US Airways pilots' seniority fight goes to jury
Dawn Gilbertson - May. 13, 2009 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
The bitter seniority dispute pitting some US Airways pilots against their new union is now in the hands of a federal jury.Jurors began deliberating late Tuesday after a day of closing arguments in the two-week trial in U.S. District Court in Phoenix.
The trial featured detailed background on how the dispute developed after the America West-US Airways merger in 2005 and the intricacies of union merger policies and politics. The case even offered a little star power in the testimony of the pilot and co-pilot of the US Airways plane that landed in the Hudson River in January.
At issue for the jury to decide: whether the year-old US Airline Pilots Association (USAPA) has been fairly representing all 5,000-plus pilots of the new US Airways.A group of six former America West pilots, representing their 1,800 co-workers, filed the lawsuit last year, alleging that the new union is ignoring their interests by pushing for date-of-hire seniority instead of a seniority system issued by an arbitrator two years ago.
The union says it is being fair to all because it has proposed several job protections for America West pilots in its new seniority proposal, some that go beyond those on the arbitrated list. America West pilots have packed the courtroom every day during the trial, some accompanied by spouses.Seniority is critical to pilots because it determines their pay, promotions, work schedules.
A big theme in the America West pilots' case is that the arbitrator's decision was final and binding and that pilots from both America West and US Airways and their then union, the Air Line Pilots Association, knew that from the start.
They say the new union was formed to try to get around the decision because pilots of the former US Airways didn't like the outcome. They generally fare better on a date-of-hire system because US Airways has been around so much longer than America West.
"No one said, "I'm willing to sign up for these rules but only if it goes my way," pilots' attorney Marty Harper said in his closing arguments.Harper used a gambling analogy, noting that you never hear the losers in a poker game say they were all in only if they won."That's sort of what's happening here," he told jurors.Harper took a swipe at the testimony, for the defense, of Capt. Chesley Sullenberger from US Airways Flight 1549.
Sullenberger told a story on the stand about how his daughter asked in grade school about the meaning of integrity, and he replied that it's doing the right thing if it's not convenient.Harper suggested that that's what the pilots of the former US Airways aren't doing by ignoring the arbitrated list."You can go back on your word under (a) certain set of circumstances," he said.Lee Seham, the union attorney who delivered its closing arguments, said the former US Airways pilots thought the arbitrated seniority list was "terribly, terribly unfair."
They didn't like the fact that many America West pilots were ranked ahead of US Airways pilots with much more seniority and that US Airways pilots out of work at the time of the merger were put at the bottom of the list.
There was such a strong sentiment against the arbitrator's decision that US Airways pilots would never ratify a contract that included that seniority list, Seham told jurors. The old union tried to get the two sides together to work out their differences, he said, with the added encouragement of US Airways executives, but the America West side wouldn't budge, he said.
"It takes two to tango," he said, suggesting that it could be argued that it was the America West pilots that were acting in bad faith.Seham said USAPA was acting in good faith because it was formed to resolve the impasse over seniority and get a long-awaited joint contract for all pilots of the new US Airways.
The two sides are still operating separately, under different pay rates and can't fly each other's planes. He said the pilots did not need USAPA to get rid of the arbitrated list because the old union was effectively doing that with its policies. Harper said the union has tried to downplay the sole reason it was formed - to get around the arbitrator's seniority list - because attorneys they consulted early on said it could land them in legal trouble.
He noted that an e-mail union officials brought up to show that they were balancing the interests of both pilot groups with the protections for America West pilots was sent after the lawsuit was filed. There are nine members on the jury, and their verdict must be unanimous.