NEW YORK (TheStreet) — The brief but intense life of the US Airline Pilots Association is nearing an end, and it is not a happy one.
The union was formed in 2008 following the 2005 merger of US Airways and America West. The majority “east” pilots voted out the Air Line Pilots Association, which had represented them for 50 years; minority America West pilots were dragged along. At the time, east pilots, who were disproportionately penalized by the 2007 Nicolau ruling, thought USAPA’s creation could prevent its implementation.
They were wrong. USAPA could not save them. Its existence defied an agreement to respect the principle of binding arbitration. Hard to live in a world where binding arbitration is not binding.
At the same time, they were right. Arbitrator George Nicolau’s ruling treated about 1,000 east pilots unfairly. They fought for one principle — fairness — even as they opposed another.
USAPA was replaced as the pilots’ bargaining representative by the larger Allied Pilots Association, which represents American pilots. It mapped out an impartial path to a new list, conforming to the 2007 McCaskill-Bond Act and judiciously seeking to ensure — despite opposition — that each pilot group would be represented.
The “west” pilots were to be represented in seniority talks before a panel of three arbitrators. And
USAPA, while no longer the bargaining agent, was to remain as the east pilot representative. No doubt somebody would come out unhappy, but finally a process was clearly defined.
That promise was dashed by a June ruling by a three-member panel of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which said USAPA violated its duty of fair representation when it failed to back Nicolau.
In a bizarre twist, the panel ruled that going forward, USAPA’s role would be limited largely to advocating for the ruling it despised.
Nevertheless, last week the Appeals Court denied USAPA’s request for a hearing before the full court. USAPA said it is considering an appeal to the Supreme Court, obviously a long shot.
“USAPA is done,” said Mark Burman, spokesman for America West pilots and a member of the group’s nine-member merger committee. “The only people who don’t know USAPA has lost is USAPA. Or maybe they do know, but they just don’t want to admit it.
“They should capitulate and accept the Nic, which would be far better than continuing a useless fight,” Burman said.
One sign of USAPA’s disarray is that since taking office in April, President Steve Bradford has rejected repeated requests for an interview. Historically, USAPA leaders have answered reporters’ questions.
Looking back on USAPA history, Bradford was founding president. In the exuberant early days, he spoke freely, seeming to embody hope and principle and seeking compromise with west pilots — which he did not achieve.
USAPA’s second president, Mike Cleary, took office in 2008. Many found him divisive. In his final act, after leaving office, he sued USAPA, alleging he was not paid for 100 unused vacation days he accumulated.
USAPA’s best moments occurred during the tenure of Gary Hummel, president from 2012 to 2015. Hummel offered equanimity. He staffed key positions with west pilots. He worked with American pilots and management. He even survived a recall attempt by his own divided board.
Was this experiment worthwhile?
The underlying issue has always been illustrated by this example: The Nicolau award would place an America West first officer born in 1971 with 1.5 years of seniority ahead of a US Airways first officer born in 1955 with 17.8 years of seniority.
As an east pilot hired in 1987 once told me, “Except for about 50 guys, every west pilot, even guys who were there three months at the time of the merger, would be senior to me.”
Final and binding arbitration? Another east pilot told me, “My first marriage was final and binding too.”
I have long been a critic of the Nicolau award. In June, at the start of a court hearing in Charlotte regarding what USAPA should do with its accumulated dues money — this still has not been ultimately determined — a west pilot refused to shake my hand.
After the hearing, he approached me and apologized. “I’m not like that,” he said.
I was moved. If only this one-sided ruling had not divided so many decent people.