Airlines and labor unions are in a cold war of agreeing in public, but working behind the scenes against each other.
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Southwest Airlines Unions
Over the last couple of weeks, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) has filed suit against the airline they work for and then many pilot sick leave increased – it is cold and flu season – starting the day the suit was filed. Southwest blamed the issue of flight cancellations on weather and air traffic control (ATC.) The union was asked for public comment and they denied any organized industrial action.
There are two reasons why Southwest Airlines can’t, doesn’t, or won’t acknowledge publicly that they have workers performing sick-outs. The first reason is public relations with the unions.
If the unions are stating to the press that they are not organizing illegal strikes, it would be poor form to call them liars to the media. In some ways, the tall tales Southwest told the public were actually out of respect to the unions who said that sick-outs were not taking place. They had an opportunity to throw the unions under the bus but chose not to. For example, here was the line Southwest sold to the newspapers and social media:
“Air Traffic Control (ATC) issues and disruptive weather have resulted in a high volume of cancellations throughout the weekend as we work to recover our operation. We appreciate your patience as we accommodate affected Customers as quickly as possible,” Southwest said at the time.
Southwest could have added, “crew scheduling challenges given the current state of health in the United States has compounded the issue.” They didn’t do that, even though it would have been true, it would have brought the issue to light and wouldn’t have pointed directly to the unions misbehaving.
The second reason is that the airline works hand-in-hand with the government and is dependent on the government for contracts. The airline is also subject to the upcoming directive for any contractor or employer (with more than 100 employees) which will require either full vaccination or weekly testing. Suggesting that there could be a challenge to that edict at the nation’s largest domestic carrier could involve Southwest executives in another battle they don’t want to fight.
However, failing to mention that worker shortages due to sick-outs and instead suggesting that the issue is solely the fault of the ATC and weather demonstrates that there is something they choose to avoid discussing.
The Labor Cold War
A cold war is called such because while the two sides are clearly at odds and trying to supplant the other, both sides act as if it isn’t happening at all to avoid a potentially more damaging declared conflict. In the case of airlines and their employees, both sides are avoiding the larger conflict that pits management against staff and expensive court proceedings. Operational disruptions through a worker strike would be severely detrimental to the airline, possibly beyond repair but in order to be legal must go through a specific process that is long and exhausting.
Instead, by demonstrating to the airline that they have an issue, but then also affecting operational performance of Southwest flights, the pilot’s union can both create customer service issues that force Southwest to reconsider its policies all the while stating that there is no industrial action at all.
American Airlines Too
There has been pushback against vaccine mandates at several of the nation’s carriers. United has been forced to suspend its plan to require employee vaccination due to a lawsuit filed in Texas placing an injunction until the case can be heard. American Airlines and Southwest both had protesters outside of their headquarters in Texas against the plan.
American Airlines has the same potentiality for an issue though it hasn’t manifested yet to the same level.
Cold War Pre-Dates COVID
The struggles between American Airlines and its many employee groups date back longer than the current iteration of the airline. Much of the difficulty came to a head in 2019 when flight attendants and pilots, as well as baggage handlers, challenged the airline over contract issues. American Airlines was running out of employee groups to offend.
At that time, those union representatives expressed displeasure that there wasn’t a new contract but publicly denied any illegal industrial action all while American’s performance plummeted.
Mainstream Media Doesn’t Get It
Many outlets took Southwest’s explanation at face value. Facebook and USA Today fact-checked the claim that workers were protesting the new vaccine mandates but settled for the public answer that the unions gave.
The public answer is much like asking if China and the US are at war currently – they are not. But is there a cold war between two of the superpowers? Many would say that the evidence suggests that’s the case. The piece above even goes so far as to point out that unions would be in violation of worker laws if they organized such an event. Naturally, they said they did not. However, citing “crew issues” Southwest, American, and even Amtrak have all experienced delays due to crew illness, even as a majority of workers are vaccinated and cases continue to drop in the US.
One clear exception was NPR reporter Sarah McCammon who interviewed Casey Murray, President of the Southwest Airlines Pilot Association (emphasis mine.)
MCCAMMON: So what went wrong? Why were things so bad this weekend, then?
MURRAY: Well, we have – as David said in the lead-in to this, we have an extremely complex network. It is not hub and spoke. So our contract allows for that, and that’s what Southwest specializes in. But when there is a, you know, an occurrence, whatever it is, that causes – it happens to cause more domino effects, which we’ve seen. For us – about four years ago, we started seeing trends with how the airline was reassigning pilots, how they were, how they were covering uncovered trips, cancellations as well as some IT shortfalls. And we’ve really been trying to work with them to get to that.
What we haven’t seen through this summer, through the last couple of years and then through this weekend is really proactive steps that are going to be taken to make sure that this doesn’t happen again. And we’ve offered them solutions. We work very closely with Southwest. And we want to – we actually want them to sort of correct some of these issues so that we’re much more efficient and it doesn’t take four or five days to recover from a thunderstorm.
MCCAMMON: Right. But you can’t help but note the timing. I mean, Southwest Airlines is blaming weather and other factors. You say there’s a problem with the system, that none of this has to do with the vaccine mandate. It is worth noting that on Friday, Southwest Airlines Pilots Association asked a federal court to block the airline’s order that all employees have to be vaccinated. Why?
