In Defense of Unionism
I ended my last post by suggesting that one way pilots can improve their profession is by getting involved with their union, if they work at a unionized carrier. Predictably, this drew some criticism from anti-union commenters. I say "predictably" because airline pilots have always been rather ambivalent about their unions, and at times downright hostile. Most airlines have a few notoriously outspoken union critics among their pilots.
There are several reasons for this. First, airline pilots tend to be politically conservative, although this was more pronounced when most pilots came from the military. Secondly, pilots are often independent and opinionated, and many bristle at "others" making important decisions that affect their careers. Finally, pilots have a long and distinguished history of cheapness, and there are plenty who feel that they aren't getting anything back for their 2% dues.
Growing up, I had no great love for unions. I come from a politically conservative family, and am still conservative on many matters. When I was young, my dad was in a carpenter's union but quit it in disgust over what he saw as a culture of petty corruption and laziness; the union thereafter made life miserable for him, sabotaging his vehicle and equipment and vandalizing job sites. I accepted the fact that I'd have to join a union someday as an airline pilot, but wasn't thrilled about it. Even now that I've changed my mind in favor of unionism, I am well aware of the shortcomings of various unions, the low points in the history of the movement, and some of the practical and philosophical sticking points to the whole system we have now. I can certainly understand where people like Big Country and Ryan are coming from.
The thing is, I haven't seen any better alternatives proposed. If you're going to do away with the current system, you'd better have something to replace it with, something that does a better job of protecting the things we hold dear: our careers, the profession, and our impressive record of safety. So far I haven't seen any workable proposals that do this.
Some people, like Big Country, propose to throw ourselves upon the mercies of the "free market." First, I'm not sure that unionism is truly at odds with the "free market system". Unionized airlines do not have a monopoly, so pilots are free to go to a non-union carrier if they wish. For that matter, no single union has a monopoly; ALPA competes with APA, SWAPA, Teamsters, etc. To me, a system which prohibited workers from banding together into unions would be the one that impedes the free market; after all, businesses and businessmen regularly enter into all sorts of arrangements to increase their buying power and exploit economies of scale, and unless these arrangements result in monopolies, nobody argues that they are an impediment to the freedom of the markets. Markets do not need to have a multitude of perfectly independent agents to be free. But this is an aside....
Ryan proclaims that we're in the information age, with the inference that codgy old unionism is not up to the demands of a dynamic, productive free market economy. An example that one might give is that of computer programmers, heroes of the new information age. Rather few programmers are unionized. Their job protection is according to their degree of competence. Productivity is rewarded: the best programmers are headhunted in a very free job market, where they can almost name their salary. Many change jobs regularly; some of the smartest become independent contractors and hire out to the highest bidder. The free market can be very good to smart programmers.
There is a temptation to take what's happening in the vibrant tech sector and proclaim it a "new paradigm" that applies to all industries and professions, including the airline world and professional piloting. There are a few glaring problems with doing so, ways in which aviation is very unlike the tech sector.
First, the free market rewards those who are seen as the most productive. In aviation, the most productive pilot is not necessarily the best pilot. One can be very productive by cutting corners when they think they can get away with it, bending the rules a little when they think nobody's watching. You could get away with it for years, and you'd be management's absolute favorite pilot. Meanwhile, the pilot who scrupulously follows the rules, takes his time, refuses to be rushed, and makes smart decisions is going to be less productive. Nevertheless, he is the better pilot. While the union system might not get him ahead, it will not penalize him either, and the pilots' unions at the airlines have been a primary factor in fostering the safety culture that exists today.
Secondly, a truly free labor market is dependent on workers being able to switch jobs easily with few penalties. If a good computer programmer is underpaid, he can be doing the same job elsewhere for more money next week; losing productive programmers is eventually going to force his former employer to up their wages. But computer programmers everywhere do essentially the same job, Nine to Five, Monday through Friday. Pilots do not. Airlines need pilots 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. They need both first officers and captains. Because of this, seniority is just as important as salary, making for a powerful disincentive to switch jobs. An airline system without unions would not be a free labor market, just one in which management had all the mechanisms of control.
