The 1985 United Airlines Pilots Strike Still Brings Out Bitterness

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 top a CEO in 200. 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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »

Pingbacks

  1. […] It’s not clear when Covid-19 first started to spread among humans, but it appears to be earlier than we first thought. I speculated on this in April 2020 when I wrote about a United pilot who reported flying more sick passengers than usual on his China runs, and also that he contracted something that seemed likely with hindsight to have been Covid-19 in mid-January leading him to cancel a trip a week and a half later. He never flew again, retiring February 3. (Much of the comments around this incident concerned this pilot joining the airline during a 29 day strike in 1985.) […]

Comments

  1. Good article. I wish you’d write an article on the labor problems of Eastern Airlines. I think many of your readers either don’t remember those ugly days or are too young to have experienced them. It would be especially interesting to see how many of Eastern’s pilots, flight attendants, and machinists ended up working for other airlines after the demise of Eastern, and whether they continued to be agents of labor unrest.

    It might also be useful to look back at the labor problems at Northwest, especially in light of the relative lack of labor problems at Delta after the merger with Northwest.

  2. It’s not just the UAL 85 strike, but the Continental 1983 strike, and other job actions at major carriers that resulted in pilots crossing picket lines. United just happens to have a fairly strong anti-scab culture, which was exacerbated by the CO merger. Continental had a large cohort of scabs, too, but most pilots who came on during that era are retiring soon, or have already done so.

    Without getting too far into the weeds here, suffice to say that anti-scab sentiment is hardly unique to United…

  3. If Kramer can go back to H&H Bagels, you’d think the United pilots could let it go after 35 years.

  4. Great history – it really bleeds through to the front line and the hard line union culture explains a lot of UAs misfires and revolving door management.

    Look for Dick Ferris on Youtube – videos of him ham fisted explaining things to pilots.

    What’s missing is the context…Crandall’s AA pushed the B scale through with the RJ equivalent of the 80s – the MD80.

  5. This makes me hate unions even more! They sound worse than a bitter divorce, and I can hardly get my head around the fact that it has been 35 years!

  6. On the eve of the strike, United ground crews at Spokane International (GEG) moved United aircraft into empty gates leased by other airlines – totally screwing up airport operations for several days. Due to the nation-wide chaos, it took me over 18 hours to get from Spokane to Champaign, IL that first day of the strike – and I wasn’t booked on a single United flight.

  7. Solidarity is the only weapon a union has to get the wages and benefits it deserves. When a union loses, we all lose and I have seen both sides.

    As an Air Traffic Controller who was fired in 1981, I still resent the scabs who helped take my job away. Some scabs will go on the PATCO website and beg forgiveness by listing all the reasons they had for scabbing out. Screw them, we all had reasons to stay but most of us decided to go out and risk everything. We lost, but we were ethical and kept our honor.

    Fortunately, I was able to use my engineering background to move into Flight Test on the Rockwell B-1B program. The engineers there were non-union, but whenever the union got a pay raise or an improvement in benefits, we got one, too.

    No one can argue the huge disparity in income levels these days and the loss of collective bargaining entities is surely a major part of the reason why.

  8. Problem with the union like United and Eastern Pilots did was they forced the company lose money. As any good airline employee knows you don’t shite in your own seat so why is it that the pilots and flight attendants have felt they can harm their employer every which way possible? I do not see UA or Eastern stock sales making anyone money so it is not like the stock has been paying lots of dividends to shareholders, because there is NO profits there.

    Eastern Pilots are themselves to blame for bringing down the company.

  9. @ John Palmieri. Over my lifetime of 72 years I’ve made a number of both professional and personal mistakes. You’ve done a much better job of rationalizing yours than I have of mine. I’ve come to accept my mistakes as experience, learn and move on. I’ve also learned that there is no drug more intoxicating than power . . . even at the local union level.

  10. John Pelmieri,

    Nobody “took your job”. You walked out. That is your right. Somebody else was willing to work and stepped in. That crazy belief that the job you chose to walk out of “belongs” to you is nothing short of delusional. The company, or other workers who don’t want to strike, owe you nothing.

    There are neighborhoods where people who talk to the cops are considered snitches. Unions are equally thuggish as the mob or gangs, just with more political muscle.

    The fact you worked on a military project isn’t surprising. The worst enemy of the US armed forces is the waste, corruption and runaway costs in the defense sector. It is the greatest enemy of our military, on par with Russia or China.

  11. John Pelmieri,

    Nobody “took your job”. You walked out. That is your right. Somebody else was willing to work and stepped in. That crazy belief that the job you chose to walk out of “belongs” to you is nothing short of delusional. The company, or other workers who don’t want to strike, owe you nothing.

    There are neighborhoods where people who talk to the cops are considered snitches. Unions are equally thuggish as the mob or gangs, just with more political muscle.

    That you worked on a military project isn’t surprising. The worst enemy of the US armed forces is the waste, corruption and runaway costs in the defense sector. It is the greatest enemy of our military, on par with Russia or China.

  12. Scab pilots are ostracized throughout the entire industry, Not just those at United ( there are very few legacy United scabs left) and Continental. The pilots who crossed picket lines in the 80s knew very well it would define them for the rest of their aviation careers. They made bed and now they have to lie in it. In the meantime Gary Leff continues his bitter anti- United crusade.

  13. I have two family members that are pilots for United. The senior pilots refused to take a 15% hour cut (they accepted 10%), and in doing so, screwed over the mid and lower seniority pilots. My family members took a 50% pay cut. Yeah, “solidarity”..sure. Senior Union members only care about themselves.

  14. A person who “walks over” another person who is LEGALLY on strike for any reason in order to be awarded that person’s job as a result of that decision is how a scab is defined. Once a scab at that job, always a scab. United ALPA devised a means for scabs to be brought back within the fold in the years after the strike and very few saw the light and took advantage of the offer, choosing instead to remain a scab. When someone tries to do you serious harm, such as by trying to take your job from you, you may choose to forgive them but you should never forget. I’m not bitter, but I do remember who they were.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *