There’s been a lot of talk about how consolidation will mean the end of the airline strike in the US. After all, these airlines are now so big that a strike at any one of them would be a severely crippling blow to the economy were it to happen. But not all airlines are huge. In fact, Allegiant is relatively small in the scheme of things, and its relationship with its pilots couldn’t be much worse right now. It’s so bad that the union decided to strike (with 98 percent authorization from its voting members) long before it had ever been released be the feds to do so. While the strike was stopped in court, this fight isn’t over. And it’ll probably get uglier.
Prior to August 2012, Allegiant’s pilots didn’t have a union. Like many non-union airline workgroups, they had an organization called Allegiant Air Pilot Advocacy Group (AAPAG) that worked with management to address pilot needs and concerns, but that was it. In August 2012, Allegiant’s pilots decided they wanted a union, so they elected the Teamsters to represent them. The goal, of course, was better pay and better working conditions.
Once the union was on the property, it was time to enter into negotiations. Here we are more than 2 and a half years later, and things have not gone well, to put it mildly. While the Teamsters did not respond to my request to speak with them, Bloomberg had an extensive interview claiming that almost no progress has been made. I tend to believe that to be the case. In the meantime, things have gone from bad to worse, almost culminating in a strike this past (Easter) weekend.
The rules for airline strikes are pretty clear. In general, airline employees aren’t just allowed to strike (per the Railway Labor Act, which oddly still governs airlines). They have to go through mediation with the National Mediation Board (NMB). If the NMB decides that an airline is at an impasse with a union, then it declares a 30-day cooling-off period with the hope that a deal under time pressure can be struck. Once that period is over, then the union can strike. In certain cases, that strike can be stopped with the creation of a Presidential Emergency Board, but only if it threatens “substantially to interrupt interstate commerce to a degree such as to deprive any section of the country of essential transportation service.” That’s not likely to happen with Allegiant.
But what’s really remarkable about this situation with Allegiant is that none of this has occurred. They haven’t been released from mediation, yet the pilots were nearly unanimous in favor of going ahead anyway. The only reason it didn’t happen? A judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking it.
So how is this even possible? Isn’t it illegal for the union to strike? Well it all depends on who you ask.
While negotiations have been going on, Allegiant made some changes to its crew scheduling system. It sounds like this was precipitated by the new federal rules regarding pilot rest which required every airline to make some adjustments. But in the process, Allegiant also switched to a preferential bidding system. Why Allegiant felt this to be the right time to go mess with pilot scheduling, I have no idea. But the pilots were angry, and the union actually sued the airline in November of last year.
So what exactly was the union suing over? That’s the crux of the argument about whether a strike is legal or not. See, the Railway Labor Act requires that the company keep the “status quo” while a new contract is being negotiated, but it was clarified several years ago that the “status quo” provision only applies across the board if there was a previous collective bargaining agreement. Otherwise, it’s murkier.
Allegiant says there was no collective bargaining agreement before, so the airline can make changes until the first contract is negotiated. The pilots say the AAPAG counts as a collective bargaining unit, so the status quo must be kept. Who is right?
Back in July 2014, a judge actually ruled with the pilots, granting a “preliminary injunction motion in part, requiring that Allegiant ‘restore the status quo to the extent set forth in his order.'” That seems like a very strange ruling to me, so it was the main reason I reached out to the union for comment. It’s too bad I didn’t hear back.
Despite that ruling, Allegiant doesn’t appear to have returned to the status quo. (I’m sure it’s just waiting for the wheels of justice to eventually turn in its favor.) And the pilots are downright livid. Why did they pick Easter weekend? Clearly a holiday weekend is a good way to get attention, but it’s also the most obnoxious thing you can do from a customer viewpoint. That shows just how angry they are, I suppose.
The obnoxiousness extends to both sides, however. For example, Allegiant created a website with information about the strike and included a link for travelers to email the Teamsters to tell them how they were going to ruin their holiday plans. More than 1,500 emails were sent in a day. I mean, could this get uglier?
Of course it can. As the strike threat ramped up (on April Fools Day, no less), Allegiant went to court. It was successful in obtaining a temporary restraining order preventing the pilots from striking. Crisis averted… temporarily.
Both sides will be back in court on April 10 to find out how this issue will be resolved. I’m sure fireworks will ensue, but whatever happens, it still won’t address the main issue here.
The main point? This relationship is in really, really bad shape, and there doesn’t seem to be much hope for it to get any better in the near future. If there’s going to be a strike at an airline in the US, Allegiant would seem to be the odds-on favorite.
Now the question is… when? The Teamsters hope it’ll be soon. The airline hopes that no strike can happen until all other options have been exhausted. (Presumably both sides would rather it not get to that point at all.) But no matter what happens with that, the real focus should be on figuring out how to repair this very broken relationship so the public doesn’t have to feel the pain. I’m not feeling optimistic right now.