Late yesterday, US District Court Judge Timothy Black ruled that a strike by pilots at ABX Air was not permissible, and that the pilots must return to work.
While this is good news for US consumers planning to shop online with Amazon over the Thanksgiving holiday, and for businesses planning to ship packages to or from the US with DHL Express, it does not, in itself, resolve the labor problem at Air Transport Services Group (parent of ABX).
As we said in our original discussion when the strike began two days ago, labor relations at ABX Air (and At Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings and Kalitta Air, which face similar pilot unrest) are governed by the Railway labor Act, rather than the more usual labor Relations Act. During negotiations for a new contract, strikes (or lockouts) are allowed under only two circumstances:
- If the parties are unable to agree to terms of a new contract themselves, they must continue to negotiate under mediation while abiding by the terms of the existing contract. Only if the government-appointed mediator cannot lead them to an agreement, and even then, only following a “cooling-off” period may a strike or lockout take place.
- If during negotiations, either party deviates from, or unilaterally acts to make changes in, the existing contract, the other party may call a strike (or lockout) to force a return to the contractual status quo.
It was under this second circumstance that the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 1224, which represents the ABX pilots, felt a strike was justified. That is, that the strike was not called as a tactic to pressure the company into a new contract, but rather to pressure it to adhere to the terms of the existing one – to return to the status quo.
Air Transport Services Group, on the other hand, felt that it was the strike that was a violation of the status quo, and asked the court to rule it illegal.
In this case, the judge agreed with the company, ruling that the work-scheduling issues cited by the union were not a deviation from the contractual status quo, but rather what is called a “minor dispute” which the parties must resolve through negotiation, mediated negotiation, or arbitration.
But the underlying contractual dispute has not been resolved, and behind that dispute lies the larger issue of a worsening pilot shortage in the US – an issue that we will address next week.