New head of United pilots' union takes different tack
By Julie Johnsson
CHICAGO — Relations between airline pilots and their management teams, rarely cordial, have been bitter beyond belief for much of the past decade at United Airlines.
But a change at the top of the chain of command at United's most powerful union promises to bring some civility to negotiations as contract talks intensify, even if the two sides remain deeply divided on issues like pay and outsourcing.
Capt. Wendy Morse, who became head of United's pilots' union on Jan. 1, has vowed to change course by dropping some of the abrasive maneuvers employed by her predecessor, Capt. Steve Wallach, known as a firebrand.
This doesn't imply she'll be any softer on issues that matter most to pilots, Morse said. She will still demand higher wages and fight to undo outsourcing by United, which shifted flying to its United Express contract partners that was formerly handled by United's grounded Boeing 737 fleet.
"Our approach may have changed, but the goals have not changed," said Morse, a Boeing 777 captain based in Chicago who is the first woman to head a major airline pilots' union. "Our intent is to engage the company. If we have to be confrontational, we will certainly do that. But that's not our first choice."
Morse has the credentials to back up the tough talk since, she was a member of the negotiating team that hammered out a new pilot contract in 2000 that was the richest in the industry. United pilots were accused of hamstringing operations by refusing overtime flying during the storm-plagued summer months, triggering delays and cancellations.
"I think Wendy's going to be tough but fair," said Bill Swelbar, an airline researcher at MIT. "Tough but fair is a good attribute in a negotiator."
But as tensions run high around the airline industry, Morse and other union leaders face a herculean task. They have to win concessions from companies struggling to find their financial footing, while satisfying workers who've waited for years to regain pay that they sacrificed to help the airlines survive earlier downturns. United pilots lost half of their pay as well as their pensions during the carrier's three-year bankruptcy, Morse noted.
These are the first contract negotiations at United since those bankruptcy years, and United workers who have been locked into lower wages are understandably itchy to speed the process that will eventually boost pay. The airline, for the first time in its history, is simultaneously negotiating with all of its unions.
About 1,800 flight attendants walked picket lines at airports around the globe Thursday to support accelerating talks that have been under way since spring 2009.
United officials say they, too, don't want the contract process to drag out and point out that the company called in mediators last summer to keep talks moving. "Notwithstanding the challenges that exist in our industry today, we have consistently said we would like to reach mutually beneficial agreements with our unions that provide for competitive wages, benefits and work rules, enabling our employees and our company to succeed," said United spokeswoman Megan McCarthy.
A 25-year veteran of United, Morse also must unify the 6,700 members of the United chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association, which was riven by her narrow defeat of Wallach last fall. He was a controversial figure whose promise to stand up to management backfired when United CEO Glenn Tilton and United won a restraining order against the union for allegedly encouraging a "sick-out" by junior pilots.
Still, Wallach's methods resonated with some and his supporters tried unsuccessfully to oust Morse before she took office, sources said.
Her change in leadership style is already evident on the union's Web site, which has dropped a feature that periodically instructed pilots to report to work without their caps. It was a display of defiance that was lost on passengers, but not irritated supervisors.