Back to Contents

The Origins of the United Strike of 1985

An old axiom holds that all politics is local, that great historical events have humble, grass-roots origins. For example, during the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln became the Republicans’ choice, not because the party faithful recognized his transcendent virtues, but rather because his opponents for the nomination had fallen afoul of bitter local disputes over everything from prohibition of alcohol to curbing foreign immigration—small issues all but forgotten today. Lincoln could win the votes of German immigrants (which would be crucial in certain states during the election), whereas one of his principal opponents for the nomination, Missourian Edward Bates, would surely lose their votes because he had belonged to the anti-immigrant American (or “Know-Nothing”) Party until 1856. So Bates was out. The general hubbub over slavery dominates our memory of that era today, but to understand the election fully we must take these lesser squabbles into consideration as well.

The same principle holds true of ALPA. Much of its history lies hidden at the master executive council (MEC) level, where complex struggles and obscure local issues have often dictated the outcome of historically significant events. On some airlines, like TWA for example, the internal wars at the MEC level have been positively byzantine, almost impossible to trace. The evanescent quality of these “MEC wars” on most airlines has been such that even those who participated actively in them at the time often give different interpretations of what they meant.

For example, the relatively simple question: “What caused the United strike of 1985?” elicits complex answers keyed to the local situation on United Airlines. Without knowing the internal dynamics of the United pilot group and the history of its MEC (particularly during the early 1980s), no genuine understanding of the 1985 strike is possible. Certainly, one cannot find the answer by studying ALPA’s history at the national level alone. Rather, local factors as compelling as those that brought Lincoln to the White House in 1861 are central to the story.

Among the cast of characters who figured prominently in the strike, we must first deal with John Ferg, the MEC chairman who led the United pilot group into the 1980s. Ferg’s relationship with Dick Ferris, the rapid-fire talker who shot meteorically to the top of United’s corporate hierarchy, also figures. How did John Ferg emerge, and why did his relationship with Ferris lead to the now infamous “Blue Skies” contract of 1981? Unless we understand their motives, we cannot understand the origins of Blue Skies. Without understanding Blue Skies, we cannot know what the strike was about.

Because John Ferg flew during the 1985 strike, he would earn the loathsome nickname “Super Scab” from the pilots he once led. Adding to his everlasting infamy among the 95 percent of United pilots who honored the picket line, Ferg’s son also flew, an action former ALPA President J.J. O’Donnell blamed on the father.

“His son has to live with being a scab for the rest of his life, and that is so sad,” O’Donnell said in his 1991 interview. “If it were me, even if I were going to work, I’d have told my son ‘You don’t ever cross a picket line!’”

John Ferg came to United in the Capital merger of 1961. Readers familiar with Flying the Line know just how difficult that transition was for the old Capital pilot group.1 As we have seen in our previous look at the career of Bill Arsenault, the Capital pilots, although suffering a kind of second-class citizenship following the merger, came to exercise an influence in ALPA affairs far beyond their numbers. The typical Capital pilot had many attributes normally associated with blue-collar unionism—traits less pronounced among most “real” United pilots.

With the possible exception of Pan American in its salad days, the United pilot group earned a reputation as the most “aristocratic” in ALPA, particularly after World War II. United personnel managers, when hiring pilots, might as well have been interviewing for executive positions. By the 1950s, the typical United pilot was a college graduate with a military background and a managerial mentality that came so naturally that many people speculated United looked specifically for such characteristics in hiring. Significantly, United would have no pilot strikes between 1951 and 1985—a span of 34 years. That was quite a stretch, considering that United, Dave Behncke’s old airline, was ALPA’s cradle, the original home to an assortment of flamboyant and individualistic Old Guys. But United’s management had pretty well weeded them out by the 1950s.

