NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- As American Airlines (AAL) flight attendants head to arbitration Wednesday, hoping to secure a contract that comes reasonably close to the one they narrowly rejected last month, their union is in turmoil.
That turmoil has engulfed Laura Glading, the 35-year flight attendant who has been president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants union since 2008. She faces calls for her resignation, charges that she made an illegal deal with American management before it became American management, charges that she ignored members' will in crafting the deal and, in particular, charges that she has grown too close to management.
Miami union activist Trice Johnson, an opposition leader, has called Glading "a corporate unionist." When flight attendants turned down the contract by 16 votes, Miami was the center of the opposition: Miami flight attendants rejected the contract by 587 votes. Johnson has written: "It is very hard for me to be inspired by a leader whose face I only see largely shaking hands with power brokers."
Of course, it is impossible to say exactly why the contract fell short. No doubt every opponent had very specific motivations.
The prevailing thought, as Glading said late Tuesday in her first interview since the rejection, is that "there was some idea that we could do better after this agreement was rejected." The history of airline labor contract rejections is that failed contracts are altered and then re-voted. At US Airways, the most recent flight attendant contract was approved on a third vote.
"I'm not going to deny that I have a good working relationship with management," Glading said. "I don't understand why that would be a problem. I have always worked hard for flight attendants. But now there is a management team that is willing to work with us.
"I realize that there are going to be times when we don't see eye to eye and have to fight things out," she said. "Then I am going to fight because I know who I represent. But I don't know why it is that you are perceived to be not a good union president just because you don't hate management."
Glading has said she was "devastated" by the contract vote. She was a leader in the unique effort to replace American management with US Airways management, widely perceived to be more labor friendly, during American's bankruptcy. Approval of the contract might have been seen as the final victory in her historic career.
Now Glading must trudge on, hoping for approval of a contract in arbitration that is not as good as the one her constituents rejected. APFA has estimated it will be worth about $81 million less.
Ironically, the requirement to move quickly to arbitration, in the absence of a quick contract deal, potentially offered a benefit for labor: It insured that contract talks would not drag on for years. At US Airways, it took eight years to get joint contracts for flight attendants and pilots following the 2005 merger with America West. At United (UAL) , which merged with Continental in 2010, flight attendants still lack a joint contract.
The primary reason for arbitration, however, is that American's bankruptcy creditors insisted on it before backing the 2013 merger with US Airways. "We were told there had to be a backstop" if US Airways management was going to take over, Glading said. "They needed to see a plan six years out: All of the unions had to sign off on contracts.
"So we did something different," she said. "We signed a conditional agreement with the idea that we would come back and negotiate. It was our idea that United had signed a (merger) deal and that United flight attendants would go into talks and achieve improvements, and our industry aggregate would be greater. Then Delta (DAL) (flight attendants) got an increase and we did see a better rate in aggregate, but we were able to negotiate (an even) better rate in the tentative agreement."
That is because in contract negotiations with American "we did better than we had anticipated," Glading said. "We had a good negotiating committee, and (American) wanted to get labor peace and move on." The company seemed willing to enhance some contract areas because flight attendants had backed the merger, Glading acknowledged. "I think there was some of that," she said.
Heading into arbitration, Glading said, the most contentious issue may be that flight attendants are asking for "me too" provisions on medical insurance and profit-sharing, so that if other unions get improvements APFA gets them too.
Profit-sharing has emerged as a sensitive issue. "We tried to sell it to the company during negotiations," Glading said. American flight attendants "did not get it for many years, (but) it's something employees like in good years."
American management, however, is very strongly opposed so in the rejected contract APFA agreed to accept higher pay in place of profit-sharing.
Glading has been a flight attendant leader at a time of transition in the airline business. As head of the APFA's negotiating committee, she oversaw a beneficial deal that was approved by 96% of voters. Unfortunately, the mailed-in ballots were counted on Sept. 12, 2001.
Very quickly thereafter, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks fed into an economic slowdown. A resurgence was quickly followed by recession. Airlines were harshly impacted: Not a single airline union emerged unscathed.
The wonder is that, despite it all, Glading has made such a big difference in the airline industry.
-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.