Nearly four years into negotiations, American Airlines and its largest union could be headed towards a tentative contract agreement.
The negotiations have been lengthy and bitter, leading to a work slowdown and a court battle and contributing – along with the grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX – to American’s extremely poor summer operating performance.
But it may well be time for a deal.
The joint association of the International Association of Machinists and the Transport Workers Union, which represents about 30,000 mechanics and fleet service workers, took an optimistic tone when it announced last week that negotiations will resume Monday Sept. 16 and continue through Thursday Sept. 19.
The talks will take place in Washington D.C. at the offices of the National Mediation Board.
In the announcement, association leaders – IAM General Vice President Sito Pantoja and TWU Executive Vice President Alex Garcia – said they had met with the NMB to advocate that negotiations resume.
“Our meeting with the NMB was positive and we are optimistic that resumption of negotiations will be productive,” Pantoja said in a prepared statement. “It’s now time for the company to keep its word and give our members the industry-leading contract they promised. I thank our members for their incredible patience during this process.”
Garcia noted: “The delays in this process have been frustrating for our members but they have remained fully supportive of the association. We will use this opportunity to finally close these negotiations, if American Airlines is a willing partner.”
Late Tuesday, American spokesman Josh Freed said, “We remain committed to reaching an industry-leading agreement that benefits our hardworking tech ops and fleet service team members. As we’ve said for the past year, we want to get a deal done soon.”
Two days after the Association’s announcement, an incident in Miami seemed to underscore the perception that negotiations have gone on too long, perhaps contributing to an unintended consequence.
On Sept. 6, an American Airlines mechanic appeared in federal court in Miami, charged with disabling a navigation system on a flight with 150 people aboard in July, The Miami Herald reported. The mechanic tampered with the air data module. No one was hurt because the tampering triggered an error alert, which was recognized by the pilots. The mechanic alleged that he acted because he was upset over stalled contract negotiations.
Pantoja and Garcia quickly issued a statement disavowing the mechanic’s act. Both leaders began their careers as airline employees, Pantoja at TWA And Garcia at American.
“The TWU/IAM Association condemns, in the strongest possible terms, any conduct by any individual that jeopardizes the safe operation of an aircraft,” they said. “Safety is the number one priority for our IAM and TWU members involved in the maintenance and operation of aircraft. These members are the most highly trained safety professionals in the airline industry. As a result, the US air transportation system is the safest in the world.”
“Any conduct that jeopardizes that safety is not tolerated or condoned by the leadership or members of our organizations,” they said.
In fact, the summer slowdown reflected union member’s closer adherence to safety standards, not an effort to violate safety standards.
American merged with US Airways in 2013.
It was not until May 2015 that the association was certified as the collective bargaining agent. Bargaining began in December 2015 and has continued at a slow pace. In the meantime, American is already has signed deals with its other work groups and is negotiating second post-merger deals with both flight attendants and pilots.
In 2016, with negotiations going slowly, American raised pay for association members, a positive gesture but one that may have further slowed the pace. In late 2018, the NMB assumed oversight of the process. The last round of talks took place April 25th in Fort Lauderdale.
The two key outstanding issues are both challenging. One is health care; a deal is elusive because IAM and TWU have different plans. The other is outsourcing maintenance and fleet service jobs. American currently performs more inhouse maintenance work than competitors; it has proposed cutbacks that are unacceptable to the association.
Labor negotiations can be tough. But American, IAM and TWU are all experienced labor negotiators, all in search of a deal and, at this point, all tired of not having one.