Up in the Air

August 6, 2015

In the first quarter of this year, Allegiant Travel Co., the parent company of Allegiant Air, posted record profits. [1] Meanwhile, the company has been engaged in labor negotiations with its flight attendants for almost five years without a resolution. [2]  

Comes now a policy analyst and a research associate for the Competitive Enterprise Institute with their diagnosis of the problem: labor unions are too hard to get rid of once they’re in place. The failure of both parties to negotiate a mutually agreeable contract is represented in their article as a failure solely of the Transportation Workers Union (TWU) to “produce anything of value for its members,” and demonstrates, in their view, a need for making easier the process for employees to sack their unions. Nowhere in the article is there room given for the possibility that the failure to reach an agreement might, at least in part, be due to the intransigence of the company’s negotiating position.

Photo by 小野 優太
There is indeed a movement on the part of some of the flight attendants to decertify the union [3], and a decertification application has been filed. [4] The union claims that the decertification effort is associated with Russell Brown [5], who, it is said, is the president of RWP Labor, which represents itself as the “Nation’s premier full service management-side labor relations firm.” [6] Whatever the involvement of RWP, the firm openly declares a belief “that third party interference makes business less productive and less competitive.” In other words, according to RWP, unions are bad for business.

While nothing can be rationally said against the proposition that a group of employees should be allowed to choose whether or not to be represented by a union, one can certainly question the rationality of a decision to not to be so represented. Without unions, employees simply have no bargaining power as to wages and benefits. Why would anyone deliberately put themselves in such a position where there was an alternative available?

One answer to that question is: disinformation. The group agitating for decertification by the flight attendants argues that the “TWU is a failed union.  They are doing everything in their power to get all of us to focus on anything but this one simple fact:  In nearly five years the TWU did not produce a contract.” But how is the failure to arrive at a contract solely the fault of the union? If a company refused to negotiate in good faith, would that not also result in the failure to come to terms?

It might be suggested that negotiations have dragged on for so long that the union should have called for a strike (assuming they haven’t). But strikes are a financial burden on workers as well as companies. There should be an alternative remedy for a failure to reach agreement that doesn’t work a detriment to both sides.

It just so happens that Pope Pius XI offered such an alternative in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. Simply put, he called for the intervention of the public authority to resolve management-labor disputes, instead of lock-outs or strikes. [6]

Now it doesn’t seem critical for the application of such a remedy that government officials themselves arbitrate such disputes, only that public authority prescribe the method. Indeed, in the present socio-political climate of the United States, where moneyed interests appear to be purchasing the furtherance of their goals from the government, the direct involvement of government personnel might work an injustice to working people.

Instead, an arrangement could be established where, in the event of an impasse, both sides of a management-labor dispute could pick an arbitrator, and these arbitrators, in turn, would agree on a third. Court review could be made available to determine whether or not one side or the other was being intransigent on the appointment of a third arbitrator, with the application of appropriate remedies. This would have to be federal court review, where the judges are appointed for life, and are not subject to the worries of future campaigns for re-election.

The determination of the arbitrators would be final and binding. Court review of the determination would be limited to whether the established process was followed, or whether there was any fraud, corruption, or abuse of the process by either of the parties, or by any of the arbitrators. No determination could award a wage or salary that amounted to less than a living wage for an average sized family in the pertinent locality.

Of course, it would be better still if all concerned parties would come to the realization that everyone in a business enterprise is necessary to the success and well-being of everyone else. As Pope Leo XIII said in Rerum Novarum, each side “needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity.” [7] We should pray for the day when American society comes to the realization of this obvious truth.

Jack Quirk