State of the Airlines

Friday, January 07, 2005

OPINION: Can Unions Last?

Face it...the various unions that represent a huge number of airline employees are getting pummeled right now. Nobody is really talking about this because everyone's busy trying to figure out which major airline will be the first to punch out. But the question is there. What role can the union's play in the recovery of the airline industry both short and long term?

I can see that for the immediate future its all about damage control. Minimize the hits to wages, benefits and work rules while trying to give the hand that feeds you enough room to recover. But the airlines that are truly struggling are out of time, negotiations are no longer an option in the face of mounting pressure to make cuts now. Thus, US Airways gets the courts to simply void a labor contract. Other major airlines are not that far away from this point. Every union needs to take notice. Give till it hurts and then give some more...quickly! Otherwise unions are going to become irrelevant in the new airline world order. Its a nasty sentiment but its the way I see it.

Long term, the bargaining power of the unions are going to be determined by memories of this whole ugly period in airline history. I'll remind you again, dear reader, that the downfall of the industry was coming with or without 9/11. 9/11 was just an accelerant. With that in mind I do not believe unions will command the power they once did. They can remain relevant by forging partnerships to work with the doing away with the adversarial role that became prominent in the 90's. The focus must be on appropriate wages for your airline not just trying to one-up the last union that made a deal. Protect your workers but allow work rules that allow the airline to efficiently use its labor force. This way the unions become a part of the solution versus a problem to be solved.