United Airlines on Friday gave its pilots 5% raises months ahead of schedule after the pilots overwhelmingly put the kibosh on a proposed new contract.
Under a 2020 deal, United and the Air Line Pilots Assn., representing the carrier’s more than 13,000 pilots, agreed to defer pay raises until the turbulence of the pandemic had eased and profits had been restored.
While the profitability threshold hasn’t yet been reached, and United could have waited until May 2023, the company is now moving to share its recovering wealth ahead of schedule.
The reason partly reflects a turnaround for the airline industry as Americans return to the semi-friendly skies.
But it also demonstrates the burgeoning clout of organized labor after decades of declining influence.
“This is a show of good faith and a down payment on a market-based, industry leading labor agreement,” Bryan Quigley, United’s senior vice president of flight operations, wrote to pilots on Thursday.
“It’s also recognition of the role that you played in helping United survive the pandemic and recover so much stronger.”
It’s a smart move on the airline’s part. Nearly all the major carriers are experiencing labor unrest as travel demand picks up.
Pilots, flight attendants and other staff have been saying they’ve sacrificed enough in recent years to keep their employers afloat.
What’s particularly noteworthy here is that unions representing airline workers have been unusually effective in making their points to management.
This will likely be seen as a sign of progress by unions in all industries as they seek to overcome years of dwindling membership by exercising newfound economic clout.
The uncertainty of the pandemic served as a wakeup call for U.S. workers who experienced — many for the first time — the vulnerability of a severe economic downturn.
To be sure, it’s not a level playing field. In many if not most industries, management still holds the face cards.
“Accelerating our raise does not change the fact we still need a contract that fully recognizes the contributions we make every day to the success of our airline,” United’s pilot union said in a note to members.
But working stiffs can perhaps take heart that they don’t have to face challenging times alone.
The organized-labor movement is predicated on the idea that there’s safety in numbers.
United’s pilots have just proved the point.