WASHINGTON (CN) - With the holiday shipping frenzy already underway as a cargo airline renegotiates its union contract with pilots, a federal judge is cracking down on a tactic the Teamsters union has allegedly been using to gain unfair leverage.
Granting a Nov. 30 injunction to Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings, U.S. District Judge Randolph Moss agreed that the airline is likely to succeed on the merits of the dispute.
Based in Purchase, N.Y., Atlas is the holding company of the companies Atlas Air Inc. and Polar Air Worldwide Cargo Inc., which operate cargo and passenger services for the U.S. military and for commercial partners like Amazon.
Moss’ ruling notes that the growth of online shopping has dramatically increased domestic demand for air freight, and that Atlas has responded to the demand by hiring large numbers of new pilots.
“From September 2015 to September 2017, for example, the number of pilots employed by Atlas with less than three years of experience increased from 36% of all pilots to 51% of all pilots,” the ruling states.
Since 2008, Atlas pilots have been represented exclusively by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, but the airline says the union’s tactics violate a requirement of the Railway Labor Act to maintain the status quo.
Since the union sent notice of its intent to renegotiate the pilots’ contracts in February 2016, the average rate of “fatigue” calls have allegedly tripled.
Worried about the effects of such tactics during the holiday season — from Thanksgiving through the end of the year, Atlas Air said it deserved court intervention to protect its reputation.
“We filed the injunction to protect our customers, employees, and services and are focused on providing the high level of service that our customers have come to expect,” a representative for Atlas Air said in an email. “At the same time, we continue to negotiate with the IBT for a joint contract for Atlas and Southern Air crewmembers in connection with the pending merger.”
Disputing the airline’s allegations, the union has blamed Atlas Air’s problems on its “rapid growth and poor management,” as well as its focus on not flying during unsafe conditions.
The Teamsters said an injunction would violate its First Amendment rights, but Judge Moss found that the balance tips in favor of the airline.
“All agree that airline pilots should not fly sick or fatigued, that not every flight can or should block out before its scheduled departure time, and that pilots cannot be forced to volunteer for open flights,” he wrote. “It is difficult, if not impossible, moreover, for the Union, Atlas, or the Court to determine whether a particular pilot could have provided earlier notice before calling in sick, whether a particular pilot is too tired to fly safely, or whether a pilot legitimately wanted to spend more time with her family and thus decided not to volunteer for an open flight for reasons wholly unrelated to a slowdown. What must stop, however, are efforts by the Union to tie activity of this or any similar type to the collective bargaining process and to encourage pilots to change their behavior in light of the ongoing labor dispute.”
Daniel Wells, an Atlas Air pilot and who is also president of the Teamsters Local 1224, said in email that they will appeal the injunction.
“After years of chronic mismanagement and intensifying pilot shortages, the fundamentals of our operation are crumbling every day, putting the success of our carriers and commitments to customers like DHL and Amazon at risk,” Wells said. “We will comply with the judge’s orders, but it won’t solve the immense problems we face, and we are committed as ever to getting our airlines back on track,” Wells added.
The representative for Atlas Air meanwhile said contract negotiations remain underway.
“We remain committed to completing the bargaining process in a timely manner and in the best interests of all parties,” the airline’s statement says.