It has been quite a tumultuous couple of weeks for American’s flight attendants. After mounting pressure, Laura Glading, the President of American’s flight attendant union, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) submitted her resignation effective December 2. That apparently wasn’t enough for those trying to mount a recall, and Laura ultimately agreed to step down last Friday. The list of grievances is long and in many cases, unjustified. But what matters now is how removing Laura is going to help the flight attendants. It’s not. This is an interesting look at the life cycle of union leadership. And to understand it, we need to go back a few years. Strap in for a long post…
In the throes of bankruptcy in late 2012, American’s management team was doing what every management team does; trying to cut costs. Flight attendants, of course, were not exempt. As is usually the case in bankruptcy, the flight attendants had two options in front of them. One was to accept what became known as the LBFO, American’s last, best, and final offer. If they said no, then it would be up to the courts to decide what would happen through the Section 1113 process. In that process, the flight attendants would have been subjected to something worse than what they were offered.
This may seem like a straightforward choice, but in fact there was another piece of the puzzle here. Earlier in 2012, Laura along with American pilot leadership met with the management team from US Airways. There, they came to an agreement called the Conditional Labor Agreement (CLA). The CLA effectively set the terms for a deal if the US Airways team was successful in engineering a merger between American and US Airways. The CLA would be an interim contract until a true joint contract could be negotiated after the merger. It also indicated that the joint contract would be “market-based in the aggregate” (based on the value of competitor contracts), and if an agreement couldn’t be reached, it would go to binding interest arbitration.
So it was in 2012 that the flight attendants were given a choice. Vote for the LBFO with the assumption that APFA would push as hard as possible for the merger so that the CLA, which was a better deal, would go into effect, or take their chances in the bankruptcy process. Of course, if the merger failed, the flight attendants would still have to work under the LBFO until its amendable date in 2017. The LBFO was approved handily.
When the merger was completed in December of 2013, the CLA was set to govern how things went until a joint contract was reached. A Negotiations Protocol Agreement (NPA) was reached as well. That agreement was just a road map for how the negotiations would be carried out.
The US Airways flight attendants approved all of this explicitly, but the American flight attendants did not. The CLA had to be negotiated quickly during bankruptcy and the APFA Board had come to the conclusion that a merger with US Airways would be in the best interest of the flight attendants. Besides, with the CLA having been out there before the LBFO was voted on, there was a belief that the American flight attendants were technically voting for the CLA, even though it was an indirect vote. A later legal review of the situation by APFA agreed that this was proper, but it angered some flight attendants. And really, had they been able to vote on this, then they wouldn’t have any leg to stand on with their complaints. (Looking back, I bet APFA wishes they had found some way to make a vote possible.)
The Joint Contract
Negotiations went as expected, an agreement was reached, and it was sent out to the membership for ratification. APFA leadership explained this was going to be the best they’d get, so vote yes or go to arbitration where the option was to simply make less money without seeing any work rule benefit. But there were some things that the flight attendants really didn’t like.
As part of this deal, profit sharing was eliminated in favor of higher wages. American management has a strong belief that profit sharing is only for companies that can’t afford to pay a better wage. With the industry more stable, it wanted to bake in higher fixed compensation. That would work at a time when record profits weren’t being recorded, but other airlines were paying out a ton in profit-sharing. Some flight attendants wanted it all, but the company wasn’t willing to give it. The “no” voters quietly picked up some steam, and then, good intentions went wrong.
One of the rallying cries for those opposed to the joint contract was around something known as “Hard 40.” American flight attendants used to have the ability to drop to 0 hours in a single month without any sort of penalty (benefits, etc). In the original tentative agreement, that went away and there was a 40 hour monthly minimum. Seeing the mounting anger at this, Laura was able to get management to drop that requirement and go back to the ability to drop to 0 hours in a month.
The “No” Vote
You’d think this would be a good thing, but instead it was the “proof” the angry minority needed that Laura hadn’t pushed hard enough in the first place. She had also lied, according to them, in saying that no further changes were possible. Despite the fact that it was a clear win for the flight attendants, it did not go down well. In the end the tentative agreement lost by 16 votes.
Any rational flight attendant would have voted yes on the tentative agreement. After all, a “no” vote was going to result in less money and no additional benefits. But this wasn’t about being rational. This was, for some, a protest vote by flight attendants who thought they had been sold down the river. For others, they simply fell victim to misinformation and probably would have voted differently otherwise. Some legacy American flight attendants were angry they hadn’t voted explicitly on the CLA, despite it being out there during the LBFO vote years before. They were out for blood even though a “no” vote only hurt themselves.
