Forbes: American Airlines Asks A Federal Judge For Contempt Of Court Ruling Against Its Mechanics’ Unions And Their Leaders Over Illegal Work Slowdown: Millions Of Dollars In Fines Possible

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Less than 24 hours after a federal judge made permanent his ruling ordering mechanics at American Airlines to what he has called an illegal work slowdown that has caused tens of thousands of flight delays and cancellations this summer the airline’s management went back to court on Tuesday seeking a contempt of court ruling against those unions and their leaders.

On Monday Senior District Court Judge John McBryde of Fort Worth made permanent his previously-issued temporary restraining order against the Transport Workers Union and the International Association of Machinist and Aerospace Workers. American sued those two unions in late May, alleging that union leaders either encouraged their members to engage in an illegal work slowdown or, at a minimum, did nothing to stop it. The result, American claimed, has been a dramatic increase in flight delays and cancellations that cannot be explained apart from such a work slowdown campaign.

McBryde, in his permanent injunction issued on Monday agreed with management’s position, writing that “The concerted job action of defendants’ members has caused flight delays and cancellations, inconveniencing the public and disrupting commerce.”

Then, on Tuesday attorneys for the Fort Worth-based airline were back in court filing documents claiming that the mechanics had been violating McBryde’s temporary restraining order all along and suggesting that the judge’s now permanent injunction won’t change their behavior going forward unless the judge acts to punish the unions and their leaders. American’s lawyers also accused union leaders of refusing to live up to the court’s requirements to take certain actions to stop or discourage their members from working to slow down or cancel American flight operations.




“Defendants’ defiance of the (temporary restraining order) has resulted in the operational disruption continuing largely unabated,” American said in its filing Tuesday. “In the eight weeks since this Court issued the TRO, Defendants’ continued illegal slowdown has caused over 950 flight cancellations and over 280 two-hour (or longer) delays, disrupting the lives over 170,000 members of the public. But for Defendants’ violations of the TRO, these over 1,230 maintenance-related cancellations and delays would not have occurred.”

The unusual teaming of two unions, the TWU and the IAM, as representatives of American’s mechanics stems from the merger of American and US Airways in late 2013. Legacy American mechanics were, and continue to be represented by the TWU, while legacy US Airways mechanics were and are represented by the IAM. The two unions created an alliance for the purpose of representing the combined mechanics workforce until a new, single contract covering them all could be negotiated. Thereafter the two unions are expected to compete against one another for the right to become to permanent, single representative of all the airline’s mechanics and related workers.

Contract talks between American and its mechanics’ representatives began three-and-a-half years ago but the two sides never have come close to reaching a deal. In addition to the higher wages and improved benefits typically sought by unions at the negotiating table, the TWU/IAM alliance is seeking guarantees from American against contracting out more heavy aircraft maintenance work to third-party maintenance companies in other nations such as El Salvador and South Korea. American officials have not addressed their negotiating goals in public and have taken pains to note that American does more of its aircraft maintenance internally than all its rivals. But American’s current leadership were pace setters in contracting out such work to third party maintenance organizations when they ran US Airways prior to the merger.


The National Mediation Board, which overseas labor-management relations in the rail and airline industries, suspended negotiations in the spring for lack of serious progress being made. That effectively is when mechanics, presumably from both sides of the union house, began engaging in what management successfully portrayed to McBryde as a concerted effort to slow and disrupt the airline’s operations. Such actions are a well-known tactic that mechanics at various airlines have used over the past 60-plus years to express displeasure with their managements’ negotiating positions and/or refusals to agree to their contract demands.

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The tactics in question now include mechanics taking unusually long amounts of time to fix minor problems on airplanes waiting to takeoff, and writing up small mechanical problems that historically would not be enough to keep a plane from being operated in such a way as to cause the plane’s grounding until that small item is repaired. Other tactics commonly used include refusing to work overtime to complete repair tasks that the mechanic in question started only minutes before he or she was scheduled to go off duty and refusing overtime assignments that historically have been routinely accepted.






In early July, after a one-day trial, McBryde ruled that those actions constituted an illegal job action. American presented operational details show that it had to cancel 4% of its flights in June, vs. normal June cancellation rates of less than 1%. Because of the carrier’s size – it is by some measures the world’s biggest airline – the numbers of flights and passengers effected by more than a three percentage point increase in cancellations is quite large. In June American had to cancel around 7,500 total flights. Using a rule-of-thumb average of about 175 passengers per flight at that time of year, that’s equal to about 1.3 million travelers who had their flights cancelled and their travel plans significantly disrupted in that one month.

On Tuesday American claimed in its court filing that while the number of delays and cancellations were somewhat reduced in July when compared with June, thanks to McBryde’s temporary restraining order. But it also introduced showing that by various measures delays and cancellations are still running at historically high numbers that can only be explained by mechanics’ efforts to disrupt and slowdown the airline’s operations.

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Specifically, American’s management complained to McBryde that the unions’ leaders Sito Pantoja, John Samuelsen and Alex Garcia have “failed to satisfy (the) requirement” contained in McBryde’s previous temporary restraining order that they be active voices in telling their members to stop their slowdown. Management’s attorneys further alleged that the three union leaders have violated McBryde’s prior order that they take personal and aggressive actions to enforce his ruling among their members. Specifically they accused the three union leaders of making it clear in their statements to their members that they don’t agree with McBryde’s  order and that the judge’s order does not prevent individual members from acting independently from the union to engage in own slowdown tactics.

Those and other alleged violations of McBryde’s temporary restraining order are cited in American’s plea that McBryde order the unions and their officers personally to pay civil penalties for violating those court orders and to compensate American for money it lost as a result of the mechanics’ slowdown actions.

American would seem to have a good shot at winning such compensation based on a legal precedent set  20 years ago in another labor relations case involving American itself. In 1999, Federal Judge Joe Kendall of Dallas, who was known as an unflinchingly tough, conservative jurist much like McBryde, fined American’s pilots’ union, the Allied Pilots Association, for its role in overseeing a six-day sickout that caused thousands of American flights to be cancelled and stranded more than 600,000 passengers around the world.

In particular, Kendall ruled that APA’s leaders did not take serious steps to stop their pilots’ sickout as he had ordered them to do. Those union leaders initially were held personally liable for $45 million in damages alongside the union itself. The pilots’ union went to court to have the fine reduced or set aside, but ultimately lost its case. The resulting financial pressure on that union was lifted only when they reached a new contract with American during the downturn in air travel demand that followed the 9-11 terrorist attacks. As part of that work agreement American agreed to forgive the union’s court-mandated payments to management. But many of the union’s pilots went away from that lost showdown believing that management had used debt forgiveness as a wedge to obtain a more favorable deal from the pilots and that their union leaders’ aggressiveness had backfired and harmed all pilots. Shortly thereafter, APA’s top officers were voted out of office.

Now the TWU/IAM alliance leaders potentially face a similar predicament. If McBryde, following Kendall’s precedent-setting ruling, orders the unions and their leaders to pay millions of dollars in damages and penalties the two unions’ financial base could be threatened. And that, in turn, could force the union into settling for a new contract that falls well short of the members’ wishes. That risks upsetting union members so much that they might replace their current leaders, or even opt to be represented by an entirely different union from the two that now represent them.

American, in its plea for monetary sanctions against the TWU, the IAM and the union leaders did not request a specific amount. Instead it asked McBryde to schedule a hearing where evidence could be presented to aid him in setting such an amount.

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Source: forbes.com




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