February 8, 2001

Should airline workers have the right to strike?

On the surface, this is a very simple question with a simple answer. If workers in an industry have the right to organize and negotiate for wages, benefits, and working conditions, they should have the right to withhold their labor services if negotiations are not being conducted in good faith or if the negotiating parties are far apart. That is a major weapon of the negotiating process.

However, when the public is punished far more than the negotiating parties, then government intervention has been supported. Calvin Coolidge became president because he would not allow the police to strike. President Reagan upheld the ban on strikes by government employees when he fired all the air controllers who went out on strike. Railroads and large trucking firms are required to meet labor mediators and hammer out differences because their withdraw of services would inflict severe punishment upon the economy.

Even steel workers have been brought to Washington when their strikes appeared to be damaging to the economy. However, their 118 day strike in 1959 may have had as much to do with the recession of 1960 as the budgetary and monetary restrictions of that day.

Now we are facing work stoppage threats on four airlines. Virtually no economist believes that a strike idling a significant portion of air traffic would have little lasting impact upon the economy. Indeed, I am virtually certain that a prolonged strike from even one major carrier will assure a recession this year.

Such a strike may not always have been so devastating. When more airlines were in the sky and before the hub and spoke transportation network was developed, a strike could be handled by using alternative capacity in another airline. The company would suffer but must of the passengers would only be inconvenienced.

That day has passed. With almost 85 percent of all available seats out of Hartsfield being offered by Delta, a shutdown of that airline simply could not be accommodated by another carrier. How long would it take with no Delta flights at Hartsfield before the convention business, which is 4 percent of the local economy, begins to shut down for want of work. How many restaurants would lose money. How many consulting, legal, and accounting events would be stalled (although much of that lost activity could be recovered if the strike is not long).

While Delta at Hartsfield may be unusual, almost all airports have dominant airlines. Lost activity from that dominant carrier would inflict severe pain upon the traveling public and all the industry that supports those travelers. How many millions of hotel rooms will be empty? How many thousands of dinner tables will be unoccupied? How much business will be delayed? Will these disruptions cause irreparable damage to the finances of the companies supplying those services?

The issue is whether the public has a right to intervene when the costs that it must suffer are disproportionate to the conditions that are being negotiated. While no settled rules have been established, an unwritten rule is that when the public is seriously abused, it must be a party to the negotiations.

So far, the public has not been acknowledged by the negotiators in the current airline disputes. Indeed, illegal work stoppages have been instituted through overtime refusals. This occurred at United prior to their settlement last year and then was done again by some Delta pilots. At least the disruptions were sufficiently limited that alternative space could be found for patient passengers. This will not occur at Hartsfield if Delta pilots strike on April 1.

Frankly, I believe the airlines now are as important to our society and economy as the police were in Calvin Coolidge's day. However, the issues are complex.

The cheap training of pilots through the military ended with the end of strategic defense. There no longer is a need to continuously fly planes to threaten retaliation from those who would attack us. Rogue attackers rather than country antagonists are more likely. As a result, the number of pilots used by the military has fallen during the decade.

At the same time, air travel and air cargo have exploded. Airlines continue to hope that they can advertise a good salary and have pilots trotting to their door. That is not happening (although the military is struggling to retain what they can for as long as they can despite the allure of huge airline salaries). This is why overtime has become standard.

As pilot pay rises, the pilots want time to enjoy the good life that they now can afford. (The argument about commuter pilot salaries is more a union issue than a pilot issue. Clearly, the commuters are the minor leagues from which the majors can get their talent.) With a shortage of trained pilots, the workers have economic power.

It is time for the airlines to realize that the pilots are in short supply and must receive more wage gains and benefits than other workers. The airlines also need longer term planning to meet their future pilot needs. Advertising a wage is not sufficient. But the pilots must also understand that the public cannot tolerate a shutdown of airline hubs. The economic impact would be devastating.

This clearly is where mandatory arbitration with an eye toward the new economic realities of pilots should be used. Both management and labor must realize that by abusing economic power, they threaten the loss of it through legislation. And if unemployment in Atlanta begins climbing by a percentage point per week, as it probably will for a prolonged strike, such legislation is very probable.


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