More than a dozen union representatives squeezed into an American Airlines conference room in the first week of February, invited by new Chief Executive Doug Parker.
The former US Airways CEO, who had been in charge of Fort Worth-based American Airlines Group for only two months, wanted to update the union leaders on the company’s finances and find out what their top priorities were now that the merger of the airlines was complete.
“It was a huge crowd,” said Laura Glading, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. “He’s going to continue them quarterly so people can meet and voice their concerns, ask questions and get briefings from the company. So it’s a good thing.”
Regular state-of-the-airline meetings between American management and union leaders stopped after the carrier filed for bankruptcy in 2011. Parker and his executive team routinely held such meetings at US Airways to keep communication open between labor and management and expect to do the same at American.
“It gives you exposure to those directly running the company,” said Roger Holmin, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents former US Airways attendants. “I can dial any one of them and they’ll take my call, or if they’re unavailable, they’ll return it. There is no chest-pounding going on.”
The meetings are one sign that labor relations are improving at the new American, where years of fighting between the last management team and its major unions helped drive the company into bankruptcy.
But the picture isn’t completely rosy. Other union leaders, particularly some who lead workers from the former US Airways, aren’t nearly as pleased with Parker and face tough choices in the coming months.
Unions for US Airways mechanics and ground workers did not support the merger, saying Parker neglected negotiating a new contract with their unions and instead focused on chasing American. Now that the carriers are combined, the unions want new contracts before integrating with their American counterparts.
“We are very upset that the company is making all kinds of money and they’re not willing to be fair with us,” said Frank O’Donnell, assistant general chairman of IAM’s District 141, which represents US Airways ground workers. “That’s all we’re asking.”
Pilots from American and US Airways are also locked in a legal battle over how to determine a seniority integration list, while pilots at the regional carrier American Eagle are voting on a contract that union leaders initially rejected.
Bringing together more than 80,000 workers from different unions is a daunting task for Parker and his executive team. At an investor conference last week, Parker acknowledged that labor relations at American have been adversarial for years. But he also believes that improving the dialogue between management and labor offers “the real upside” for the merger.
“Whatever happened in previous years resulted in an airline that can’t really achieve its potential because the management-labor relations had gotten so bad,” Parker said. “It’s really nice to be moving forward on those. A lot of work ahead, but I think there is so much you can do when you get everybody excited and working together that you can’t do when they’re not.”
With the carrier hiring hundreds of pilots and flight attendants in 2014, there are a lot of new faces and that, union leaders say, is helping morale.
“We tell our new-hire pilots when they’re coming in [that] this is a very good time to be coming in as a pilot for American Airlines,” said Keith Wilson, president of the Allied Pilots Association, adding that the airline has “a good management team focused on the operation and also engaging the employees … to solve problems and get things moving.”
For the unions at the new American, 2014 will be filled with contract negotiations, union representation decisions and the creation of the all-important integrated seniority list. Each work group is approaching the task a little differently.
To read the full article that appeared in Sunday's Star-Telegram, click here.