United Airlines pilots picket, ask for raises, better work-life balance
As experts predict breaking records Summer travel numbersUnited Airlines pilots formed picket lines at major airports Friday as they push for higher pay.
The pilots, who fly for one of the world’s largest airlines, have been working without a raise for more than four years while negotiating with airline management for a new contract.
Although pressure is building, United pilots are unlikely to strike anytime soon. Federal law makes it very difficult for unions to conduct strikes in the airline industry, and the last walkout at a US carrier was more than a decade ago.
Coast-to-coast protests by United pilots come on the heels Overwhelming strike-authorization vote By American Airlines and Southwest Airlines pilots. United pilots may be next to vote, according to union officials.
Pilots from all three carriers are seeking to match or lose the agreement Delta Air Lines reached with its pilots earlier this year, which raised pay rates by 34% over four years.
The top scale for a captain at United is $369 an hour on two-aisle planes, called “widebodies,” which are commonly used on international flights, and $297 an hour on “narrowbodies,” like Boeing 737s. According to the Department of Labor, airline pilots fly an average of 75 hours per month.
Charles Rex Arbogast / AP
United has offered to match Delta’s increase, but that may not be enough to seal a deal.
“We still have a long way to go to resolve some of the issues that are on the table,” said Garth Thompson, chairman of the United Wing of the Air Line Pilots Association.
Thompson said wages were discussed while the two sides discussed scheduling, including the union’s desire to limit the ability of pilots to work on United’s holidays.
“We continue to work with the Air Line Pilots Association on an industry-leading contract to put our world-class pilots on the table,” said United spokesman Joshua Freed.
The pilots argue that United should reward them for helping the airline survive the coronavirus pandemic.
“We made several sacrifices during the pandemic, and we think it’s time for the company to step up to the plate and give us a contract, acknowledging the sacrifices and contributions we’ve made,” said pilot Arju Delp. , as he picketed at San Francisco International Airport.
The Delta contract that United pilots are using as their starting point will cost Delta $7.2 billion over four years. All airlines are dealing with rising labor costs, which can be reflected in the price of a ticket, but fares are also determined by supply and demand, notes Blaise Waguspack, who teaches airline management and marketing at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
Charles Rex Arbogast / AP
Giselle Accion, a United passenger in San Francisco, said the airlines are making a lot of money and “pilots should be paid as well as attendants. It’s common sense.”
Even if the airlines and their unions fail to reach a deal quickly, a strike is unlikely in the next few months — when millions of Americans expect to fly on summer vacation. Under US law, airline and railroad workers cannot legally strike, and companies cannot lock them out, until federal arbitrators determine that further negotiations are futile.
The National Mediation Board rarely announces the end of bargaining, and even if it does, there is a no-strike “cooling-off” period during which the White House and Congress can block a walkout. That’s what President Bill Clinton did in 1997 minutes after the pilots went on strike against American. In December, President Joe Biden signed a bill that Congress passed to impose contract terms on freight railroad workers, ending the threat of a strike.
The last attack on a US carrier was on Spirit Airlines in 2010.
Thompson, United’s union leader, said its pilots would “continue to operate in 2023” despite challenges including an “aggressive” summer flight schedule.
Over the years, airline workers have conducted job actions that were short of strikes but disrupted flights anyway. A federal judge fined the American Airlines pilots union $45 million for a 1999 walkout that crippled the airline’s operations, though the amount was later reduced. In 2019, a federal judge ordered unions representing American aircraft mechanics to halt an illegal work slowdown at the airline.
Arthur Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University, said Congress would not authorize an airline strike because of the economic damage, but unhappy pilots could still cause disruption in other ways.
“They always have a ‘governing job.’ They can say, ‘We’re not working any overtime,'” Wheaton said. “I don’t expect pilots to be intentionally trying to prevent travel for everyone, but bargaining is about leverage and power … having the power to do that can be a negotiating tactic.”
Airlines are vulnerable to work-to-rule protests because they rely on finding pilots and flight attendants to take on extra shifts during peak travel times.
Regardless of the legal barriers to walkouts, unions believe that strike votes give them leverage during bargaining, and they have become more common. The pilot shortage has put those unions in a particularly strong bargaining position.
Chicago-based United has about 14,000 pilots, and the union expects at least 2,000 to picket Friday at 10 airports from Newark, New Jersey, to Los Angeles. The union is also distributing leaflets that highlight pilots’ desire for better work-life balance in their schedules but make no mention of pay.