Record profits, yes. But a record number of labour headaches also. That is how 1997 is turning out for most of the US major carriers, and some industry observers are wondering whether the tide has turned in favour of organised labour.

Just ask United Parcel Service. While still licking the wounds from a bruising battle with its ground workers, the company now finds itself in a fresh fight with its pilots. In other years, the pay and benefits package now on offer might have been snapped up, but not today.

UPS is adamant that the deal being offered to the pilots would increase a captain's average wage by 34 per cent to reach $202,000 by 2002, while a flight engineer could see a 94 per cent increase to $94,000 over the same period. The pilots, however, present the offer in a different way. A statement by their union, the Independent Pilots Association, says the 'best and final' offer is a 6 per cent rise, retroactive to 1 January, 1996, plus some further increases of between 3 and 6 per cent by 2002.

The IPA has dispatched ballot papers to its members and expects the result by early October. It says its members are willing to settle for a 21 per cent rise, retroactive to 1 January 1996, plus an additional 2.5 per cent increase each year through 2002.

While the IPA says it will remain neutral until the results of the vote are known, there have been heavy hints of a possible strike over the Christmas period. And union leaders, by turning to a vote, seem to be sending the message that more money might be squeezed from the pot.

Why so much confidence? Partly because UPS has just lost a highly public battle with members of the Teamsters union that represents most of the company's workforce. Even though pay scales are relatively high for many of the UPS full-time drivers and workers, the Teamsters scored victory largely because they had the support of the American public, something a union has not managed in almost 20 years. The Teamsters did this by focusing on the issue of UPS' many part-time workers, and in doing so was able to portray itself as a defender of the underdog.

Part-timers have become familiar figures in the US - they can be hired and fired easily, often do not qualify for benefits, and can be kept on minimum wages, even though they might still end up working as much as 40 hours a week. That might not have been the case at UPS, but the American public identified with the general plight of the part-timer and voiced approval for what the Teamsters said they were trying to achieve. And when UPS realised it could not possibly win the battle, it agreed to convert 10,000 part-time jobs to full-time positions at double the hourly rate.

The IPA was among those that voiced approval, supporting the Teamsters throughout the two-week strike by not crossing picket lines and not flying. If the current pay proposal is rejected, then it must be in some measure because the pilots are banking on continued public support.

But the UPS pilots are not alone this year in showing their dissatisfaction. Earlier this year a strike at American Airlines was averted only by presidential intervention. Following months of negotiation, US Airways management and members of its Air Line Pilots Association group agree on only one thing: they are nowhere near reaching agreement. Continental Airlines is still trying to hammer out a new pilots' contract; United Airlines did so only after some friction, and is still waiting for its flight attendants to accept its latest offer.

Delta Air Lines pilots, meanwhile, agreed to their current contract last May, but on the eve of the arrival of new chief executive officer Leo Mullin, they made history by holding a day of 'informational' picketing at three sites across the US. They claim the spirit of their contract has not been met and that 80 per cent of the 8,700-strong membership is dissatisfied. 'The pilots made an enormous investment in the company with the last contract,' says Alpa. 'They made enormous concessions. They want to send the message to Delta management that pilots want them to start addressing their issues in a meaningful way.'

Analysts say it is the same old story . . . the airlines are making record profits, so the pilots expect to share in the rewards. But some industrial observers in the US believe that this time there is more to the story. Michael Belzer, a professor at the labour and industrial relations institute at the University of Michigan, believes that the Railway Labour Act, one of the chief laws governing industrial relations in the US airline business, has contributed to much of this unrest. In particular, he says, parties on all sides have become addicted to a regime that allows intervention at any point, as happened at American Airlines.

'There is undoubtedly a significant amount of pent-up frustration and demand among airline employees, and especially pilots, that has been created by the inherently unstable bargaining system,' Belzer believes.

Americans are also tired, continues Belzer, of feeling insecure about their jobs in an era that is supposedly prosperous. 'Americans have been squeezed really hard. They are tired of hearing about globalism and all its great and nifty aspects. Their spouses are working, the kids are in day care and they are running their butts off. But no matter how hard they work, they don't see anything out there today in terms of their own growth and job stability.'

That anxiety has reached into the middle and even upper-middle classes, and Belzer believes that pilots now have a chance to arouse some sympathy from the public. But in an industry where the average pilot's annual pay is $135,000 that sympathy may be slow in coming.

Karen Walker

Source: Airline Business