WASHINGTON — Unions, struggling in many industries, are flying high on the nation’s airlines.
At Comair, pilots are walking picket lines, and Northwest mechanics and Delta pilots are threatening to walk out, too.
It’s symbolic of the bargaining clout that organized labor enjoys among airline workers, even as the percentage of all American workers in unions lingers at a six-decade low – just 13.5 percent.
Those numbers are much higher among airline, as well as railroad, workers. Both are governed by a labor law that gives unions an unusual amount of power – although it’s also more difficult for them to strike.
Among pilots and navigators, 60 percent are in unions. For air traffic controllers, it’s 58 percent. And two in three transportation attendants are in unions.
Union membership is even higher at railroads, with nearly 85 percent of conductors and yardmasters in unions, and 73 percent of signal and switch operators organized, according to Bureau of National Affairs’ numbers.
These industries transport people and goods across the country, and the threat of a walk out often translates into a noisy, high-profile dispute, said Rick Hurd, Cornell University’s director of labor studies.
“There’s more leverage for those unions because they play such a crucial role in our society,” Hurd said. “Unions have more potential for strength because if they engage in any kind of work stoppage, it affects everybody.”
But strikes are unusual. About 97 percent of all National Mediation Board cases have been resolved without interruptions to public service, said Jim Armshaw, spokesman for the board.
The Comair pilots strike, which began Monday, is the first for an airline since 1998, when Northwest Airlines pilots walked off for 15 days. There were only six strikes in the 1990s – one of which lasted just 24 minutes and another that was 89 minutes. Twenty-four airline strikes have occurred since 1980.
The Railway Labor Act of 1926 makes striking difficult because it requires extensive negotiations and allows the president and Congress to intervene.
“The procedures of the act are effective in protecting the public,” said Josh Javits, a Washington labor lawyer and former National Mediation Board member.
But the act, combined with circumstances unique to transportation, has helped create much of the unions’ strength. Among the reasons:
• Unlike unions in the private sector, there is no procedure for an employer to decertify a railroad or airline union, meaning once they’re organized, they are there to stay.
• These unions must organize an entire fleet of workers, not just certain hubs or cities. That’s tough to do, but it leads to powerful unions. And because the industry is heavily organized, a new company finds it difficult to remain union-free for long.
A sign of their strength: A union airline pilot or navigator earns an average of $48.87 an hour compared to the same worker who is not in a union, who makes $28.12 an hour, according to the Bureau of National Affairs.
• In other industries, unions have lost clout as companies move overseas or to other parts of the country to avoid them. But airlines and railroads can’t do that, said Pat Cleary, a former National Labor Relations Board chairman who now works for the National Association of Manufacturers.
• While mergers hurt unions in other industries, airlines and railroads are heavily organized, and workers tend to keep their jobs and the unions survive.
—Many airline and railroad employees — particularly pilots and mechanics — are not easily replaced, making it harder for employers to replace them if they walk out, experts say.
—Airline unions, especially the pilots, gained strength before the industry was deregulated, Hurd said. Faced with paying higher wages, airlines could simply demand higher fares from the federal agencies that regulated their prices.
“You didn’t have a tradition of strong resistance,” Hurd said. “In that setting, pilots established themselves and gained an awful lot of influence in the industry and developed a very strong national union.”
On Monday, the 1,350 pilots of regional carrier Comair walked out after failed contract talks, which have been under way since June 1998. Comair has canceled all its flights — about 800 a day — through the morning of April 7.
At Delta Air Lines, pilots are free to strike on April 29 unless federal mediators ask President Bush to step in. Delta and its 9,800 pilots have been negotiating for nearly 19 months.
Northwest Airlines mechanics were three days away from striking earlier this month when Bush intervened, requiring another 60 days of negotiations overseen by a presidential emergency board.
Meanwhile, at American Airlines, flight attendants resume talks Monday at the National Mediation Board in Washington. Negotiations between the union and company have lasted more than two years.
The flight attendants at American — like other airline workers — aren’t allowed to strike unless federal mediators give permission. So far, that hasn’t happened.