Union Rejects Southwest Airlines’ Plea For Concessions

Filed Under: Southwest, Unions

Southwest Airlines management has asked the Transport Workers Union for concessions, and the union has told management to pound sand.

Airline labor relations are getting complicated

Airline labor relations are about as complicated as they’ve ever been. On the one hand, there’s some sense of “we’re all in this together,” because the current situation is truly unprecedented. We’ve seen seen airline management and unions lobbying for the same aid as part of the CARES Act.

While airlines have received CARES Act funding, arguably this only complicates employee relations for now:

  • Airlines aren’t allowed to lay off or involuntarily furlough any employees through September 30
  • Airlines can freely try to negotiate with employees, either to get concessions, or to offer voluntary furloughs
  • However, the simple reality is that demand won’t fully recover by September 30, and at that point we’re likely either going to have to hope for more government aid, or we should expect mass layoffs in the industry (as United Airlines has already confirmed)
  • I would be shocked if this situation doesn’t permanently alter employee relations at some airlines, including Delta, where I imagine we may eventually see more work groups unionized

Southwest Airlines asked the TWU for concessions

In light of the current situation, Southwest Airlines has asked the Transport Workers Union (TWU) for concessions. This group represents many of Southwest Airlines’ ground based employees, including those working on the ramp and operations.

Well, suffice to say that this request was shot down, in no uncertain terms. In an open letter response to Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly, union leadership flatly denies the request:

  • “TWU has no interest in regressing from our current negotiated contracts; we have no interest in concessions”
  • The union is, however, open to discussing voluntary early out, paid leave, and other non-concessionary options
  • The union says that the money the airline has been given through the CARES Act should give them “time to rethink [their] ill-advised proffer of contract concessions”
  • The union thinks Southwest is the best positioned and most financially viable airline in the United States, so it’s “totally unwarranted” to ask for concessions

Here’s the full letter:

Dear Gary,

I’ve been informed that last week Southwest requested that the Transport Workers Union (TWU) represented Locals, 550, 555, 556 and 557 open and/or negotiate concessions into our members’ contracts. While we certainly understand that Southwest management wants to explore how the company moves forward, the TWU has no interest in regressing from our current negotiated contracts. We have no interest in concessions. We have fought for years to improve our members’ livelihoods and we will robustly continue to do so.

If the company is interested in discussing a seniority based voluntary early out, a paid leave program, or other non concessionary options, which present our members with voluntary opportunities – we are certainly willing to listen. We believe the long term savings from these types of voluntary actions can easily exceed the cost savings you recently proposed. Furthermore, the grant money Southwest Airlines is receiving from the CARES Act now provides you with the necessary time to rethink your ill-advised proffer of contract concessions. On balance, we believe Southwest Airlines is the best positioned and most financially viable airline in the United States and to make a concessionary demand of the TWU is totally unwarranted.

The Transport Workers Union of America, and our Local union leaders at Southwest, stand ready to discuss our proposed non concessionary solutions. Let us know if you want to pursue that conversation.

John Samuelsen & Mike Mayes

They’re not wrong, but…

Increasingly in life I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. There’s no denying that at most airlines there’s a lack of trust and goodwill between management and unions, and I don’t think there’s an easy solution to that.

The union is essentially calling management’s bluff, and I can’t blame them. The reality is that when times are good, employees at most airlines don’t see much of the upside, and when times are bad, they’re often disproportionately the ones suffering.

The person behind this letter is John Samuelsen, who is the same guy who was behind the rough battle between American Airlines mechanics and the company.

He’s the guy who threatened “the bloodiest, ugliest battle that the United States labor movement ever saw,” and also said that if they get to a point where there’s self help, they’re going to be looking at “absolutely vicious strike action to the likes of which you’ve never seen, not organized by airline people, but organized by a guy that came out of the New York City subway system.”

As much as I might not have loved the way he expressed himself, the reality is that American’s mechanics probably got one of the luckiest and most well timed contracts in history. They got almost everything they wanted, and managed to finalize the contract just shortly before this pandemic destroyed the airline industry.

Bottom line

Southwest Airlines asked the TWU for concessions, and they got a pretty clear “no.” The development of labor relations in light of the COVID-19 pandemic is going to be interesting to watch.

