Friday, August 27, 2010

American Airlines logo Not Yet Time to Worry About an AA Strike
By Scott McCartney

The rejection of a tentative contract agreement by American Airlines mechanics was expected – even union leadership that negotiated the offer declined to support it. And now that the union is saying the vote amounts to strike authorization, is it time for travelers to worry about canceled flights?

Not yet. Any strike would likely be a long time off.

In the airline industry, unions can’t strike until the National Mediation Board releases them from negotiations, and that hasn’t happened yet for any of American’s unions. The NMB will likely put the Transport Workers Union and the company back together at the bargaining table for some months to come. If the talks get nowhere, the NMB can declare an impasse and begin a 30-day cooling off period. After that, workers can strike.

Airline labor negotiations are excruciatingly slow under the Railway Labor Act, and prolonged showdowns typically lead to unhappy workers and even poor customer service. The Railway Labor Act is designed to avoid and postpone disruptions, but it often makes reaching an agreement difficult as well. Unions frequently have chosen to reject the first tentative contract with management – both sides know there likely will be a later showdown when a better deal is offered.

American is in contract negotiations with all its major unions – pilots, flight attendants and mechanics. The NMB gets to decide, in effect, which group will get to a contract showdown first, and has clearly focused on the TWU.

That union has strong leadership that has worked more closely with management and is focused largely on job preservation. Most of its competitors have outsourced their repair work—American has kept the jobs in-house. The company has tried to make that a selling point, and CEO Gerard Arpey talks passionately about how it is the right thing to do. The TWU knows that if it pushes too far, jobs could be outsourced.

So the likelihood of getting a deal is probably greater with the TWU than with American’s pilots and flight attendants. Once the first group gets a new contract, a benchmark is set that could influence the other labor groups and their expectations.

If you had to handicap the progress, you might look for a cooling off period in January or February – a slow-travel period the NMB has used before for labor showdowns. Travelers need to stay alert for the first mention of establishing a 30-day cooling off period. That’s when you need to be careful about buying tickets into a possible strike.
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