Take my pension, please

Never exactly straightforward, union-management relations sometimes produce curious alliances, and an odd pairing has emerged as the pilots union at Delta joins with the airline’s management to fend off a longtime labour ally. Unions after all would seem a natural ally of the government’s pensions watchdog, the federally backed Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, but Delta’s union, the Air Line Pilots Association, has urged the retirement monitor to back off from protecting its retirement funds. Yes. The Air Line Pilots Association has told the federal government to go away and let its members give up those golden-year guarantees.

The pension agency says that the $285-million concessions deal that the unions agreed on with the airline to help it through bankruptcy reorgansation is not legal. The agreement, which was formally ratified on 31 May, will let Delta terminate their pension plan, and that even a promise of notes worth $650 million to compensate pilots for the termination violates employment and bankruptcy laws.

The pilots’ position is that they weren’t exactly eager to give Delta the power to end the pensions, knowing that the airline would in all likelihood have to do so to wipe some of its massive debt off the books, but its agreement to get something in return is a better deal than outright losing the funds. In this, Delta pilots are in a similar position to pilots at other troubled and bankrupt airlines such as united, where ALPA members in effect bargained away their retirements to keep their jobs and careers – and where PBGC objected. At Delta, ALPA leader Lee Moak, says, “It is unfortunate that this threat to our careers and our airline now comes from a government corporation created solely to protect the hard-earned benefits of American workers”.

Delta chief executive Gerald Grinstein expressed similar sentiments. In a letter to pilots seeking to reassure them, Grinstein said, “Without this deal, Delta Air Lines is at grave risk and the PBGC – and potentially, the US taxpayer and all our employees – will lose out in the long run if this company is put in jeopardy as a result of their objection”. But the PBGC, beyond its noble calling to protect pensions, has issues of its own:  thanks to a rash of bankruptcies by airlines, steel companies and others, it is under-funded by more than $20 billion. It could use its Delta opposition as leverage to recoup a greater recovery from Delta in its reorganisation. So, as in many other disputes in bankruptcy, maybe it’s about the money.

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