There is clearly a labor cold war taking place which may or may not be related to COVID requirements. It could also be something else, Murray suggested that suing Southwest was the only way to get management to the table as they have not spoken in “10 months.” However, when Murray then refers to “vaccine mandates we all knew were coming” it seems clear that the unions weren’t getting anywhere with the carrier, that they wanted to discuss the topic, they sued them to pause the mandate, and then many employees happened to be sick. It’s clear that there is a labor cold war taking place and media outlets fail to recognize it simply because their public statement says the opposite does a disservice to its readership.
What do you think? Is there a labor cold war? Is it about the mandates or is this a negotiation tactic? Do you think crews were coincidentally ill en masse around the same time as the court case was launched?
You could have just called it “the media” and you would have made the exact same point. Not sure why you felt the need to call out “mainstream”. Newsmax or OANN getting it right, by way of comparison? Don’t think so.
@UA-NYC – I don’t watch OANN nor NewsMax (neither FoxNews, MSNBC, nor network news for that matter.) If you’d prefer “Media” instead of “Mainstream Media”, ok, sure. I don’t know that it really changes anything at all. The problem is the same, and I applaud NPR (as included in the piece) for rejecting the standard press release.
Yeah, as it’s only the right wing loonies who live in their alternative universe who actually call it the “mainstream media” (like the idiot in the next post)…the rest of us just live in the reality where we have a highly efficacious and damn amazing array of Covid vaccines, know Jan 6 is a permanent stain on our country, and realize Biden is the real president.
UA-NYC has that weird thing where he immediately deflects on OANN/NewsMax/Fox News when Stephen Colbert and Don Lemon’s networks get called out, implicitly or explicitly. Remember Kyle, Stepehn Colbert is funny, otherwise you are an OANN fan.
UA also has that weird thing where likes to peek out the closet while his wife is servicing her personal trainer. Lucky for her she gets plenty of privacy when he is traveling all the time. Then she can invite the minorities in, which because he is such a racist aren’t welcome when he’s watching. The good old NY brownstone sees a lot of traffic while he is on the road bragging about being an elite on UA.
Get a life, old, obese, retired and bored wanker…you are a pathetic human jus rotting away your final days in The Villages
Is UA hurt by words? Just another far left loon woke joke who gets hurt when people don’t think the same as him. Let’s Go Brandon!
Completely false and inaccurate, but it will get the clicks from the outrage headline.
Where is the data in your reporting? Both Southwest and their pilots’ union have shown that the data indicated no unusual sick leave usage during the Columbus weekend meltdown. Instead, thin staffing, ATC issues, and poor crew scheduling practices led to a situation where Southwest had airplanes and crews out of position. Also to blame is the recent Southwest expansion into new markets which has decreased frequency to legacy markets and hubs.
Had you taken the time to examine the data and not just reported on your own poorly created supposition, you would have shown that the only thing to see here is extremely steep travel recovery causing issues to an airline industry that is running on very thin staffing and network coverage.
@Larry – thanks for reading and for writing in. If you click the hyperlinks throughout the post, including the NPR article, you would notice that the rep from Southwest made that exact same claim and it was also called into question. The “no unusual sick leave” is not actually what the union rep said, she said it wasn’t any higher than at the worst points of the summer where there was a dramatic uptick in COVID. That’s not the same as “no unusual sick leave.” Southwest was also the only carrier to have a union file a lawsuit on the same day as that dramatic uptick starting which somehow affected predominately pilots, the same union that filed it. If you choose to believe they are unrelated, that’s your choice, but it doesn’t make it true.
Trenchant insights, young man.
labor issues, no doubt.
interesting politic speak from WN.
I believe the FAA came out and said there were no significant delays (ATC) that they were aware of. And to lump in weather? I think not. Perhaps Southwest was a bit over zealous in adding flights for which they clearly could not staff . And, just as a side bar, I SMDH when I hear the right winged LOONS claim they’re not taking the vaccine because they don’t know what’s in it … as they stuff their face with hot dogs, chicken McNuggets, etc. phuleeeze give us more credit than that. We’re all not as dense as they are.
Please supply data on these “sick outs”. I see no factual support for the claim there was an unusual sick call rate that weekend. Both Southwest Airlines and SWA Pilots Association have stated publicly and repeatedly there is no evidence of an unusual spike in sick calls. If the relationship is so poor between them, you would expect the company would be quick to provide the relevant data.
But I do believe your premise that the enforcement of vaccine mandates will have serious repercussions is true and will manifest shortly. While a career airline pilot may have too much future income to lose, a ramper doesn’t. A TSA agent doesn’t. An airport employee may not. Even a 5-10% attrition rate will have serious effects on the whole transportation system. And even the high earning professionals such as pilots and Air Traffic Controllers may choose to retire a few years earlier than mandatory retirement age. A shock to the already fragile system that can not be easily absorbed.
@JD – The data was supplied by President of the Union who stated that the call-outs were in the same range as the height of COVID calls outs. Except infections nationwide were substantially lower. Let’s play the dismissal game, in order to win you have to dismiss all of the following:
1) Southwest claimed it was weather and ATC issues that, somehow, did not affect other airlines flying through the same areas including American (90% of MIA traffic), JetBlue, Allegiant, and Spirit all of which have substantial FL operations.
2) Disruptions began on the same day as the union filing suit against Southwest over vaccine issues
3) Several (purported) employees have claimed it was the case on social media
4) It affected disproportionately pilots, not the crews that worked with them
5) Once Southwest management encouraged waiver filing and changed their policy, all the pilots got better
If all of that seems less than a PR statement that the group was not breaking the law, then you’ve got the ability to look past more than I do (or the NPR reporter for that matter.)