The Brancatelli File



December 20, 2000 -- 'Twas the column before Christmas, when all through the nation not a frequent flyer was stirring, not even…

On second thought, let's not go there. I had written this clever little parody of that Christmas classic and I originally thought it would be cute to run it this week. But getting into the Christmas spirit inevitably brings me to the topic of Scrooge.

You know, Ebenezer Scrooge, the Victorian bean counter, quintessential cranky chief executive and anti-hero of A Christmas Carol. And Scrooge inevitably brings me to Bob Crachit, the quintessential working stiff trying to deal honorably with the quintessentially cranky CEO. And that inevitably brings me to how airline executives disrespect and disenfranchise their labor forces and how it all ends up making for a very Dickensian experience for business travelers.

So much of what is wrong with air travel this year has been blamed on pilots and mechanics and flight attendants engaged in what these days is euphemistically called "job actions." Of course, it is always the airline bosses who are placing the blame on their work forces. While they don't exactly phrase it this way, what the airline Scrooges are complaining about is that airline employees, like Bob Crachit, are slackers who use too much coal and expect a holiday on Christmas Day. Get them in their private moments and airline executives, like old Scrooge, wonder what has happened to the workhouses and the debtor's prisons.

In case you have misplaced your labor-management scorecard in the hustle and bustle of the holidays, here are the current standings: American is at loggerheads with its flight attendants; Delta is squabbling with its pilots; Northwest and its mechanics are spitting at each other; United is now battling its mechanics and its flight attendants; and America West and its pilots are in conflict. Many of these disputes have resulted in flight delays and cancellations that have inconvenienced thousands of business travelers and holiday flyers.

For their part, airline executives sound just like Scrooge. Employees "make wildly unrealistic economic demands" and "take customers hostage," wailed John Dasburg, chief executive of Northwest. After being thrown out of court last week by a U.S. District Court judge, Delta whined it was only trying to bludgeon employees "to help protect our customers." And United chairman James Goodwin is so distressed about his inability to make peace with any of his unions that he called for changes to the Railway Labor Act, the 74-year-old law that governs airline labor negotiations. "It's obvious that the model isn't working," he opined.

As business people as well as frequent flyers, you must understand something about the Railway Labor Act. This is a law that even Ebenezer Scrooge couldn't have imagined. It does everything but throw airline employees in a workhouse.

According to the terms of the Railway Labor Act, airline contracts never officially expire. They become "amendable," which means employees are bound to the terms of the old contract in perpetuity until a new agreement is negotiated. This stricture encourages airline executives to bargain in atrociously bad faith and explains why Northwest mechanics must continue on the job more than four years after their last contract came to its calendar end.

Strikes? Sure, airline employees can strike. But only after negotiations drag on for years and only after the National Mediation Board chooses to declare an impasse and only after an additional 30-day cooling off period. Another neat wrinkle: If and when an airline union is finally permitted to walk off the job, a strike can be immediately and irrevocably ended by Presidential fiat. Organized job actions are also illegal under the Railway Labor Act.

Armed with this fearsome legal cudgel, airline executives have kept employees under their thumb throughout the last few years. There was only one strike (a two-week walkout at Northwest), one abortive attempt (President Clinton ended a strike at American four minutes after it began) and one job action (a sick-out by American Airlines pilots ended with the union fined tens of millions of dollars).

In recent months, however, airline employees, fed up with being treated like modern-day Bob Crachits, have found a stunningly effective legal response: They refuse to work voluntary overtime. That is how United's pilots brought the airline to a virtual halt this spring and summer. Delta pilots recently adopted the same tactic, beginning to say "no" to voluntary overtime work. This is their contractual as well as legal and moral right. Yet Delta twice went to court this month demanding a temporary restraining order that would require pilots to accept voluntary overtime. Twice a judge turned Delta down. Meanwhile, the mechanics at United and Northwest are fending off legal challenges tossed at them by management Scrooges.

That, unfortunately, is where we stand this Christmas Eve more than 150 years after Charles Dickens first wove his tale of the cruel boss and the put-upon worker. I'm more sober than that old softie Dickens. On Christmas morning, I expect airline executives to wake up and still be unrepentant Scrooges. Airline labor will still feel like Bob Crachits.

And we business travelers, like an army of stoic Tiny Tims, will go limping into 2001.

This column originally appeared at

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