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From Wooden Wings


By the fall of 1984 Ferris began plans for a pilots' strike. He appointed Jim Guyette, then Vice President Central Division and now Exec. V.P. of Operations, to prepare plans designed to keep United operating during a strike. This would be the first time United had ever planned to operate during a strike. If management was successful, ALPA would be broken. Union bashing was in vogue during this time. Former President Reagan had previously set the tone by firing several thousand striking air traffic controllers. Many felt that Ferris had become emboldened by Frank Lorenzo's success in overpowering ALPA and slashing the pilots' pay in half at Continental, and also, perhaps, envious of the image Lorenzo had acquired with the rest of the business community at that time.

By winter Jim Guyette, with the assistance of then Sr. V.P. of Flight Operations Lloyd Barry and others, had drafted a plan to replace United's pilots and rebuild the airline by using "fleet-qualified" replacement pilots and using what they expected to be a moderate-sized core of strikebreaking pilots. But the big weapon they counted on was a scheme they devised that would, hopefully, stampede the pilots across the picket line. They planned to re-bid the seniority list in the order of those who crossed.

Also, unbeknown to anyone outside of management at the time, they now planned on using the 570 as strikebreakers. The 570 were a group of pilots who had been previously trained and told United would hire them when a new agreement was reached with ALPA. Although they were repeatedly assured over a period of months that they would not have to cross a picket line, in April 1985 they were suddenly ordered to report for work on May 17.

Dick Grant, one of the few striking management pilots, and now ALPA's Council Chairman in Denver, sat in on a briefing by Guyette shortly before the strike. He said the company established three contingency plans for operating: "One assumed more than half the pilots would cross the picket line. Another, 40%. And the minimum plan expected 25% of the pilots to cross," said Grant. All three plans assumed the 570 would cross.

Roger Hall commented further, "The company expected that 30-40% of the pilots would cross the line within the first few days of the strike. They didn't think it would take any time at all before the pilot group would, in Ferris' words, `stampede across the line,' go to work and effectively destroy ALPA on the property. Initially, I think Ferris' goal was just to slash pilot costs, but it became clear that he eventually concluded that he could crush the entire union structure at United, with ALPA being the first to go. The thing he hadn't counted on was that ALPA had learned from its mistakes in the Continental strike."

By the end of the strike, only 6% of the line pilots had crossed the picket line and almost all of the 570 had struck. United management had spectacularly underestimated the resolve of the pilot group and their loathing for the B-scale. As a result, Ferris was forced to settle on the economic issues after only one week of the strike. His dream of a low-paid pilot force with a 20-year B-scale and a B-scale pension was reduced to a five-year B-scale. But apparently out of revenge-a trait that would later come to characterize him and many of his senior managers-and his determination to break ALPA, he dragged the strike on for another three weeks refusing to agree on any back-to-work agreement that did not include vindictive provisions designed to punish the pilots, the striking management pilots and, of course, the people for whom he felt the most wrath-the 570.

Said Hall, "Ferris was playing games with us. He finally realized he couldn't get us to cross without a contract, so he settled the contract and then tried to get the pilots to cross by refusing to agree to a back-to-work agreement. The pilots still wouldn't cross. We ultimately resolved the back-to-work issues, but then Ferris wouldn't sign a back-to-work agreement with the flight attendants unless they agreed to gut their contract as part of the deal. The AFA [Association of Flight Attendants] refused. Knowing that we had promised the AFA we wouldn't go back to work without them, he hoped he could get the pilots to finally break ranks. But the pilots still wouldn't cross. Ferris continued to hold out, but AFA's UAL-MEC Chairperson Pat Friend recognized that their contract was still in force and she did not need a back-to-work agreement for her people to return to the property. She asked us to go back to work so that the flight attendants would have jobs to report to. By the time the strike was over, Ferris was really smarting. He could not break the pilots any way he tried." The AFA's last minute maneuver apparently blind-sided the company. "When I went in and informed Dave Pringle and the company negotiators of our intentions," said the AFA lawyer, "there was dead silence."

Examining how Ferris miscalculated is complex. Rick Dubinsky, who served as Chairman of the MEC Strike Committee under Hall, says, "Ferris thought he could win because he had the recent experience over at Continental to look back upon. He saw ALPA as disorganized, he saw the leadership as unprepared for a strike, and he had not seen ALPA take any affirmative steps subsequent to that situation to get itself prepared for any new strike. He had a billion dollars in the bank and knew we had no money. He also had a belief that the pilots would never go against him. Somehow it was the leadership-it was Roger Hall or Rick Dubinsky or the MEC-but the pilots would never turn on him. And, of course, he had John Ferg and others telling him that the pilots didn't have guts, and that they would never get themselves organized."

