Something Stinky in the Air – Part 2

Last time, we learned about the willingness of Pinnacle to lose business for the sake of maintaining an adversarial relationship with their employees. Below is a response from a source at the ALPA (Air Line Pilots Association) to some questions I submitted about the negotiations and general conditions at Pinnacle.

Q. The current contract with Pinnacle has been amendable since May 1, 2005. What actions have the APLA engaged in to improve both working conditions and increase pay from near poverty levels at Pinnacle?

A. ALPA and the company have been engaged in negotiations for a new pilot agreement since August of 2004. The company broke off from these early negotiations soon after then after it became apparent that we were not inclined to engage in a zero sum or regressionary contract. We reentered formal negotiations (under the requirements of section 6 of the U.S. Railway Labor Act) the following February and the rules of section 6 still apply to our negotiations today.

Much progress has been made to address many of the archaic working conditions of our current agreement but disagreement on financial issues blocks the implementation of these enhancements to both safety and our working environment. Our financial goals include improved pay for all of our pilots and especially the ones fighting to stay off food stamps. Maintaining affordable health care and getting improved company contributions to our retirement accounts so that our golden years are not entirely self funded are also big issues.

Q. Based on industry standards, what is the average pay of pilots at other regional carriers like Pinnacle (Comair, SkyWest, MESABA, etc.) for new pilots and contrast that pay differential across different levels of experience (5, 10, 15 years).

A. This is an infinitely complex question. Speaking generally, Pinnacle pilots are paid from 8%-30% behind industry standards in just wage rates alone. Considering other work rule factors, retirement contributions, and benefits the gap widens even more from there.

Q. In general, characterize the current contract negotiations with Pinnacle. We know about entering into mediation, but is nearly 2 years of mediation typical? Is Pinnacle holding firm despite mediation? Does the Pinnacle management have a generally “anti-
labor” position?

A. As you know our contract became amendable (contracts under the railway labor act never expire) on May 1st, 2005. And we entered Mediated talks in the summer of 2006. The amount of time that has elapsed since our amendable date has unfortunately become expected at least under the Bush administration. In nearly all prior administrations a one year period of direct negotiations was normal and another year of mediation may have been necessary before the parties were released into self help.

Pinnacle’s attitude toward labor is hostile to give them the benefit of any doubt. Phil Trenary and Doug Shockey are well known for their hatred of organized labor or anyone who dare defy their authority. Just a short number years ago Pinnacle management was found to be on the “ill” side of legal in an organizing drive by our ground service agents. The subsequent revote was successful in organizing that group.

Q. Why haven’t the pilots gone on strike? Is there some legal barrier to a strike? Is there some practical barrier to a strike (TN is a right to work state, etc.)?

A. Negotiations, including work stoppages, at airlines and railroads are governed by the railway labor act. The act was intended to stabilize the transportation industry back at the turn of the century (the 19th century). The lynchpin in the Act is the historically unbiased nature of the National Mediation Board. The Bush administration has politicized the makeup of the NMB hence unprecedented elapsed time of recent contract negotiations. [Atlantic Southeast Airlines recently went five years past their amendable date and the Amtrak engineers recently went about seven years after their amendable date.]

Q. The CA article notes that NWA has withheld some 15 RJ’s from the Pinnacle contract due to the stalled negotiations with ALPA. Any detail of other poor, or financially unsound managerial decisions would be helpful.

A. I guess the highlight of the poor decision making from our management recently would have to be the acquisition of Colgan Airlines. Currently Pinnacle has invested over $80,000,000 (and lost another $10,000,000 in operational losses) with Colgan and they don’t anticipate an operational profit until the end of the year, if ever. Historically, Colgan was a money losing airline flying an antiquated fleet over very thin routes that don’t have a history of making money. I believe they were motivated by the Union free employee group and the belief that they could turn the airline around to make money.

Since their acquisition a couple of the work groups have Unionized and the pilots are getting ready for another drive as we speak. They are also finding out that it takes massive amounts of money and management talent to turn an airline around. They are in short supply of both.

So, what we’re left with is a picture of a company intent on maintaining a discordant relationship with their workforce despite potential revenue loss from their largest customer. Attempts by management to end around labor in the acquisition of a failing airline, with money losing routes, not to mention “union busting” tactics from the highest quarters in the management team. Sounds like managerial brilliance huh? I had one more question that needed to be answered.

Q. What role has Nikki Tinker, VP, Labor Relations and General Counsel, and candidate for Democratic nomination to the US House, played in the contract negotiations?

A. Nikki Tinker has had little involvement with the pilot group since her hiring. Initially, she sat in contract negotiating sessions but was she was so anti-productive at the table the company asked her to step down. She also had a small period of involvement in the grievance process but once again her general disdain of reasonability and completely foreign concept of “organized” labor and contractual rights rendered her input worthless and the company once again asked her to step down. The past year or two she has had almost no contact with any labor group at Pinnacle. It seems that she is retained as a political hedge for the airline and to curry favorable public opinion. She certainly has the physical qualifications to fill such a job but by and large she is an empty shell. It’s distasteful that she calls herself a democrat.

Damn. When a company, with a history of strained relations with labor, asks their VP of Labor Relations to step away from contract negotiations, it speaks volumes about the effectiveness of said management, but this story isn’t about Nikki Tinker, it’s about a corporate culture hell bent on maintaining a class war against it’s employees. Nikki Tinker just happens to be a wobbly cog in this machine of disenfranchisement.

So, what’s the end game? Tune in tomorrow and we’ll both find out!

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

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