Through September 30 the unions have all the control, since airlines can’t involuntarily furlough employees or cut pay rates. However, come October 1, all bets are off…

  1. Southwest has the least leverage cause bankruptcy seems very unlikely. If AA can’t get concessions and no further bailout is forthcoming, they could potentially go through bankruptcy again. That allows the courts to tear up the CBAs and start again.

  2. This TWU guy makes the supreme clown leader currently leading the country look docile by comparison…

    Airlines are in a tough spot, they were blasted for not being ready for this thing, even though there’s little you CAN do when 96% of your business evaporates overnight (stock buyback missteps aside). Now they ARE trying to be proactive and prepare for the Oct 1 doomsday, and they’re being told to pound sand. They cannot win.

    So come Oct 1 when this TWU guy sheepishly comes to management and asks for negotiations on a deal, Southwest should just say, we’ll follow the contract and start involuntary furloughs. They have plenty of other things to worry about, enjoy your ‘pay to the last day’…

  3. It’s almost comical to me when watching John Samuelsen in this video. Most airline employees could not make the money they do and have the flexibility in ANY other job with the level of education they have. Ramp workers made a CHOICE to do the job and they are VERY well compensated for it. Making $30 plus a hour and given the ability to work unlimited hours at some stations (plus the overtime) these workers are making close or over 100K a year, where else could they do that? Is it back breaking? Yes. Are you working in the elements? Yes. But that is YOUR choice as an adult. So take the money you’re earning and put your kids through a good college so they don’t have to endure the same work you chose to. Also we are forgetting downtime as well. I would like to know in an 8 hour day, how many of those hours are actually “work”? I get it, unions want to protect their workers but we also need to let the workers be adults and make adults decisions. If they dont like the job then be an adult and find another and move on but they stay because they know they have it good compared to other jobs and rather stay and complain..

  4. When furloughs roll, the Union bosses will still have their high paying jobs paid for off the backs of the hard working people (in many cases non-voluntarily paid for). If I am at the bottom of the totem of these unions (less than 5 yrs on job) – I would figure that I’ll be losing my job and should probably start looking. Unions protect the most senior. Of course the top half won’t take short-term concessions to protect the bottom half.

  5. Still don’t understand why airline employees get subsidized for their full pay, while most other industries get shafted. Wouldn’t it make more sense for employees to get guaranteed a certain percentage of their pay instead?

    On the other hand, airlines are pretty shameless too to take government subsidies and then ask employees to essentially subsidize them more. Even if the employees agree, there’s no guarantee that they won’t lose their job come Oct 1st either.

    In general, airlines have treated employees and customers like crap, so are they surprised they are getting sympathy from no one?

  6. Then they deserve to lose their jobs when the taxpayers’ bailout money dries up.

    Typical union: Always wanting more, and giving nothing in return.

  7. I’m an AA F/A. I have no problem with concessions if it means we can avoid furloughs. I started in 2014 and there are about 8000+ below me in seniority. That’s quite a high # who would vote for concessions. If it were purely the airline fault I’d reconsider but this is global. No airline is immune. Concessions will have to be considered if we want to stay afloat. I’m not talking gut everything but there is a lot of wiggle room and woth so many thousands with low seniority who would vote for the changes to avoid furloughs, I think deals will have to be made.

  8. I have a great idea. Why don’t you not buy so many planes or sell some of the ones you have and keep the money to pay people. That’s what normal people do when they overextend themselves… they sell the things they have.

  9. Simple,
    Asking those union employees to work at airports WITHOUT any mask or protections. If those union workers all get coronavirus and die, problem solved.
    No need to argue with union, just let them die and they will still think that they won.

  10. @Bennett – Just out of curiosity, who do you think is going to buy one of them planes you speak of right now?

  11. What else is new? Everyone is posturing to get ready to the point (Sept 30 at this point) when the curtain rises. The airlines are offering furlough/buyout plans that we have discussed, most notably AA, and the unions are offering these PR releases. AA is clearly hoping enough employees jump onto an offered plan in hopes that mitigates the fall off the cliff that will come when the drop dead date arrives. Delta seems to be less aggressive in offering generous plans to employees perhaps hoping demand returns enough by fall or they will simply exercise more drastic options at that time. United appears to be taking the tack of talking about the worst case scenario first and perhaps working it back as the situation changes. Maybe that is some part PR some part reality. I guess we’ll see how these avenues work out.

