The Summer From Hell was the United Airlines pilot work slowdown in 2000. It was disruptive enough that my own memories of flight delays and cancellations are still fresh.
But it’s the United’s 1985 pilot strike that still engenders bitterness, thirty five years later.
United’s pilots struck over the company’s demand for B-scales, lower pay for new pilots than what they paid to exiting union members who went on strike. On the one hand existing union members aren’t harmed, they still make as much – at least in the near term. And at the same time the company lowers its labor costs. However,
- As existing employees retire the average wage falls
- New union members aren’t as well represented as incumbent ones
- This two-tiered system weakens bonds between the work group, and weakens the union
- Eventually the lower paid group outnumbers the higher paid group, and the higher paid group faces resentment
I wrote about recently-retired United Airlines Captain Vaughn Cordle who says on his regular Beijing trips in December and January he was probably bringing COVID-19 back into the U.S.. Half a dozen comments lashed out at Cordle as a ‘scab’ – or someone who worked for the company during a strike. I was even attacked for citing someone who did so – in 1985.
United Airlines hired and trained 300 pilots a month during the strike – with a plan to operate its full schedule gradually over 10 months by having each pilot work 100 hours instead of the standard 80. Cordle was hired away from flying cargo as part of this, in his own words doubling his salary. He very badly wanted to fly for United Airlines and this was his chance to do so.
The strike only lasted 29 days but nastiness amongst the pilots continued – with striking pilots refusing to speak to and harassing those who continued to fly, and those who joined the airline during the strike that United kept on.
A substantial number of former strikers are engaged in a calculated campaign–endorsed by some leaders of their union, the Air Line Pilots Assn.–to ostracize the “scabs,” whose refusal to strike helped United maintain about 15% of its flights. That kept the pilots’ union from its strategically critical goal of shutting down the nation’s largest airline.
Patrick Flanagan, chairman of the union’s San Francisco council, explained the tactic in a letter written to pilots in his region five weeks after the strike ended.
“You must reprogram your interpersonal methods of operation” in associating with pilots who refused to strike, Flanagan wrote. “Our wrath and rage should be properly directed towards those who were willing to take our jobs.”
Torsten Maiwald, GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons
Unions need to punish those who don’t go along, as a way of instilling discipline and fear so that in future disputes workers are afraid of the consequences if they don’t fall in line.
Highly paid pilots are less likely to engage in physical violence than lower-waged union members have been. Instead the tactics include a captain’s refusal to ever turn over controls to a co-pilot that crossed a picket line.
The airline’s flight attendants struck in solidarity with the pilots, but over 20% continued to work. Flight attendant acrimony lessened substantially, perhaps because doing otherwise would have required going to war with so many of their own group. However pilots were encouraged by their union to give non-striking flight attendants the cold shoulder.
A decade later United would become majority employee-owned through a stock ownership plan. Pilots would push the airline to the brink of destruction and topple a CEO in 2001. Then the value of the ‘ESOP’ would get wiped out in bankruptcy. The pilot pensions were turned over to the government. Now the airline is barely flying under the weight of a global pandemic.
Yet bitterness in the comments of an internet blog persists against a United Airlines pilot who isn’t even flying anymore, having retired months in the past.