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JetBlue Pilots Turn To Southwest For Tips On Organizing A Union

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The airline industry is notorious for bitter, protracted labor battles that have fostered distrust between employees and management, damaged morale, and even helped kill some airlines.
So when pilots at JetBlue Airways decided to organize, they rejected the traditional adversarial approach of most airline unions. Instead, they turned to officials with the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, known for its record of winning generous contracts while maintaining a positive relationship with management. That union’s focus on productivity and innovative compensation has helped keep the Dallas-based airline profitable during the past decade while other airlines posted billions in losses.
The Southwest union “has been a great example of the fact that it’s possible to create a collaborative approach with management,” said Mike Sorbie, a JetBlue pilot based in Orlando, Fla., one of the leaders of the organizing effort.
“Southwest has enjoyed a tremendous amount of success and represents one of the most highly unionized airlines in the industry,” he said.
Pilots at JetBlue will vote in January on whether to create the JetBlue Pilots Association. Like SWAPA, it would be an independent union, not affiliated with the nation’s largest pilot group, the Air Line Pilots Association.
“We were looking for an example of success, and the only one that met our definition was SWAPA,” said Bill Evans, a Boston-based JetBlue pilot involved in the organizing drive.
‘A tremendous culture’
JetBlue, a New York-based discount carrier, has had ties to Southwest from its inception. Its founder, David Neeleman, was an executive at Southwest in the 1990s after he sold Morris Air to the carrier. Two years after leaving Southwest, in 2000, he launched JetBlue with a similar business model — a lean, low-cost structure, one-cabin service, a point-to-point route map and flights into cheaper, secondary airports.
What differentiated the airline was its perks. It was the first carrier to provide free seat-back satellite television for every passenger, and its fleet of new airplanes had leather seats and comfortable cabins.
Officials with Dallas/Fort Worth Airport have long tried to lure JetBlue to North Texas, but the airline has no flights here. It does have service in Austin and Houston.
Another difference from Southwest was on the labor front. Southwest is the most unionized airline in the industry, but JetBlue has no union presence. An attempt by baggage handlers to organize in 2006 was unsuccessful.
Earlier this year, Sorbie and Evans began collecting signature cards to trigger a union election. Enough pilots signed on, and in November the JetBlue Pilots Association filed for an election.
The voting will begin Jan. 6, and ballots will be counted Feb. 3.
JetBlue officials have said in a statement that they “believe a direct relationship with the company is in our pilots’ best interests.”
Mike Powers, the airline’s senior vice president and treasurer, said at a recent Credit Suisse airline conference that it was “premature to speculate” on whether the union drive will succeed and how it might affect the airline’s costs or structure.
The pilots stress that the move to organize isn’t based on any animosity with JetBlue’s management, including Chief Executive David Barger. In fact, the two have high praise for the airline’s leadership.
“We have complete faith in our current management and leadership team,” Sorbie said. “We have tremendous culture and have a great relationship between management and the work groups.”
But the pilots do worry that things could change, given the volatile nature of the airline business.
“One day Dave Barger won’t be president of JetBlue,” Sorbie said. He also worries that the airline could be swept up in industry consolidation.
“Pilots don’t usually fare well in mergers and integrations,” he said.
A reasonable approach
But the high-octane labor battles at other airlines worried many pilots, Sorbie said.
“There’s this idea that unionization, almost by design, degrades into an adversarial relationship,” he said. “That’s what we want to avoid.”
Sorbie and Evans approached SWAPA for advice on building a different kind of pilots union. They said they never even considered affiliating with the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents pilots at United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Continental and others.
“I know how hard it is to independent; it’s the road less traveled,” said Karl Kuwitzky, SWAPA’s president. “But they clearly wanted to be different.”
Pilots at Fort Worth-based American Airlines are also represented by an independent union, the Allied Pilots Association. That labor group is embroiled in often-bitter contract negotiations with American.
Kuwitzky attended several organizational meetings and counseled the JetBlue pilots on how to get started. The biggest drawback to an independent union, he said, is the lack of financial support from a larger union.
“You really don’t have any money to start out with,” he said. “So it takes a lot longer to build up your infrastructure.”
But Evans said the benefits of flying solo prevailed. “With a larger union, you can be a small cog in the wheel,” he said. “We’re a kind of unique pilot group and want to stay that way.”
Like their counterparts at Southwest, Sorbie said JetBlue pilots will make the company’s performance a top priority.
“We have to consider not only the current economic realities, but the benefit of helping our company continue to prosper into the future,” Sorbie said. “We’re going to be reasonable in our approach and our expectations.”
He said he hopes that, like SWAPA, the JetBlue Pilots Association can serve as a model for the industry.
Said Evans, “We think we can do something special and unique that others can take a look at.” He said he wants to take SWAPA’s approach “to the next level, and set the bar up another notch.”
Although they don’t have specifics yet on what they would like to see in a contract, one priority is to shorten negotiation time. Airline contracts often take years to forge, because of the restrictions of the Railway Labor Act, which governs airline labor relations.
Protracted negotiations “take an enormous financial toll on the company and the union,” Sorbie said. “It’s a tremendous roller coaster.”
Evans also envisioned a pay scale benchmarked against other pilot groups, similar to how the JetBlue’s executive compensation is structured.
“Our leadership team has taken a reasonable approach to their own compensation, and our pilots appreciate that,” he said.
The pilots are optimistic that the union will be approved in February.
“There’s a real buzz about it, and I’m very optimistic that we’re going to win,” Sorbie said. “I think people realize this won’t be your father’s airline union.”

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