By: Niall McMillan
Since the start of 2019, American Airlines has accused its mechanics of intentionally “slowing down” their productivity to gain an edge in contentious contract negotiations between the mechanics’ labor union and the airline which have dragged on since 2015. According to the airline, the slowdown has caused over 1,200 delays or cancellations, affecting not only the company’s bottom line but thousands of passengers’ travel plans. On August 12, 2019, a federal judge in Texas offered American a major victory by granting it a restraining order against the labor union and finding the union in violation of a federal labor law meant to prevent unions from actually or effectively calling a strike during contract negotiations. However, while the decision is a win for American Airlines and a major breakthrough in the negotiations, the judgment and facts of the case provide a roadmap to other airlines and unions as they too enter difficult negotiations.
With over 900 airplanes, American relies on its mechanics to maintain its fleet without disrupting its flight plans. In the months before the August 2019 decision, a slowdown in maintenance productivity plagued the airline. Participation in the slowdown increased rapidly after CBS News aired a piece in February 2019 featuring American mechanics who felt pressured to not perform regular safety checks. On the same day that the segment aired, the union sent out a letter to its members stating that American “needs to hear loud and clearly from its membership that the time to deliver the best contract is NOW!” The union followed up with a March 2019 letter telling its members to “stop all voluntary actions.” American protested the letters’ language and requested that the union rescind its March letter and cease using language that its members might interpret as being code for the union’s implicit support for the slowdown. The union denied the allegation and refused to censor its language. American followed up by bringing suit against the union in May 2019.
Section 2 of the Railway Labor Act (RLA) places an affirmative duty on labor unions engaged in a labor dispute with management to take “every reasonable effort to prevent or stop its members” from taking organized action that may disrupt an airline’s operations. The law is meant to keep parties in good faith negotiations while limiting the impact of any dispute on the broader economy. In granting the restraining order, the court found that the union violated this duty by making little to no efforts to discourage its members from implementing the slowdown, if not actively encouraging them to do so through its cryptic letters. The court ordered the union to take “every reasonable measures to stop concerted efforts by their members” to violate the law, and to refrain from using any of the “code words” in its speech regarding the contract dispute. It also requires the union to keep its members productivity at nearly the same level as the previous calendar year. For their part, the union denies encouraging a slowdown or even knowing one existed before the airline filed the lawsuit and disputes that it has any duty to maintain productivity, something its says only the airline can accomplish.
Given the effectiveness of the mechanics’ unofficial coup, airlines worry that other unions might use the facts of this case as a playbook in future negotiations. American, United, Delta, and Southwest airlines are either currently or about to start negotiating with their pilots and flight attendant unions. These airlines will be watching closely to see whether a restraining order like the one granted here can effectively deter union members or if unofficial slowdowns like this will now be just a part of the cost of doing business with unions.
Alison Sider, American Airlines Mechanic Accused of Sabotage Amid Labor Dispute, Wall St. J.(Sept. 6, 2019), https://www.wsj.com/articles/american-airlines-mechanic-accused-of-sabotage-amid-labor-dispute-11567775289.
Am. Airlines, Inc. v. Transp. Workers Union of Am., No. 4:19-CV-414-A, 2019 WL 3774501, at *7 (N.D. Tex. Aug. 12, 2019) (citing Railway Labor Act, 45 U.S.C. § 152(2)).
Ted Reed, Is American Airlines Nearing a Deal with Mechanics and Fleet Workers, Forbes (Sept. 11, 2019)https://www.forbes.com/sites/tedreed/2019/09/11/is-american-airlines-nearing-a-deal-with-mechanics-and-fleet-workers/#47331e275fb6 (interpreting positive statements released by American and the unions as signaling an end to the nearly four-year negotiations); Doug Cameron & Alison Sider, Labor Troubles Cloud Outlook for U.S. Airlines,Wall St. J.(July 18, 2019), https://www.wsj.com/articles/labor-troubles-cloud-outlook-for-u-s-airlines-11563454033 (reporting that American, United, Delta, and Southwest airlines are either in or about to begin negotiations with pilots and flight attendant unions).
Cameron, supra note 5.
Am. Airlines, Inc. v. Transp. Workers Union of Am., No. 4:19-CV-414-A, 2019 WL 3774501, at *2 (N.D. Tex. Aug. 12, 2019); see alsoAirline Mechanics Feel Pressured to Overlook Potential Safety Problems,CBS News(Feb. 4, 2019), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/airline-mechanics-feel-pressured-by-managers-to-overlook-potential-safety-problems-cbs-news-investigation/.
Am. Airlines, Inc. v. Transp. Workers Union of Am., No. 4:19-CV-414-A, 2019 WL 3774501, at *2 (N.D. Tex. Aug. 12, 2019) (citing exhibit four of the trial evidence).
Id. at *1.
Id. at *6.
Id. at *5.
Am. Airlines, Inc. v. Transp. Workers Union of Am., AFL-CIO, No. 4:19-CV-414-A, 2019 WL 3774501, at *6 (N.D. Tex. Aug. 12, 2019)
Id. at 10.
Id. at 6.
Cameron, supra note 5.