Daily Labor Report®

Southwest Orders Mechanics to Work Amid Labor Dispute (1)

Feb. 19, 2019, 7:14 PMUpdated: Feb. 19, 2019, 9:06 PM

Southwest Airlines grounded more than 40 planes, roughly double the usual number, out of a total fleet of about 750 aircraft as a standoff with its mechanics’ union continued Feb. 19.

The airline declared a state of emergency Feb. 15 that requires its mechanics to provide a doctor’s note if they call in sick and bars them from taking vacation or trading shifts unless they’ve already been authorized to do so.

“Southwest’s maintenance organization continues to operate under a staffing protocol enacted late last week” to maximize mechanics’ availability across all shifts, company spokesman Brad Hawkins told Bloomberg Law. The “all-hands-on-deck” policy is needed so that Southwest can “promptly return aircraft to service,” Hawkins said.

The airline’s declaration of a “State of Operational Emergency” came 11 days after CBS News detailed “the efforts of Southwest maintenance to resist coercive pressure to ignore aircraft damage and the FAA’s confirmation of the degraded safety culture at Southwest,” Bret Oestreich, national director of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, said in a Feb. 15 memo to union members. The union represents about 2,700 Southwest employees.

“Our contract must be respected,” Oestreich said in the memo. It’s illegal to intimidate, threaten, or take action against employees who seek to perform their work “in conformance with federal aviation standards,” Oestreich wrote.

Next Meeting Is March 12

The airline and the union are next scheduled to meet on March 12, Lucas Middlebrook, an attorney for the union, told Bloomberg Law Feb. 19. Middlebrook is with Seham, Seham, Meltz, and Petersen, LLP, in White Plains, N.Y.

The company’s initial emergency declaration went to its Houston, Las Vegas, Orlando, and Phoenix locations, Middlebrook said. A nearly identical declaration went to Southwest’s Dallas location Feb. 19, he said.

Although the declarations appear to imply that the mechanics are engaging in a “job action,” that’s not the case, Middlebrook said. The mechanics since the CBS report became public have felt more comfortable about responding to safety issues, he said.

“There’s not an issue with mechanics coming to work. All hands are on deck,” he said.

Pay ‘Frozen’ for Six Years, Union Says

Southwest mechanics have been operating without a new collective bargaining agreement for more than six years, the union said in a Jan. 22 posting.

During that period pay has been “frozen” and the mechanics have gone from being the highest-paid to the lowest-paid in the industry, it said. “We would like to make significant progress toward a suitable contract for our technicians, representing fair terms and conditions of employment commensurate with our immense value to the company,” the union said.

The mechanics in September rejected a proposed five-year contract that included a bonus of $91 million for retroactive pay, a 14.8 percent immediate jump in wages, and annual salary increases of 3 percent in each of the following four years. The initial salary increase would have been 16.3 percent if adjustments tied to longevity and specialized work were included, the airline said then.

The agreement would have made Southwest’s mechanics the best-compensated in the industry, according to the airline. The company said it also included work-rule changes that would have increased efficiency.

The AMFA said at the time that the package fell short. Union leaders declined to endorse the pact or recommend ratification, asserting that the pay increase over the full 11 years—including the six years in which pay was frozen—was insufficient.

(Updated with union comments.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Louis C. LaBrecque in Washington at llabrecque@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Simon Nadel at snadel@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com

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