Bitter Residue of Strike at United : Nasty Little War of Nerves Clouds the Friendly Skies
Eleven weeks after its pilots and flight attendants ended a 29-day strike, United Airlines continues to be plagued by a nasty little war of nerves between many of those who joined the strike and the far smaller number who crossed picket lines.
A substantial number of former strikers are engaged in a calculated campaign--endorsed by some leaders of their union, the Air Line Pilots Assn.--to ostracize the “scabs,” whose refusal to strike helped United maintain about 15% of its flights. That kept the pilots’ union from its strategically critical goal of shutting down the nation’s largest airline.
Patrick Flanagan, chairman of the union’s San Francisco council, explained the tactic in a letter written to pilots in his region five weeks after the strike ended.
“You must reprogram your interpersonal methods of operation” in associating with pilots who refused to strike, Flanagan wrote. “Our wrath and rage should be properly directed towards those who were willing to take our jobs.”
Compared to many labor disputes, the rage has been directed subtly. Still, it has created some surprising situations among a class of workers whose average salary is $90,000 a year, and who have been regarded as lukewarm to the concept of union solidarity. For example:
- Ron Ashcraft is a co-pilot, which means that he flies in the plane’s right-hand seat, beside the captain. Protocol among pilots is that the captain allows the co-pilot to land the plane on alternate legs of a flight. But Ashcraft, who crossed the picket line, said that no captain who struck has turned the controls over to him since the strike ended. Union members admit that a small number of captains who supported the strike have vowed with a vengeance that they will never let a “scab” co-pilot handle the plane again.
- Dave Miller, who also worked during the strike, is a training-check airman, a pilot who comes aboard to test newly promoted pilots or to fill temporary vacancies. Lately, when he enters an airport’s dispatch room, where pilots gather before their flights, he said, he has been hearing a funny sound: Several other pilots--always those who struck--reach into their pockets and manipulate small devices that make a clacking sound.
“I can’t believe a bunch of $100,000-a-year guys acting like a bunch of 2-year-olds,” Miller said.
- Burton Firestone, who worked during the strike, and John Joyce, who struck, have known each other for 18 years. They once lived in the same apartment complex and socialized frequently. When Firestone married, Joyce went to the wedding. But recently, when Firestone saw Joyce on a tram near Los Angeles International Airport and said hello, Joyce refused to answer.
Still Called ‘Traitors’
A number of the 4,900 pilots who struck explain their vindictiveness by calling non-strikers “traitors,” comparing them to Vietnam War-era draft dodgers who refused to answer their country’s call. Many of the 300 non-striking pilots complain that the pilots who shun them seem to have been “brainwashed” by the emotionalism of the United strike.
The harassment has made life a draining experience for both sides.
“It’s exhausting,” said Karen Reichel, a flight attendant who, like about 20% of United’s 10,000 attendants, refused to join the strike, which her union called in sympathy with the pilots’ demands.
“It’s been a wonderful job for nearly 20 years, but it ain’t like it was,” admitted Walt Strow, a veteran Los Angeles-based pilot who supported the strike and worked as a press spokesman.
‘Just Don’t Know ‘Em’
Strow said that he opposes harassing or discriminating against pilots who refused to strike.
“I don’t intimidate anybody,” he said. “I just don’t know ‘em anymore.”
Kim Darby, vice president of the Atlanta-based Future Aviation Professionals of America, a pilot job bank, said such schisms have lasted “for years and even decades” at other airlines.
“The rest of our lives will be spent in misery because of what we did to the union,” non-striker Miller said.
“The passions might die down slightly, but I will never again enjoy the reputation and camaraderie I had with these people,” non-striker Firestone said.
Firestone’s former friend, Joyce, admitted that he is “pretty upset” by the anger he feels toward Firestone.
Wouldn’t Be Friendly
“I kind of don’t want it to go on,” he said, “but if someone intentionally banged up my car or injured one of my family members, I don’t think I’d be friendly with him.”
Pilots who crossed the picket line allowed United to fly a limited schedule, robbing the union of a quick victory, Joyce said, and that “had the potential for enormous damage to my family,” he said.
The acrimony will outlast the issues that triggered the strike on May 17, when pilots walked off their jobs after failing to resolve new contract terms. The key economic issue--designing a “two-tier” wage system that reduced the salary schedule of newly hired pilots by about 40%--was settled after a week. But thornier issues of seniority, which had developed during the strike when United pledged to give preferential treatment in promoting those pilots who had kept working, stalled a back-to-work agreement for three more weeks.
A federal judge last month ruled in the union’s favor on two key back-to-work issues, ordering United to give jobs to 566 pilot-trainees who had honored the strike and ordering the airline to rescind its pledge of “super seniority” for pilots who crossed picket lines. United has said that it will appeal the decision.
Many in Agreement
Many of the pilots who refused to join the strike said that they agree with United’s contention that wages paid to newly hired pilots must be sharply cut if the company is to stay competitive in an era of deregulation, when several new airlines are paying pilots’ salaries in the $40,000 range.
Union supporters contend that in the wake of the strike settlement, the company has intensified the bitterness. They cite a series of lavish banquets United threw in Chicago recently to honor pilots who defied the strike, and note that the company has also downgraded all of the training-check airmen who honored the strike, transferring them back to regular pilot status.
Joe Hopkins, a United spokesman, said the banquets were intended to “recognize that (those who worked during the strike) have had to endure harassment since the strike ended.” He added that the company “is not reacting to childish behavior” by pilots against non-strikers.
Estimates made by pilots in numerous interviews indicated that perhaps half the pilots who struck are giving the cold shoulder to pilots who worked, while a small minority of strikers are doing things such as clacking clackers when a non-striking pilot enters the room.
‘We Need Healing’
The ostracism appears to be less severe among United’s flight attendants. Soon after the strike ended, the Assn. of Flight Attendants’ Chicago office suggested to its members that they should eventually “put aside your feelings of disgust and contempt and try to allow (non-striking attendants) to work their way back into the normal flight attendants’ social fabric.” Two weeks ago, a flyer mailed to all flight attendants’ union members warned, “We are divided over the strike and we need healing.”
This was in sharp contrast to the theme of the letter from San Francisco pilot leader Flanagan, which suggested to pilots that on each flight they determine which flight attendants supported the strike and which did not.
“When it comes to social dialogue, I limit it to those who were on our side,” Flanagan advised.
United attendant Deborah Walcroft, who supported the strike, said most attendants “want to reunify our group,” but “the pilot group still has quite a bit of emotional feeling against flight attendants who crossed” the picket line.
Most pilots and flight attendants on both sides are quick to insist that the disharmony has not affected the safety of United’s flights.
Non-striking pilot Miller disagreed.
“I’ve had this happen to me several times: A (pro-strike) guy will sit there (in the co-pilot’s seat) after I have made a wrong turn by a couple of degrees and not say anything. That’s not dangerous, it’s a simple little mistake, but somebody should say, ‘Dave, you made a mistake.’ But now you’ve got a guy mentally saying, ‘I’m gonna show that son-of-a-gun. . . .’ The purpose of three people in the crew is to cross-check each other.”
Sandy Sereno, an attendant who refused to strike, said she thinks that flights are safer because both sides believe that the other will report a rival member to management for the slightest flaw.
“We all have to do safety checks when we work on the airplane--have to be standing in a certain spot when the safety demonstration is given, that sort of thing,” Sereno said. In the past some of those procedures were a little lax. Today you’ll find they are followed to the letter of the law.”