With the tentative agreement toast, the flight attendants expected some heroic effort by Laura to get more for the members in arbitration, but that was a complete misunderstanding of the process. The arbitration process came and went quickly, with the flight attendants gaining nothing. They didn’t try to gain much because it wasn’t something the process allowed. In the end, American management agreed to reinstate the original proposed compensation and then even added 4 percent, but the additional carrot to eliminate “Hard 40”? That was lost.
This agreement is a five year deal that will be in effect until 2019, though it can open a year early for negotiations if they so choose. As with most agreements, there’s always something each side leaves on the table. But there’s never been an agreement with both sides walking away completely happy. It’s a situation that requires compromise, and hindsight always shows opportunities that were lost. That’s why these contracts don’t last forever. In 2018, the flight attendants can begin again, trying to build on top of the gains they’ve already made.
During her time as President, Laura made many solid gains for her membership. Yet as is often the case, there was a vocal minority acting as if Laura had killed their children. Since Laura had achieved these gains by working closely with US Airways management (they both needed each other to make this happen), she had committed a cardinal sin of union leadership. She didn’t act like management was the enemy and actually worked with them to get a deal. That’s the right way to get things done, but there’s always a faction of the union that hates that plan.
The attacks quickly became personal. Some saw Laura and CEO Doug Parker as best friends. Then there were the conspiracy theories about how Laura’s cousin, US Airways Treasurer Tom Weir, had collaborated with her to screw the flight attendants and line their own pockets. I have no doubt you’ll hear more of these stories in the comment section.
Any time union leadership is portrayed as being in bed with management, the pendulum starts to swing the other way. The strongest dissenters use the rising tide to kick out the existing leader and they bring in someone more militant, someone who promises to whip management into submission and get the membership everything they deserve. Those leaders rarely end up getting anything. At some point, membership gets fed up and brings in someone who takes a more conciliatory tone. A deal gets done, and then the whole horrible cycle starts anew.
With mounting calls for Laura’s head, it was clear where this was going. It was just surprising how quickly she had to leave.
Her term was to expire early next year and she had already said she wouldn’t run again, but that wasn’t enough for the most militant members of the union. Some of the Board members who were most opposed to Laura concocted a plan to send out a recall ballot. As Laura explained in her resignation letter, this was a tool that was supposed to be used for serious issues, not for political purposes. But these people pressed forward. In response, some flight attendants said they would file charges against those Board members if they decided to move forward. It was going to be a long and expensive fight that would distract the union from doing anything productive. With that, Laura did the honorable thing and announced she would step down. Even the original date of December 2 wasn’t enough to calm the crowd, so she moved it up and walked away last Friday. This undoubtedly saved the union from wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars, but… now what?
Regardless of whether Laura was there until the end or not, the time for electing a new president is fast approaching. Undoubtedly, the group that led to her walking away will put up a fire-and-brimstone candidate. Yet the contract is still not amendable until 2018. Oh sure, there are all kinds of pie-in-the-sky discussions from that wing of the union about going to court to have the current agreement nullified. I’d be shocked if that happened, but even if it does, then what? The flight attendants go back to working under a worse contract and re-enter long, protracted negotiations that probably won’t result in a deal anytime soon. That would be quite the Pyrrhic victory were it to occur, no matter how unlikely. In reality, the only changes we’re likely to see before 2018 are going to improve the contract. If United and Continental flight attendants ever get their act together and agree to a joint contract, then the provisions in the APFA contract provide an adjustment to bring American flight attendants up.
We could also see a fight for the union itself. There have been plenty of efforts in the past to get American’s flight attendants to walk away from their own union and instead join the AFA which represents flight attendants at several airlines. And the TWU is always lurking, looking for opportunity. Maybe throw the IAM in there as well just for kicks. Grab the popcorn and get ready for drama.
In the end, despite all the threats of lawsuits, the contract isn’t changing before 2018. At that point, assuming there’s a militant leader running the show, negotiations will begin and likely not end unless someone more moderate comes into power. This game is all about compromise. Laura did it well, and she was able to get the flight attendants a great deal during her tenure. But as with many in her position, she’s reached the end of her time prematurely. For the sake of all the flight attendants, I hope they find someone who is a rational thinker, but I’m not optimistic that’s going to happen in the near term.