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What American Pilots Can Learn From US Airways Flight Attendants

CHARLOTTE -- ( TheStreet) -- Thursday afternoon the ballots will be counted in a ratification vote on a new contract for US Airways (LCC) flight attendants.

This is the second ratification vote on a tentative contract. In the first vote, in March, 75% of the flight attendants voted to reject the pact. Union President Mike Flores, who had strongly backed the deal, was ousted by the union's executive council and replaced by a new president who was picked by the council, not elected by the members.

Afterwards, flight attendants were polled on what they wanted in a new contract, a new round of negotiations ensued, and negotiators arrived at a second tentative agreement. The truth is that the new tentative agreement varies only slightly from the old tentative agreement. But this time it has the support of the very same union leaders who previously opposed it, and it is expected to pass, which would benefit everyone involved -- the flight attendants, the union and the airline.

American (AAMRQ.PK) pilots should be paying attention to this process because, so far, it has obvious parallels to their own situation. Moreover, it reveals what might have happened if pilots had pursued a less confrontational course than the one they selected.

In August, negotiators for the Allied Pilots Association reached a tentative agreement with the carrier. Negotiated in bankruptcy, the contract was, of course, concessionary, but then-APA president Dave Bates declared "we did far better than any other pilot group has done in bankruptcy" and strongly backed approval.

When the contract was rejected by 61% of the pilots who voted, the union's executive council, composed of leaders of the local base councils, seized the opportunity to force Bates to resign and to appoint a replacement. That mirrors what happened to Flores. Both events could realistically be described as "power grabs."

In the case of US Airways, after rejecting the tentative contract, flight attendants continued to go about their business of serving passengers in the normal way. But at American, the contract was rejected during the bankruptcy process, enabling the airline to impose even more concessions.

Some pilots reacted by choosing to exercise their prerogative to write up every maintenance shortcoming, from non-functioning reading lights to balding tires, requiring mechanics to board the aircraft to make repairs, delaying flights and inconveniencing passengers. Union leaders did not back that course, nor did they forbid it.

The Dallas Morning News reported late Wednesday that American had warned the union that it will take legal action if pilots continue to disrupt operations. The threat may have angered the union leaders enough to halt the momentum toward a new round of negotiations, the newspaper said. The timing of the threat raises questions because the union had apparently been prepared to urge pilots to halt the safety slowdown while negotiations proceeded.

One American pilot, who asked not to be named, told me Wednesday, before the threat of legal action surfaced, that some opponents of a tentative agreement were having "buyer's remorse" and might back it if another election occurs. However, another pilot told me that airline executives were being taught the lesson that American cannot operate effectively without pilot support.

Obviously, the American pilots' course diverged from the less confrontational course that the US Airways flight attendants followed. What is clear, however, is that in both cases, union presidents who backed carefully negotiated tentative agreements were made into sacrificial lambs when those agreements failed, enabling political opponents to seize more power, but not necessarily producing any substantial gains for their members.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Ted Reed

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