionals. An independent union would've been a possibility, but the Teamsters have pull on Capitol Hill that we need and no independant union has." Good points all.

I enjoyed flying with K more than I thought I would, if only because many of his statements were so outrageous that they were entertaining. I have, however, seen similar personalities in other union guys, and I think it's what turns many pilots off to unions. It's a shame, because although I don't agree with K on everything, we did agree that a culture change needs to take place where professional pilots expect to be compensated as professionals, and unions are a useful tool for that. There will always be a need for firebrands like K - particularly come hardball negotiation time - but the public persona of the union needs to be more thoughtful and levelheaded for us to remain unified and working towards our goals.