Ever since aviation began, it's been a nasty, brutish business. Ryan mentioned the book Hard Landing; it is an excellent chronicle of some of the uglier turns the industry has taken. The people who managed the early airlines were a hard nosed lot that didn't mind breaking rules and even racking up a body count in the search for elusive profits. Pilots were often seen as an obstacle in this quest, always gumming up the works with complaints about weather or maintenance or fatigue. Government oversight was minimal. In this free market, no manager thought twice about firing a pilot who wasn't compliant enough, not "productive" enough. This attitude led directly to the formation of the first pilot unions - a free market reaction if I ever saw one. But that was 70 years ago, you protest; times have changed and the reasons that led to unions no longer exist. Don't they? Profits are just as elusive. Ryan was spot on in his assessment of much of the upper management throughout the industry today. Given the opportunity, I think many of them would easily revert to the habits of their early predecessors, and the flying profession would suffer greatly in all regards.
Both Ryan and BC put the blame elsewhere. Ryan says that unions "combat the power of a team and ultimately hinder relationships between labor and management." BC suggests that unions killed the legacies by demanding higher wages than revenues could support, although to his credit he acknowledges the role management had to play. Now, there's a kernel of truth in both statements. The relationship unions have with management is often combative. I won't say it's always management's fault or entirely their fault, but there is a definite correlation between management's aggressiveness with labor and labor's aggressiveness with management. "Enlightened" CEOs like Kelleher and Bethune mostly kept things amicable with their unionized work groups and rewarded their employees when the company prospered; the unions responded in kind by showing flexibility and bargaining in good faith. Where management took an aggressive stance and tried to screw over their employee groups at every turn, those employees elected combative union leaders who sometimes took things farther than was good for the company or the employees. The painful concessions of the early 90's that went unrewarded in the mid 90's produced the prohibitively expensive contracts of the late 90's, which contributed - along with considerable mismanagement - to the legacies' current troubles, as BC mentioned.
The fact that this unhealthy cycle has taken place at some unionized airlines - does it condemn the unions, perhaps even the very principles of unionism? What role did management play in all this? Let's say that a Crandall or a Ferris was successful at breaking their pilots' union. Would they have suddenly blossomed into a benevolent Kelleher once the money was theirs for the taking? I think not. If anything, breaking the union at Continental made Lorenzo even more ravenous.
Of course, there are non-union carriers out there, and my dire predictions haven't played out there, have they? Ryan says he's going to work at a non-union carrier, and I applaud him for putting his money where his mouth is, so to speak. But I wonder if his non-union carrier would treat their pilots nearly so well if it wasn't for the hard work unions have done at all the other carriers. Management at Skywest, Allegiant, and even jetBlue offer their pilots just enough to keep unions off their property. What would happen if that disincentive was removed?
BC says that "strong unions don't make strong pilots, they make strong unions." In other words, they are for-profit organizations that are no better than management in screwing over workers for money. Again, there is a kernel of truth here. The main organizations have attracted a lot of greedy and corrupt individuals over the years - my own union, the Teamsters, got so bad it was put in federal trusteeship for a time. Even rather uncorrupted organizations like ALPA have shown favoritism towards whoever is paying the most dues money, principles be hanged. But the real strength of a union lies with its active membership, the volunteer pilots who serve and lead at the local level. This is where most of the decisions are made and where most of the work is done - and these pilots usually have only the interests of the membership in mind.
Unions are by no means perfect. Their history is spotted, their imperfections are currently glaring, and I doubt they'll be really fantastic in the future. In short, they are a human institution. They did a great deal of good in building up the aviation industry and the piloting profession - and they've done plenty to screw both up lately, too. That doesn't mean they should be discarded entirely. Aviation history has shown them to be all too necessary. We do, however, need to work to improve them. That's why I suggested that new pilots resolve to get involved in their unions: not because those unions are so great, but because we need them to be better for the good of the profession. There are encouraging signs. ALPA members just elected a reform-minded President. Teamsters Local 747 members, including myself, just elected an Executive Board with a reformist majority. I'm personally volunteering for my union as an editor and writer for our quarterly periodical, and I'm seeing more young pilots become similarly involved. Things like this make me hopeful that we'll be able to stem the tide using the system in place now - which is good, because I haven't seen any realistic alternative.
In short - I'd rather patch the roof than tear down the house and pray for sunny weather.
(...and that's the only short thing about this post!)