American Airlines still hasn’t completed its merger with US Airways. There isn’t a joint contract with its mechanics. Each airline’s mechanics are still represented by their own union, negotiating as part of an alliance.
And each airline’s mechanics have different issues at the bargaining table. For instance legacy US Airways mechanics like their health insurance and want to keep it, but the airline wants to move them to a less generous plan. US Airways mechanics would get a transition payment, but that means signing a contract also means different payments to different employees.
American wants to be able to do more outsourcing. They currently outsource less than competitors United and Delta, having more employees per plane than competitors.
American promises current workers will keep their jobs and pay and work locations – and get raises – but the average age of mechanics is in the mid-50s and American wants to be able to shift work elsewhere over time.
A common refrain from American Airlines management is that they would happily sign either the Delta or United contract today, since they’re offering more than what is in either. The union though doesn’t want to give up future jobs. In a real sense this is a tradeoff between pay for the members they represent today and future union strength and bargaining power.
Negotiations have seemingly gone nowhere. Part of the problem is that American management unilaterally gave employees wages so there’s less additional money on the table now to trade for changes in scope rules and benefits.
In May the head of the Transportation Workers Union declared that the situation may “erupt[..] into the bloodiest ugliest battle that the United States labor movement ever saw that’s what’s gonna happen” and suggests that “if we ever get to the point where there’s self-help we are gonna engage in absolutely vicious strike action against American Airlines the likes of which you’ve never seen.”
Passengers have suffered from increased delays and cancellations due to maintenance issues as tensions have flared. One passenger even reported having their luggage violated.
American got a federal mediator involved last fall. Now it’s gone to court to sue the mechanics unions.
Kyle Arnold covered yesterday’s court hearing on the American Airlines lawsuit against the unions representing its mechanics, arguing that the Transportation Workers Union (legacy American) and the International Association of Machinists (legacy US Airways) have been engaged in an illegal job action meant to slow down the airline. Three items stand out:
- Lawyers for the mechanics “argu[ed] an increase in flight delays and maintenance issues pre-dated a breakdown in contract negotiations in February.” Of course, though, because the slowdown began last year. I wrote in August 2018 for instance that “many delays have been caused by unhappy mechanics.” Then in September about “reports that some of American’s recent operational challenges stem from maintenance slow-walking addressing of issues with aircraft.”
- If the claim that “American’s case leaned heavily on testimony from senior vice president for integrated operations David Seymour” is true, then American’s chances of prevailing in court may have a high bar. Seymour is the least articulate member of American Airlines senior management.
- The union says there’s no work slowdown, and the union isn’t behind any slowdown if there is, but they’re also complying with the court’s previous order and have stopped the coordinated slowdown.
[Transportation Workers Union Vice President Gary] Peterson said he and other union leaders have gone to great lengths to stop any coordinated work slowdowns.
When American Airlines successfully sued its pilots union 20 years ago over an illegal work-to-rule action, they had paperwork admitting what was happening and proving union involvement. Here the argument is statistical. There’s no question that a work action has taken place. The question is whether the airline can pin it on coordinated involvement by the union.
Nonetheless suing your employees’ representatives isn’t likely to bring down tensions. And harming the business isn’t likely to make more money available for a better contract especially as signs point towards a weakening economy. The mechanics could find themselves too late to get a great deal. Passengers remain caught in the middle. Naturally my own first flight of the day last week required a part American didn’t have in stock…