    Some I have talked to think that demand will return to at least 2/3 of pre corona levels by Christmas. I have a hard time seeing that overall. Perhaps business travel will resume to that level or more by then, but it is hard to see leisure and VFR traffic resuming to that level. Some of it is due to simply not being able to afford it (unless fares are drop dead cheap making it an attractive proposition) , some will choose not to fly initially due to safety concerns, some will choose alternative means to reach out to people. Most medical experts seem to agree that there is a fair chance of a second wave come fall which would basically put us in a position to do this all over again. Elastic travel will be drastically negatively affected. We all know that the majority of profits are made by business travelers for the average flight but economy seats, while usually not particularly profitable, largely cover the operational costs of a flight. So the airlines will either have to fly smaller planes on routes to make a flight reasonably efficient, reduce frequency, or cancel routes altogether.

  12. I wonder what would TWU do if members affected are asking for lower membership dues.

    Unions are just Nigerian princes in disguise.

  13. We must vote out Trump and all lawmakers, esp. congressional leaders, committee heads and those serving longer than four terms, and keep money influences and religious impacts out of legislation process and public policies. All unions in airlines, auto, school districts, prison guards, post office, etc… promote mediocrity and complacency . It is costly and virtually impossible to replace union employees, unless they commit a crime. A decade ago, it cost LAUSD seven years in paid leave, benefits, and legal costs to terminate an incompetent and negligent teacher. An extreme case but it happened. We live in the society that thrives on “me first me now” attitude and the top of the food chains and power ladder prosper while dissipating the middle and working classes.We exasperate the confrontational and predatory culture by voting for, enabling and empowering those who share the same convictions in governments and businesses. The US is no longer the wealthiest and strongest country because China is our biggest creditor that also controls the main raw materials & components to make our country functional and efficient. China has five, ten and fifteen year public policies when our leaders laser focus on election cycles and quarterly earnings. Leadership decides the destiny of the country or business. I have no sympathy for airlines, automakers and banks for their predicaments because they never learn from past mistakes. Why should they when the taxpayers are at their disposal? For Republicans who cry wolf about Democrat socialism, if government welfare and bailouts, Medicare and unemployment benefits are not Democrats legacy, why do they embrace and advance them when they are in power and the first in line to benefit from them? Why did Democrats allow NY museum and arts center, Kennedy Center, cruise ships, hedge funds, real estate investors, etc..access to the bailout package and tax cuts? So utterly obscene. We will leave future generations inherit a more severely bankrupt, polarized, violent and weakened country than when we have found it.

  14. God, I hate unions, public sector employees unions the worst. Let’s hear what Mr Big Shot Tough Guy TWU leader says when some of these airlines file for bankruptcy before the end of this year.

  15. Way to be team players in a crisis. This is exactly why unions need to be eradicated.

    Have fun when your “brothers and sisters” are getting furloughed for not helping with temporary concessions.

  16. Once again the big money makers (CEO) asking the people working the frontline in this pandemic to give more than we already have. Leave with no pay or half pay to prevent furloughs. Over 4k employees have done this. They overspent and overstaffed so now we are expected to take the hit! I dont take the insults about our career choice lightly! Most have degrees, other careers and chose to do this job for good reasons. We have to fight to keep our pay because at the end of the day the airline big wigs will always come after the ones who have been there for them. Instead of making cuts where they are needed, as in upper management.

  17. While I clearly understand why the unions were formed, see the benefits they have brought to the working people; what I don’t understand is the lack of negotiation they feel is necessary in times of need. Business is cyclical. Responses like this will come back to haunt them and they will wonder why many don’t side with them or vote for people that want to break the unions.

  18. @DKH
    Thanks for writing and for speaking up. You’re right- there is too much union bashing on our site. I bet most of the people complaining about the Unions have never been part of one.

    Yes Unions have problems- of course. But eradicating them is not the solution. Better aligning them with today’s realities in a way to share both the gains and the pains is what is needed.

