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From Wooden Wings


In order to fully understand the strike and the significance of the four years since, we must return to August, 1982. UAL-MEC Chairman John Ferg had persuaded the United pilots that it was in their best interest to make drastic concessions to then Chairman Richard Ferris. Ferg and Ferris had become good friends and worked closely during that time in a joint communications campaign designed to win the pilots' approval of a highly concessionary contract dubbed "Blue Skies." When the pilots agreed to the new contract, Ferris loudly proclaimed in the press how he had the contract he needed for United to compete, that there was now "a new partnership between United and its pilots," and that there would never again be an adversarial relationship. Some in management privately expressed astonishment at the magnitude of the concessions the pilots had willingly given (almost 15% by the company's own estimate). In time, however, many pilots would begin to openly question the relationship that existed between Ferg and Ferris.

Roger Hall, then Chairman of the Negotiating Committee under Ferg, certainly questioned it. Says Hall, "Not many people knew it, but Dick was doing a lot of very nice things for John. On a number of occasions Ferris would pick up Ferg in front of the terminal at O'Hare and they'd drive off and spend the evening together. I went along with John to some of the dinners with Ferris, and let me tell you, they were some of the most lavish things that I have ever seen in my life-twelve course dinners served by people in black ties with white gloves. It was really something. I was very uncomfortable at those events and stopped going along because I felt it was inappropriate for Ferris to have that kind of a relationship with the representatives of the pilots. But John loved it! He would always be recognized in front of whatever group happened to be there and Ferris would often ask him to address the group. The relationship obviously impressed John and it was serving Ferris' purposes too. There was no doubt Ferris was trying to buy Ferg."

It soon became clear, however, that Ferris saw the "Blue-Skies" agreement as only the first step in a long-term well-planned assault on the salaries and working conditions of United's pilots.Jim Engleman, who was Vice Chairman of Washington's Council 11 at the time and later was elected MEC Vice Chairman under Roger Hall,said, "Shortly after the `Blue-Skies' agreement, Ferris went to the rest of the employees and said, `The pilots have given, now it's everybody else's turn.' He used the pilots' contract as justification for extracting concessions from the rest of the corporation. However, after Ferris got the concessions from those people, he came back to the pilots in early 1984 and said in his famous `24%' roadshows, `Everybody has given but the pilots. Now it's your turn.'" Ferris was clearly using each employee group to ratchet down the other. It was at this point, according to Cockrell, that the MEC finally realized they and the pilots had been set up by Ferris.

Where John Ferg had managed to get Ferris everything he wanted, the newly elected MEC Chairman, Capt. Roger Hall, was of a different mind. From the beginning of his term in late 1983, he repeatedly told Ferris the pilots would give him no more concessions. Hall was adamant. And Ferris was having a difficult time accepting the fact that Hall would dare say no to him. Ferris complained directly to the pilots that he had developed a good relationship with John Ferg, but that Roger Hall was being obstinate and not acting in the pilots' best interests.

"Interestingly, though", said Cockrell, "at the 24% roadshows the pilots were still in the mood to give Ferris the 24% he was asking for. We were getting lots of calls from pilots suggesting ways to give him the money. The MEC was exasperated since we knew concessions were not required at all. We were convinced Ferris was asking for them only because it was so easy for him the first time. He probably thought he could get even more the second time around. The MEC now found itself having to stand between Ferris and the pilots."

The reason for the pilots' willingness to still give to Ferris was perplexing to many on the MEC. "I think that in 1983 the pilots still saw themselves as `management.' Ferris was very charismatic and I think he represented what a lot of pilots wanted to be," Cockrell said.

But that mood ended quickly. What was clear to the MEC soon became apparent to the pilot group. Ferris' credibility eroded rapidly through 1984 and 1985. Ferris repeatedly hammered on the need for the company to realize a net profit margin of 5%, yet through various financial manipulations, Ferris made sure it was never achieved.

For example, from 1983 through 1985 Ferris intentionally overcontributed to the pilots' pension plans which resulted in United's pilot block-hour costs being much higher than they should have been. "At one point in time," according to Engleman, "our A-plan was overfunded by 86%! This was very effective in driving up our block-hour costs."

In spite of record profits, management used the inflated figures and a considerable amount of other misinformation to wage a public relations war against the pilot group. Ferris had retained the public relations firm of Hill and Knowlton to assist him with his internal public relations campaign. But while ALPA was successful in maintaining an informed and educated pilot group that was not swayed by management's arguments, Ferris was still able to convince many of the rest of the employees that the pilot group was unwilling to give like their groups already had.

"There's no doubt that Ferris conducted a campaign of character assassination and misinformation against the pilot group," said Engleman. "He did it in the company newspaper, in the Employee Newsline and in every other medium he could use." A United sales manager who commented for this article agreed. He said, "There were good managers at all levels of the company who were surprised and dismayed at the style and tone of the company's communications about the pilots-in the Newsline, the newspaper and in the video tapes."