FROM WOODEN WINGS
III. "IF YOU DON'T LIKE IT, THEN GRIEVE IT."
When the strike failed to break ALPA, the company began a different tact to accomplish their goal. Many pilots saw the company embarking on an effort to weaken the union in order to reduce its effectiveness. The company began routinely violating the contract and "established past practice" whenever they could. Knowing that it took a year or two for an arbitrator to hear a grievance, the company's attitude seemed to become, "If you don't like it, then grieve it." Management routinely denied grievances without apparent regard for merit. According to Capt. Jim Noble, MEC Grievance Chairman, the backlog of grievances awaiting hearings from arbitrators had increased from about 50 to 250. Even though the number of neutral System Boards were increased from about 4 per year to 24, the company seemed to feel they had carte blanche in violating the pilots' contract since it would take years for an arbitrator to order the company to cease and desist.
The company's brazenness didn't stop there either. Immediately after the strike, Ferris and Barry directed that the Washington and Miami domiciles would be closed. Ferris had made it clear that if the pilots went on strike, he would close the two small bases and force the pilots to commute to work in Chicago. ALPA filed an expedited grievance and the neutral, Richard Bloch, ruled that the company could not retaliate. But Ferris did anyway-sort of-he fired Bloch. Bloch and a number of other arbitrators had recently ruled against the company in some rather important decisions. By invoking a little-used provision of the contract, the company summarily fired them the Sunday before Christmas.
"That move certainly didn't help the company's cause in the long run," said Noble, referring to what some called the "Sunday Night Massacre." "The arbitrators are a distinguished, well-respected lot who are not easily intimidated. We're talking about people like Archibald Cox and others, and I suspect that the company's arrogance did not go over well within their group." Cockrell saw the firings and intentional backlogging of the grievance machinery as part of a larger picture. "What they were trying to do," he said, "was to try and make our union weak and powerless like Lorenzo had done with some success on his properties. Clearly this appeared to be the company's objective for us after 1985. There's no doubt in my mind about that."
Rick Dubinsky agrees, but said, "I would even take it a step further. I think all along Ferris intended to not only crush ALPA, but to get it off the property. It was clear that he intended to replace ALPA with the `United Pilots Association,' which was being organized by John Ferg, Denver Capt. Bill Palmer (both of whom subsequently appeared on CBS' West 57th Street) and others. His goal, I think, was decertification of ALPA and the emergence of this company-controlled union. One way you might accomplish this is by showing the membership that their union is ineffective and that it can't protect either them or their contract. When this continues to occur, the membership may eventually start to ask themselves why they even need a union or, perhaps, whether they need a different union."
Consequently, the message the company was communicating to the pilots after the strike was: "From now on anything you get is because we choose to give it to you, not because ALPA was able to get it for you."
After 1985 the company operated around ALPA wherever possible. Interaction with ALPA was avoided unless it could be used as a way to discredit the union or perhaps enhance the image of management. What became known as the "Frontier Fiasco" clearly showed the extent to which the company would go to try and discredit ALPA.
In the summer of 1986 United announced it wanted to purchase Frontier Airlines. United said it required ALPA to waive the scope protections in the pilots' contract as a condition of the purchase. This would permit United to bring the Frontier pilots over at wages well below "A" scale industry standard and in effect, accomplish what they couldn't achieve in the strike-and something the company knew the pilots would never agree to. In essence, United had cleverly engineered an abortive attempt to purchase Frontier Airlines and leave the appearance that ALPA was the cause of the failure. It was an effort many believed was designed instead only to strip Frontier of certain valuable assets desired by United.
Consequently, when United pulled out of the purchase, they conveniently blamed it on ALPA and moved instead only to acquire the Denver hangars, certain slots and aircraft. In the end, after a court battle, United ended up without even the assets. They had forfeited Frontier's market share, aircraft and employees to Frank Lorenzo, and now face serious litigation with Frontier's pilots. One major shareholder in Crain's Chicago Business would later call it "the worst mistake Ferris made." He made many others as well!
In the months following the strike it became clear to the pilots that management was girding for another strike. Striking pilots were excluded from all management positions, the training center was filled exclusively with scabs, fleet-qual's and many who had adequately demonstrated little qualification other than loyalty to Ferris and his henchmen. The overall quality of training took a noticeable downturn. Scabs were systematically being given type ratings and permitted to fly as Captain even though they did not have Captain seniority. The pilots and their leadership could only conclude that the company was preparing a scab force for the next round of conflict.