After 1,163 days of direct negotiations and a rapid response by SWAPA members, votes are overwhelmingly in support of the authorization of a strike.
Southwest Airlines, the leading US low-cost carrier, is being served notice that the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) union has voted overwhelmingly in favor of a strike authorization. The vote gained 99% approval for a strike by 9,743 members out of almost 10,000. For SWAPA, the strike authorization vote (SAV) is not a tactic but a means to get Southwest Airlines’ management’s attention after years of slow negotiations.
Clear displeasure with Southwest Airlines management
The SAV was seen as a referendum on the management of Southwest Airlines or, in the words of SWAPA President Casey Murray, “the operational disaster that Southwest has become.” As SWAPA Communications Chair Mike Panebianco tweeted below, the growing operational troubles of America’s leading low-cost carrier have deeply troubled the SWAPA membership
The speed of the vote, as confirmed by Murray to Simple Flying, as impressive. In the first six hours, the vote saw 80% of pilot members voting, ad by 24 hours, 92% of the membership voted. The rapid uptake made it such that holding out until May 31, the original deadline, was unnecessary. The vote was concluded with the Board of Directors unanimously agreeing to close the process early during a meeting via live stream on May 11. In a SWAPA statement, Murray also explained,
“This is a historic day, not only for our pilots, but for Southwest Airlines. The lack of leadership and the unwillingness to address the failures of our organization have led us to this point. Our pilots are tired of apologizing to our passengers on behalf of a company that refuses to place its priorities on its internal and external customers.”
Murray’s comments clearly allude to repeated Southwest Airlines shutdowns, fueled by extreme weather events and information technology (IT) problems. As previously reported, SWAPA has been increasingly and understandably upset with Southwest Airlines’ IT situation.
Southwest Airlines management response to the vote
Southwest Airlines has attempted to respond, stating that the airline is taking steps to address the tragic December 2022 holiday meltdown, such as announcing changes to crew scheduling software. In addition, the carrier has pledged to spend more than $1.3 billion on investments, upgrades, and maintenance of information technology systems in 2023.
According to a customer-facing microsite, these investments are clearly insufficient in the eyes of SWAPA to improve reliability for customers and save the soul of Southwest Airlines.
With that, Southwest Airlines management issued a May 11 statement on the SAV passage. Vice President of Labor Relations, Adam Carlisle, shared,
"Our negotiating team continues to bargain in good faith and work toward reaching a new agreement to reward our Pilots. This anticipated authorization vote result does not change our commitment to the negotiation process, and we look forward to continuing discussions with SWAPA at the negotiating table."
The airline also reassured potential and current customers that no strike is imminent and will continue operations until the pilots are released to self-help. However, Carlisle shared with the Dallas Business Journal on May 10 that in terms of management expectations of a contract,
"I can't give you an exact date. [Deals] can come together quickly and my hope would be that it's done quickly. Certainly done by this year would be my hope, but I can't guarantee that, obviously."
Carlisle also went on to add that “economics” are an issue. Although Carlisle claimed that the airline management had made accommodations, a SWAPA April 7 statement notes that the most important sections on scheduling – Sections 9 through 11 – have not had a close. Nor have the compensation and expenses sections had a management counteroffer to start negotiating.
1,163 days of direct negotiations
Back on March 5th, 2020, SWAPA indicated that the association and Southwest Airlines management had initiated “direct negotiations”. The historic SWAPA SAV closed on May 11, 2023 – 1,163 days later. In the March 5, 2020, statement, Capt. Casey Murray, then-Chair of SWAPA’s Negotiating Committee, said that based on membership feedback,
“SWAPA proposed a completely rewritten Agreement that modernizes and simplifies our current language, much of which dates back to 1994.”
At times, SWAPA leaders have called for negotiations to be daily and/or via videoconferencing like via Zoom – especially on episodes of their bi-monthly SWAPA Number podcast. However, in an October 3, 2022, SWAPA Number podcast, SWAPA leaders, including the chair of the SWAPA Negotiations Committee, Jody Reven, complained about management negotiators refusing to offer pay rates, be on time and work the full negotiation session. As such, on September 15, 2022, SWAPA sought and received National Mediation Board assistance.
