Airlines and labor unions are in a cold war of agreeing in public, but working behind the scenes against each other.
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?