  19. Why not start with negotiating voluntary, non permanent concessions ?
    See where that goes. And go from there.

    If you’re not blindly prejudiced against the employees you might also question what is the motive of Southwest for starting with demands for concessions. Are they hoping to use this crisis to weaken the union more than protecting their financial viability?

  20. At SWA hours have already been cut by up to 50% and now they want pay concession, all the while the CEO has only taken a 10% pay cut. Equalize at the top you will have a better response from the frontline.

  21. The reality is this, Travel may not bounce back, it may be down for a long time. I hope the union leader is just talking shit and is backdoor talking with SWA management. Southwest has always taken care of their employees, can’t say that about UA or AA. You have a union leader dumb as rocks thinking “my way or the highway” still works. I hate unions.

  22. I would have a lot more sympathy for Southwest if they were more reasonable in their negotiation techniques. Their vision is to take as long as possible, 4 years or more in negotiating and then refuse to give retro pay but offer a fraction of what actually is owed. All along they get to follow the previous expired contract that of course never expires; therefore saving them money. Now they want the employees to freely agree to concessions immediately. It’s hard to feel sorry for them after they treat their employees in this regard.

  23. I see many of you bashing TWU and union employees on here. So what about the Southwest senior executives and non union employees? NONE of those employees have been asked for any concessions. I put myself through two bachelor’s degrees while working as a ramp agent. I sure wish I had a nice glass of all that privilege some of you have. God bless!!!

  24. Also another follow up. More than 6,000 southwest employees have taken VOLUNTARY EMERGENCY LEAVES OF ABSENCE to assist the company financially during the pandemic. Pretty sure you won’t hear that in the news though. Please gather all necessary information before making false judgments.

  25. The piper is going to have to be paid eventually. CARES bought both the airlines and their employees time. Time to right size, time to plan, time to do whatever they need to do to survive.

    Come September the demand simply isn’t going to be there to maintain previous levels of revenue. So either mitigation happen now and both the airlines and employees pray that it’s enough come the fall, or the axe falls on thousands of employees based (presumably) on seniority.

    No matter what anyone says, you can’t pay employees if you don’t have any revenue.

  26. Well, I am afraid the union is fording Southwest to go the way of United and AA. I just finished reading an article saying that Southwest is pledging not to downsize, something that the likes of United and AA cannot do. When Southwest becomes like United and AA, Southwest will downsize, and, when that is not enough, seek bankruptcy protection, and so on so forth, much to the union’s satisfaction and delight, perhaps.

  27. As an airline worker for many years and a student of airline labor through the stories told to me by those who lived it. I can definitely say giving concessions to”save jobs” will save a few jobs in the short term but cost everyone in the long term. Workers are better to suffer the lay offs knowing that when returning business (last time 9/11 1-5 years) happens they will return to the job they left and not one that is a shell of itself due to givebacks that were draconian and in my case lasted 17 years. That “luckiest mechanics contract” made us “mostly whole” not completely from the excessive give backs we made in … 2003 because of 9/11! Son it only took half of my working life to keep a small portion of mechanics from getting laid off for 1-2 years and when those mechanics returned they were welcomed by reduced everything and reduced by 50% or more in some instances from then till today. If we would have held firm double the amount of people would have been laid off but the market would have dictated their return and at full wages and benefits! If you’re a younger airline employee and your union even suggests this route they are selling you a bill of goods that will in the end help few at the cost of half of EVERYONE’s career being spent at substandard wages, work rules and benefits. It seems harsh when you are where we are looking back 17 years you realize how foolish you were and how few of your coworkers it really helped. We will all be making these choices over the net few years. Think about what you will say and do. It will be a fight.

  28. Southwest continued to hire after the Max was grounded causing them to be over staffed before the pandemic. Many employees have taken Emergency Time Off with half pay and those not qualifying have taken Time Away without any pay. The employees are willing to help, but not willing to reduce pay. Employees don’t want to see junior employees furloughed, but other options are available. Early buyouts is an option for the company. Continuing to offer ETO and time away. Reduction in salary temporarily can become permanent. This means every contact fought for will be lost.

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