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American Mechanics Shoot Down Tentative Agreement, Move Closer to Strike

The apparent labor peace at American Airlines (AMR) is looking more like a temporary blip. In the latest development, American's mechanics and stores clerks have handily defeated "tentative" contract terms presented by their union leaders, making a strike vote highly likely -- even though the feds would most likely put the kibosh on any actual work stoppage.

Airline labor relationships are incredibly messy thanks to the governing Railway Labor Act. This law effectively means that airline (and rail) labor contracts never expire. They just become amendable, so there's no urgency. Management and labor generally poke along at negotiations for years. In most cases, a tentative agreement will, at some point, be presented to the membership for a vote. If it fails, negotiations continue for a while longer until the sides declare an impasse and workers go on strike. The president can legally bar a strike, and with airlines growing larger and larger, it's doubtful that the Obama administration would allow one at any of the big guys.

Four union-represented groups at American, all of which had been negotiating for ages, have considered new tentative agreements in recent months. While the ramp agents have decided to "suspend" their tentative agreement, the other three groups have voted, and the results are in. The tiny group of technical specialists overwhelmingly approved their deal, but there were only a total of 83 votes cast.

The slightly larger stock clerks group shot down the agreement. More than 60 percent out of the 1,000 voting stores clerks said no. But the biggest group to vote was the mechanic group. This was extremely lopsided with nearly 65 percent of the nearly 10,000 voting mechanics saying that this was not good enough.

So what happens next? That's where it gets murky. When union leaders present an agreement to the membership that is so overwhelmingly voted down, there's clearly trouble in paradise. That generally means one of two things.

  1. If the leaders honestly thought this was a good deal, then they presented it to the membership expecting approval. That means that they're clearly way out of touch with what the membership wants. That would give the Association of Maintenance Professionals, an independent group trying to boot out the current union, the TWU, some ammunition to step in. There is already some momentum out there for such a change.
  2. The more likely scenario is that the union leadership didn't really believe in this either but needed to present a tentative agreement to move the process along. Now that a tentative agreement has been turned down and the mechanics have authorized a strike, I have no doubt that the TWU will be pushing for an impasse to be declared by the National Mediation Board (NMB). Once that happens, it will begin a 30-day cooling-off period, after which the mechanics would be allowed to strike.
If the latter is the case, the tentative labor peace would be a sham, as it's clear it was for the rampers. But that doesn't mean the NMB will just go ahead and call an impasse. The TWU knows quite well that this process still has a long way to go. I'm sure there will be an effort to encourage further negotiations. Can the two sides come together to agree on a contract that will earn approval? It's hard to say, but it's increasingly unlikely.

Still, with a few airlines controlling such a large piece of our vital air transportation network, the chance of a strike being allowed is slim. That means labor and management are going to have to find a way to come to an agreement. In some cases, like with American, that's going to be incredibly difficult.

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Photo via Flickr user aflcio, CC 2.0
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