Labor Day is a bit of a throwback to a time when "labor" was synonymous with unions and trade guilds, and those organizations wielded real power in this country. Oregon was the first state to declare the first Monday in September a "workingman's holiday" in 1887, and 23 other states followed suit before Congress made it a federal holiday in 1894. This was a time of epic clashes between the labor movement and the leading industrialists of the day, when policemen and National Guard troops were regularly called upon to violently break up strikes and demonstrations, and when the judicial system was overwhelmingly in the businessmens' corner, as evidenced by the death sentences handed down to seven labor leaders following the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in 1886. Slowly, though, progress was made: the unions prompted legislation that outlawed the most abusive employer practices, pay steadily rose, and even long time dreams like the eight hour workday became reality by the 1930's. The middle class bloomed, and the American Dream as we know it today was born.
Of the American workers celebrating Labor Day this year, a rather small minority are actually members of a union. Most are utterly ignorant of the fact that the pay and working conditions they enjoy are largely due to the early efforts of the labor movement. Many are openly hostile to unions and cheer their diminished influence.
The airline industry is a pretty good example of the malaise that affects trade unionism in this country today. The deck has been stacked more heavily against us than any time in the last 70 years. The problem starts with the antiquated Railway Labor Act of 1926, which has governed labor relations at airlines since 1936. Back then, the regulated and localized nature of railroads and airlines meant that strikes could be crippling for a region's economy, and Congress decided that it was in the public interest to ensure that strikes happened infrequently and with plenty of notice. Under the RLA, contracts never expire, they merely become amendable. Negotiations can stretch on for years and years; unions can strike or companies can impose contracts only after the National Mediation Board declares a stalemate and releases the parties to self-help following a 30-day cooling off period.
Under the current administration, the NMB has been utterly unwilling to do this even in the most helplessly deadlocked negotiations. The result is that when unions are looking for contract improvements, management can stonewall them for years on end without any real fear of a strike. You'd think this would work both ways, so that management would have a harder time getting what they want, but they found a way around it. Airlines have recently found bankruptcy courts quite willing to release them from their obligations under the RLA while holding the unions to theirs. The result has been the absolute destruction of everything our predecessors fought so hard to build: the decimation of payrates, the elimination of work rules, the frittering away of pensions, the farming out of many mainline jobs to lowest-bidder regional airlines that pay their own pilots far less and work them harder.
Consider that pay is considerably lower at many carriers than it was 10 or even 15 years ago. Think about how much food and gas have gone up in that time. Think about how much more expensive it is to buy a house. If that doesn't make you mad, think about how much more airline executives are making now, despite continued dismal performance on their part.
Perhaps you think I'm being melodramatic. "Pilots have always had to pay their dues," you say, "and at the majors pilots still made a decent living compared to the average joe." OK, the dues paying aspect has always been there, but paying your dues never used to involve contributing to the destruction of the mainline job you're seeking! And "good enough" is no mentality to have, because then it will be continually defined downward. At which point is it not good enough? $65,000 a year? That's what Skybus is paying A319 captains right now! At what point do you realize that it's insanity to go $30,000-100,000+ in debt for a job that doesn't pay enough to get out of debt, much less build any sort of financial independence or even save for a freaking retirement since that's no longer provided for you!?
This really pisses me off beyond words. This is not what I signed up for! The industry has always been cyclical, sure, and I'd be fine if I thought this was all one bad downturn, but airline management has been busy making sure the downturn is permanent so far as our careers are concerned! Most recently they've been busy getting the next generation of 76-100 seat jets flown by "regional" pilots at craptastic wages. In a few months I'm going to be flying a 76 seat, 85,000 lb MTOW jet for $23/hr as an FO and $61/hr as a Captain. It kills me knowing that I'll be making less as a Captain than the FOs on the DC-9 it's replacing. I would so much rather be flying this airplane at mainline. What's scandalous is that senior mainline pilots signed off on this turkey. Gee thanks fellows - why don't you extend your career another five years since you've done such a crack-up job with it thus far?!
There's good news on the horizon, though, and it's from the source you weren't guessing: the good 'ole free market. Management had you believing it only worked in their favor, didn't they? Turns out people can do the math, and fewer and fewer of them are willing to ante up serious wads of cash for a career that's looking less lucrative every day. The regionals are suddenly desperate for pilots. The worst ones can't fill their classes with enough fresh meat while requiring a mere multi-commercial ticket! Worse yet, the majors are hiring all the experienced captains, and the current FOs don't have enough time to upgrade because they were hired with 1000 hours or less! At this point, the only way of growing a pilot group is by poaching from other regionals, and several carriers are offering signing bonuses of up to $5,000, adding to the bottomfeeders' misery. How do you like THEM apples, Jon Ornstein!?! Reap the whirlwind, sucker!
I really think the key to fixing the majors is fixing the regionals. Most of the current major airline guys - especially the senior ones - are too myopic to realize this, so it's up to us young guys and gals to save our profession. This pilot shortage gives us a rare opportunity because it takes away management's greatest weapon at the regionals. They can't shift our flying to other regionals if our costs go up because none of the other regionals can find enough pilots to expand significantly! The only place to shift flying is back to mainline, which would be A-OK by me. This is the time to push hard and squeeze the weasels!
The ASA pilot group has got the fire in their belly. They've been negotiating a contract for five freakin' years now, and management won't budge. The NMB is refusing to release them, so they're taking matters into their own hands. They're only showing up for work if they're 100% fit to fly, they're taxiing at extra-safe speeds, flying the contract down to the last letter, not doing anything not specifically required of them, and not leaving unless the aircraft is 100% airworthy. Reliability is therefore in the toilet, hurting management where it counts: the bottom line. Good on them! The main problem with this route is that it leaves the union open to charges of sponsoring an illegal work action in contravention of the RLA. That same sort of thing earned AA pilots a $40m fine for a sickout back in 1998. I don't think the ASA pilots really care at this point, but only because they've been pushed so far. Industry wide, not many pilots are upset enough to engage in CHAOS; many also hesitate to use such tactics because they hurt paying passengers.
I have an alternative idea that I've been thinking about for a while: a hiring moratorium. This would intensify the effects of the pilot shortage. When a regional is at a critical junction in their negotiations and management isn't budging and the NMB won't release, the carrier's ExCo or MEC should declare a hiring moratorium and request of all pilots that nobody show up for new-hire class. As a carrot, those who get hired but don't attend class would be paid a "non-signing bonus" or stipend out of a fund set up by the union. As a stick, those who do show up would be considered the equivalent of scabs and existing pilots would be expected to treat them as such. In the current environment, it wouldn't hurt up-and-coming pilots because plenty of other airlines are hiring. Management would quickly find themselves starved of pilots and canceling a ton of flights with devastating consequences for the bottom line. Meanwhile current pilots collect their paychecks and probably some good premium pay as well, making this tactic more sustainable than a strike. Best of all, it's not an illegal work action because the only action is being taken by pilots not yet on the property!
Obviously, this idea wouldn't work in an environment like right after 9/11, when work was rare enough that a new pilot might accept the stigma of "scabbing" to feed their family. But in an environment like our current one, I think it could work wonders in pressuring management back to the bargaining table since the NMB is failing to do so. We need fresh ideas; this is perhaps one of many. We're at a critical juncture for our profession; the time to act is now.