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Bad News: United, Continental Merger Already Seeing Pilot Unrest

The easiest thing about merging airlines is slapping a new coat of paint on the outside of the airplane. Everything else is a very difficult task, but none is more difficult than labor integration. The United/Continental merger is already facing its first public fight over labor, and it's way too early in the process for that. This could be a long and painful integration.

The Delta and Northwest merger was an example of how easy an integration can be. The pilots, the only major workgroups that were unionized at both airlines, came to an agreement before the merger even happened. When management and labor have strong leaders that want to get things done, they generally can.

United and Continental are in a different boat. United has had miserable labor relations for years and the rhetoric from Continental labor groups has been ratcheting up in recent times as well. There was no question that this had the potential to be contentious, but I'm not sure anyone expected them to start clashing until they at least got to discussions on pay and benefits. Instead, they've hit a snag much earlier.

The first step for labor in any merger is to create a transition agreement. This governs what happens up until the merger is complete. So it's a short term agreement, but it can set the tone for future negotiations. While we don't know the exact details of what the problem is here, ALPA issued a release claiming that management is already throwing up roadblocks, and it's on "non-economic" issues.

Capt. Wendy Morse, chief rep for the United pilots, said:

As I've consistently said, there is a right path and a wrong path. This merger could be simple if the right path is chosen. Regrettably it appears the companies at this early juncture are headed down the wrong path. Obviously, allowing talks to stall over non-economic issues shows that management is once again choosing the wrong path.
How much of this is a real disagreement is unclear. The issuance of a press release makes it look like the pilots want to get this out in public. That's not generally the path to a successful negotiation, but it's not exactly an uncommon tactic either. It just shows that the pilots here are in no mood to deal with management's shenanigans. On the other hand, management is probably just as fed up but have opted not to play it out in public yet.

Regardless, if they're already hitting a snag on something so minor, this is likely to be ugly.


Photo via United/Continental