2008 by Janice Byrd

Janice Byrd of McKinney: American can't delay

Compromises with labor must fly
Thursday, August 9, 2007

In May, virtually all of the unions working with American Airlines will be deciding whether to renew their contracts and/or what kind of compromises they are willing to make. Flight attendants, pilots, gate agents, mechanics and all of the ground crews realize that they have a unique opportunity to band together and get what they all want. But what is it that they want?

In 2004 Gerard Arpey, CEO of AMR Corp., parent company of American Airlines, asked everyone to sacrifice for the sake of the company. Bankruptcy was looming, but the CEO believed that if everyone would "share the sacrifice," their pensions and jobs could be saved. Mr. Arpey could have taken the easy way out, as so many other airline executives have done, and gone into bankruptcy. Then he would have been allowed to throw out labor contracts and employee pensions. Instead, he asked for collaboration and shared sacrifice.

The unions agreed and each made concessions, taking less pay and working longer shifts, but their pensions were kept intact.

American Airlines made a profit in 2006, and 1,000 management employees received very large bonuses, which had previously been negotiated into their contracts. Union leaders are now asking what sacrifices management made to deserve their huge bonuses.

Mr. Arpey claims that he and his management team have kept the company out of bankruptcy. The workers say they are responsible for saving the airline, and that all management did for the company was to dupe labor into agreeing to the concessions. Those feelings of being outfoxed by management seem to be driving the vengeful attitude of labor now, even before the new contracts have been negotiated.

There is a huge inequity between the reward paid to management and that paid to labor. Obviously, "shared sacrifice" does not mean equal sacrifice. The primary complaint from the pilots and flight attendants I know is the lack of fairness. "It's un-American not to share," they protest. Some want back their 2003 salaries and personal benefits, however unprofitable in practice. Those who want to keep their jobs despite the outrageous bonuses paid to management are in the minority and feel helpless to stop the impending strike.

I think everyone agrees that a prolonged strike and bankruptcy would be devastating to American Airlines, which in turn would be catastrophic to North Texas.

Most troubling to me is how cavalier and indifferent labor seems to be to the consequences of their revenge. It seems as though they really don't care if American Airlines goes bankrupt. Never mind that their hard-fought-for pensions, not to mention their jobs, would be put in jeopardy.

Like the boy who cried wolf, management has cried "wolf" so many times before, insisting that the company will go under if the workers strike, that no one really believes it could happen. (I suggest doubters talk to the former employees of the now-defunct Eastern Airlines.)

Some doubt that the federal government will allow any of the unions to strike for more than an hour or two. During the 1990s, the government ordered the pilots back to work after a very short strike, saying that the airline was vital to our country.

I'm not an employee of any airline nor is any member of my family. I am a loyal passenger of American Airlines, and I fear for the company and for North Texas if bankruptcy occurs. I'm not interested in assessing who's been at fault or who deserves the credit for profitability. But as a customer, I would like to say to every employee at American Airlines management and labor what my husband once told a very rude, obstinate gate agent: "Try to remember: I am profit. You are overhead."

Janice Byrd of McKinney is library director of the First Baptist Church of McKinney, a book performer and a Voices of Collin County volunteer columnist. Her e-mail address is Janice@JaniceByrd.com.

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