The union representing mechanics at Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines is warning its members that American Airlines is unsafe following a federal court injunction against maintenance employees at the legacy carrier. In a strongly worded statement, the labor group urged the workers it represents not to fly the rival carrier, because of its “compromised maintenance safety culture.”
In a warning to members, Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) Director Bret Oestreich didn’t mince words. The labor leader, who represents nearly 3,500 maintenance workers at Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines issued a blistering statement in response to a federal court injunction against mechanics at rival American Airlines.
“FAA investigations and CBS News reports confirm that American has been operating under a compromised maintenance safety culture for years with management resorting to coercive practices to suppress reports of aircraft damage,” Oestreich wrote. “With the issuance of this injunction, a mechanic who detects corrosion must not only be concerned about losing [a] job; he will now be concerned about facing fines or imprisonment. If you care about your families’ safety, do not put them on an American Airlines flight until this injunction is vacated.”
American Airlines management had accused mechanics represented jointly by the Transport Workers Union (TWU) and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) of illegal labor actions, including refusing overtime, productivity slowdowns and overzealously documenting mechanical issues. Union officials denied the charges and in turn accused the company of pressuring mechanics to ignore potential safety issues.
A Northern District of Texas federal judge sided with the airline and issued a temporary restraining order against the workers. TWU-IAM officials were careful not to criticize the judge’s decision and instead ordered its representatives to fully comply with the letter and spirit of the injunction.
“The Order requires that no employee should engage in any concerted refusal to perform normal operations,” the union told its representatives in an internal memo. “Each of you should read the full text of the Order, which has been posted on bulletin boards and online. Most importantly, it must be emphasized that compliance with the Court’s Order is absolutely required.”
Colleagues at AMFA, who have been subject to similar court challenges in the past, were not obligated to be quite as diplomatic and were quick to pick up the gauntlet. Oestreich issued his chilling evaluation of safety practices at the world’s largest airline within hours of the judge’s decision.
Although Oestreich’s dire warning about the dangers of flying on American Airlines was at times hyperbolic, his dramatic letter referenced a number of documented cases of corner-cutting at the airline. He cited a number of damning FAA reports, indicating that while the carrier was at times lax with certain safety inspections, mechanics who objected were sometimes subject to coercion and harsh disciplinary actions.
“Just this week, a Chicago television station aired a videotape of an American manager accosting a mechanic with a vile stream of profanity as a result of the aircraft maintenance technician’s report of aircraft damage,” Oestreich noted. “I wish I could say such confrontations were infrequent, but the pressure to push planes back into service can be overwhelming. American’s injunction just made it that much worse.”
For its part, American Airlines denied Oestreich’s assertions entirely, telling reporters that passenger safety is its number one priority. The company said that far from punishing employees for pointing out potential safety issues, workers in all positions are actively urged to report any potential problems.
“Our team members put safety above all else when they come to work, and there are multiple platforms for team members to raise concerns, including anonymously, through our Aviation Safety Action Program,” the airline told The Dallas Morning News in its statement. “We will continue to strongly advocate that team members use all of those outlets when they see or experience anything remotely questionable involving safety.”
Labor leaders at TWU-IAM, however, insist that this position doesn’t square with management’s recent moves. The union says that the recent court case was more about the company attempting to gain an advantage in stalled negotiations rather than stopping an imaginary work slowdown.
“It is unfortunate that American Airlines has chosen to abandon negotiating with its employees and instead go straight to federal court,” the union said in its response to the airline’s decision to file a lawsuit against its own employees in May. “The airline is frustrated with the Association for refusing to allow more of our maintenance and repair work to be outsourced to South America, China and Europe. We are also standing strong against cuts to our medical benefits and retirement security. Our members value American Airlines fliers and work hard every day to ensure they have the best experience possible. The Association is ready and willing to get back to the bargaining table at any time and negotiate a fair joint collective bargaining agreement, but to do so would take a willing partner. We would much prefer to be at the negotiating table than in a legal battle brought on by American.”
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