It’s worth noting that, according to Murray, progress has been “negligible,” with no new sections having agreements in principle (AIP). Also, while Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan has mouthed support for getting to a contract, but SWAPA President Murray says no member of the airline’s flight operations team nor airline senior leadership has attended labor negotiations with the airline’s almost 10,000 pilots.
To Murray, Carlisle’s statements are part of a process where, “the decision that they've made is to not make a decision, which is making a decision.” In support, Lyn Montgomery, president of the Transportation Workers Union Local 556 – the union representing Southwest Airlines Flight Attendants – shared with the Dallas Business Journal that,
"The frustration level of the flight attendants is going to increase during the hot summer, busy time, and they are definitely going to want to respond to not getting a wage increase at that time. It's a very pivotal time in our negotiation. How much of a battle is Southwest Airlines going to continue with its labor unions, or is it going to choose certainty and labor peace moving forward?"
One wonders whether the 18,014 flight attendants of Southwest Airlines will consider a strike authorization vote of their own.
Southwest Airlines focus of concern for SWAPA
To Murray, the lack of commitment to finishing up labor negotiations and other actions is removing Southwest Airlines' culture of winning. In Murray’s words;
“Their focus is not on winning; it is solely focused on not failing.”
Murray explained to Simple Flying that, for instance, Southwest Airlines added 17 cities to the network during the COVID-19 pandemic but has not executed in building the customer base. Furthermore, Southwest Airlines is not sufficiently aggressive about resolving its IT problems to prevent the next meltdown. Then there’s the unrealistic scheduling currently under US Department of Justice investigation.
According to Murray, Southwest Airlines is turning nonstop flights into multi-stop flights to reduce the risk of cancelations. Plus, in the period between January 3rd to March 1st, 2023, there were 10% fewer flights and double the cancelations versus late 2022. To Murray, Southwest Airlines is facing a “very turbulent summer” as the carrier is...
“...preemptively canceling flights the moment there is a thunderstorm or snow somewhere to make sure that they don't lose control of the operation again … There is zero margin for weather errors, mechanical issues, anything into June and July. We are going to have a meltdown somewhere… and it's going to be big.”
Murray again reiterated that the main issue for SWAPA was getting Southwest Airlines back to health as a leading, reliable airline.
SAV is not a tactic but a means of frustration
There was some controversy on social media when Simple Flying republished a Southwest Airlines management statement saying the strike authorization vote was “a contract negotiating tactic, one that several airline unions have used within the last twelve months.” In response, Murray shared with Simple Flying:
“This was a historic vote in that it was the first of any employee group at Southwest and it was the largest participation and yes vote of any of our peers over the last 20 years. So to say it’s a negotiating tactic is epically failing to understand where 11,000 of your on-site leaders are at and how tired they are apologizing to our customers.”
So what’s next?
At a strategic time of SWAPA’s choosing, SWAPA will be seeking release from negotiations with their mediator to start the process of having legal authority to strike. Once the release is granted, which will come only after the federal mediator finds an impasse with no substantive progress made, the clock starts running with a legally mandated 30-day cooling-off period.
The US President may direct a Presidential Emergency Board to review the situation for an indefinite time and make recommendations for negotiations, with a following cooling-off period. Only after all of that may SWAPA pilot members file to strike or for management to file to lock out the pilots. The process is displayed in the Southwest Airlines chart below:
The SWAPA strike may occur as soon as the 2023 holidays or in 2024. Murray noted that, “I'm gravely concerned that we don't have the leadership to get us to a contract before that before a strike occurs.”
Ultimately as Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher once said, according to Forbes,
"In business school, they'd say, ‘This is a real conundrum: Who comes first, your employees, your shareholders, or your customers?' My mother taught me that your employees come first. If you treat them well, then they treat the customers well, and that means your customers come back and your shareholders are happy."
Clearly, Southwest Airlines management has unhappy employees. The future of Southwest Airlines does depend on the response to the SAV.