It was obvious to many that Ferris' miscalculation of the pilots' resolve resulted from bad information from his advisors. Ferris has been described as "tough-minded," and "strong-willed," but some felt that his unwillingness to tolerate divergent opinion was a more accurate description. "He surrounded himself with a number of `yes-men,'" observed a retired management pilot. Added Hall, "Ferris systematically weeded out people who told him things he didn't want to hear. There were a few people who told him he couldn't win and he shouldn't even try. He eventually got rid of them. Two were Jim Hannah, the Chief Pilot in San Francisco, and Pat Nugent, the Vice President of Flying and Training in Denver. The only people Ferris tolerated in management were those who were willing to tell him what they thought he wanted to hear."

Jim Engleman pointed out another source of bad input Ferris received. After the "Blue-Skies" agreement, John Ferg predictably made his way into management and, as a friend of Ferris, had his ear. "We know he was getting it from John Ferg, and if you understand Ferg's history and his attitude toward the pilots, you will understand that he thought the pilots were just a bunch of jellyfish, that they didn't have any spine and that they would roll over. He even said that about the MEC and told us so on a number of occasions when he was MEC Chairman. I think he really believed it and I believe he had Ferris convinced." Roger Hall agreed. He said, "I put a large part of the blame for the 1985 strike right at the feet of John Ferg."

Dubinsky saw Ferg's turn against the pilots evolve over a long period of time. "You have to go back into Ferg's history," said Dubinsky. "Ferg was the Master Chairman in the early 1960's. However, he was recalled by the MEC which embittered him. Then sometime in the early 1970's he testified against a captain who had a landing accident in Denver. It was one of the first times a non-management pilot had testified against a fellow pilot. The MEC censured Ferg without a hearing and Ferg filed a lawsuit against the Association. ALPA ultimately settled and paid his legal fees. I don't think Ferg ever liked ALPA after that. When he got elected Master Chairman the second time around he became great friends with Ferris. He saw Ferris as a visionary.

John's view of what the future would hold for us was quite accurate relative to deregulation. He saw the danger of a ratcheting down of wages and working conditions. I firmly believe that when he started down the road with Ferris, he probably thought he was doing the right thing for the pilots. But by 1983, when the pilots chose to separate from him, to resist the ratcheting, to stiffen their back and to take on Ferris, John's loyalty toward Ferris won out. His animosity toward ALPA overcame him . When he could not get re-elected by changing the MEC policy and run for a third term, I think he chose sides and decided to show these people who he felt had, once again, screwed him over-namely ALPA. He had this burning hate for ALPA that went back to these events in his career. The pilots who he felt had betrayed him were enough reason, in his mind, to side with Ferris."

Ferris also misjudged the 570. "He thought the 570 were going to cross the line and scare the hell out of the pilots," said Hall, "but they misjudged the integrity and sophistication of the 570 and Jamie Lindsay's activities."

Jamie Lindsay, a Denver-based pilot, headed an ad-hoc ALPA committee of United pilots who set out to educate and organize the 570 from make-shift offices in some hotel rooms near United's Denver training center. By April 1985 they had established regular and frequent contact with virtually all the 570. The new pilots became determined not to aid the company in destroying their own careers, and the careers of every United pilot who would follow them, by helping Ferris establish his 20-year B-scale.

United didn't help its own cause either. As the strike drew closer, the 570 were increasingly subjected to arrogance, threats and intimidation by management personnel at DENTK. In court testimony after the strike, one 570 testified that her class was told by Rick Brown, then one of the management pilots in charge of the new-hire section, that if they didn't cross the picket line and somehow were still able to get their jobs back, he "would personally see to it that we would never make it through our probationary year."

After the strike more than 100 of the 570 chose not to return to United. Michael Didero, a 570 and now a senior MD-80 first officer at USAir said, "They treated us pretty badly before the strike. Coming back and flying at United just wasn't worth the abuse."

In order to protect them from retribution by the company during the period leading up to the strike, Lindsay's committee instructed the group to tell the company "whatever they want to hear." Consequently the company had no accurate knowledge of their intentions until the strike commenced. On the morning of May 17, to management's utter astonishment, only four of the 570 pilots-including John Ferg's son-crossed the line. When Ferris encountered Lindsay in the Denver terminal a few days later, his anger was uncontained, according to witnesses. "Ferris told him he was `lower than whale ____, and to crawl back into the dumpster where he came from,'" said one. He added, "Lindsay replied rather prophetically, `Let's see who's still here a year from now, Dick.'" From that day on, Lindsay's operation became known as "The Dumpster-Works."