Sunday, April 01, 2001

No end in sight to Comair strike

Neither side makes move to resume negotiations

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As the Comair pilots' strike heads toward its second week, neither side appears willing to budge on anything — from such major issues as contract demands to minor points, such as which side is expected to make the next move.

        It's hardly an atmosphere for agreeing on a new contract, much less for getting back to the bargaining table.

  • The strike's effect so far
  • Comair's 1,350 pilots walked out last Monday after contract talks broke down over work rules, retirement, scope (current and future job protection and pay.
  • The pilots are seeking a company-funded retirement plan, shorter work days, and protection for future jobs on planes the company has ordered. In addition, the pilots want no limits placed on future growth.
  • Comair had presented an offer that the company said would have made its pilots the highest-paid in the regional airline industry.
  • The offer also included a retirement plan that would have contributed 6 percent of earnings into a fund after 10 years of service, and what the company says is a shorter work day. But the pilots resoundingly defeated that proposal in a ratification vote, which set up the strike.
  • No negotiations have been held since last Sunday,and none are scheduled. Each side says the other must make the first move before talks can begin again.
        Many mediation experts say that's typical in the first week of a strike. The experts also say to get ready for more of the same.

        “The first two weeks are usually absolutely horrible,” says Jay Krupin, a Washington-based labor lawyer who has represented mainly management in more than 250 different collective bargaining situations in all types of industries, including airlines.

        “People are nervous and uncertain of the future, the testosterone is flowing, and you can feel them dig in their heels. But after awhile, both realize they need each other and that maybe they'd better kiss and make up. And the question becomes, how do you do that?”

        How Comair and its pilots will answer that question remains to be seen. The Erlanger-based regional carri er's 1,350 pilots walked out Monday, shutting down operations system-wide and at its main hub at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

        The main issues to be resolved are work rules, retirement, scope (current and future job protection) and pay.

        Company spokeswoman Meghan Glynn says Comair officials remain ready to compromise.

        “But before we return to the table, we need to know that they are willing to compromise as well, and they need to let us know that,” Ms. Glynn said.

        Paul Lackie, spokesman for the airline's branch of the Air Line Pilots Association, says the union remains willing to talk - but only if the company calls first.

        “What is it going to take to get us back at the table? The company calling us to propose a date and a place,” Mr. Lackie said. “We are willing to negotiate, but for them to say we're not going to talk without a compromise first is like us saying we're not going to talk until you come up to our position.”

Pressure points

        In any strike, experts say both sides have to get to the point where they want an agreement before real talks can commence.

        And in an airline strike, experts say the pressure to want such an agreement usually comes from three places: Wall Street, the ticket counter and the kitchen table.

        Comair is a wholly owned subsidiary of Delta Air Lines, which some analysts say is losing $2.5 million per day because of the strike.

        Between that, and the possibility of a strike by pilots at the mainline carrier — Delta and its pilots began a cooling off period Friday that could lead to a strike as soon as 30 days later — investors could get antsy.

        So could the public. Comair normally handles about 25,000 passengers a day, and Ms. Glynn says that about 85 percent of those have been reaccommodated on either Delta or a Delta subsidiary or seven other airlines. Roughly 60 percent of those reaccommodated have been handled by the Delta system.

        “But how long will that last, with spring break and summer coming?” asks Rick Hurd, a professor of labor studies at Cornell University, who has consulted several unions during contract negotiations. “People are going to start to get fed up, and leave the airline for good.”

        Finally, the pilots could start to feel the pinch. Even though the pilots' national union has pledged $2 million a month in support (which could start sometime this month), they are still losing as a group more than $144,400 daily.

        Including today, that's more than $1 million in salary lost by pilots so far, according to figures provided by the union and Air Inc., an Atlanta-based pilot placement service.

        “There is power and pressure there as well,” says David Walsh, management professor and airline expert at Miami University.

        “But another thing to remember is that for both sides, there are big figures in the shadows. Clearly, the national union wants to make a point with this case, and in Delta, you've got a traditionally anti-union company with its first strike ever.”

Caught in the middle
        Normally, any preliminary feelers between labor and management on ending a strike are done through “back channels” outside the public eye, experts say.

        In this case, that means that either side will either directly or through channels make overtures through the staff at the National Mediation Board, which oversees labor disputes in the airline and railroad industries.

        The board may have made such an initial move Thursday, with the company saying it had received a renewed offer of binding arbitration.

        But the two sides couldn't even agree on that, with the pilots saying no phone call had come. (The mediation board remained silent on the issue, not returning telephone calls for comment.)

        “It's a very difficult position for the mediator, because a strike means they have basically failed and now they have to put it back together again,” says Mr. Hurd. “What the mediator has to have from both sides is a willingness on both sides to reach an agreement. A strike means that isn't there, at least (at) first.”

        Frank Zotto, vice president for case management at the American Arbitration Association, which helps mediate and arbitrate hundreds of contract disputes a year, says mediators normally keep in contact through the opening days of a strike.

        But they also will let both sides feel the pinch, while allowing whoever makes the first move to save face by keeping everything private.

        “Each case is different, and the mediator may meet with each side in caucus separately, or have no contact,” Mr. Zotto says.

        Once the sides begin talking, there is no guarantee that the dispute will be resolved quickly, says Mr. Krupin.

        “Just agreeing to talk is hard, much less getting an agreement,” he says. “Depending on the case and what was said during the strike, getting an actual agreement sometimes takes weeks and even months.”

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