Don Nichols, who served as ALPA Region III vice-president from 1967 to 1971, had definite ideas about the evolving “class system” on United. As an original “Tracey Ace” who began flying for United before World War II, Nichols encountered some condescension because he had learned to fly in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, instead of in the military, and also because he had dropped out of the University of Michigan’s redoubtable engineering program without a degree during his senior year. Although he became a Boeing 247 captain in only two years (thanks to the departure of military reservists ahead of him on the United seniority list after Pearl Harbor), Nichols doubts that he would have been hired under United’s post-World War II system.

“In later years, they began using all these different psychological tests to determine whether you would be a pilot for United Airlines or not,” says Nichols, who retired in 1978. “Management was looking for what I call the ‘placidity factor,’ people who were easy to mold, placid, not strong individualists like Dave Behncke and the bunch who started ALPA. Those tests were designed to eliminate people like that and maybe to avoid union problems by hiring only people who would be more inclined to think along company lines.”

The unintended consequence of United’s hiring policies was that in the 1960s, “blue-collar” Capital pilots like John Ferg and Bill Arsenault began gravitating into ALPA leadership positions. By the 1960s, “real” United pilots seemed less interested in ALPA affairs than earlier ones, particularly after old hands like Chuck Woods, Scotty Devine, and H.B. Anders, all younger contemporaries of Dave Behncke, began retiring. Their departure from MEC leadership positions, coupled with the post-World War II new-hire’s typical disinterest in ALPA, created a vacuum that the old Capital pilot group filled. Occasionally, some “real” United pilots would rouse themselves and wrest control from the Capital pilots, as happened to Bill Arsenault in 1975 and to John Ferg in 1965 during his first brief, dimly remembered tenure as MEC chairman. But because of retirements, new hiring, and general disinterest, few United pilots by the late 1970s either knew or cared about John Ferg’s history. When he reemerged as a force in United’s internal ALPA politics in the late 1970s, the old schism generated by the Capital merger had largely faded from memory.

Another twist in United’s hiring policies added to this problem. For a brief period in the mid-1960s, a genuine pilot shortage existed. Between the end of the Korean War and the outbreak of the Vietnam War, military pilot training programs shrank. Thus, when the mid-1960s jet revolution took hold and vast numbers of new passengers expanded the need for airline crews, the traditional source of pilots had all but dried up. As the military downsized in the Eisenhower years, it not only cut back pilot training programs, but also increased the length of obligated service for people who underwent training, which meant that many pilots would remain in the service for a full career.

United tried to remedy this shortage by hiring and training its own pilots, who were usually college-educated young men with just a private ticket and only a few hours of single-engine time. Possibly management saw these low-time new-hires as adding to the antiunion “placidity factor” among its pilots. If that was indeed the goal, it failed miserably. Two future MEC chairmen, Roger Hall and Frederick “Rick” Dubinsky, came from this category of new-hires and, as we shall see, proved far less than “placid.” But in the short run, United’s hiring of low-time new-hires might have contributed to the rank-and-file disinterest that allowed old Capital pilots like John Ferg to rise.

Following Ferg’s recall from the MEC chairmanship, he disappeared from ALPA affairs for the remainder of the 1960s. Then, in the early 1970s, he earned considerable notoriety among rank-and-file United pilots through the “Rainey Case,” a termination action that saw him voluntarily testify against a fellow pilot in a safety-related matter. United’s MEC formally censured Ferg; he sued the MEC over it, citing “freedom of speech” issues and “lack of due process” (the MEC had not granted him a hearing before the censure) and won an out-of-court settlement that included modest cash damages.

“Ferg didn’t witness the events that led to this pilot’s termination,” says United’s Doug Wilsman, who served as ALPA’s grievance observer during the episode. “ALPA has never objected to a pilot testifying to what he actually witnessed in a termination case. But Ferg had no direct knowledge of the case that got this guy fired; he simply said Rainey was a bad pilot, and for that we censured him.”

All this, when coupled with his considerable talent as a rhetorician and speech maker (a skill touching the edges of demagoguery, many old United hands thought), meant that John Ferg was by no means finished. But from his recall in 1965 until his old Capital colleague Bill Arsenault fell from power in 1975, Ferg generally kept a low profile. Then, in 1977, he returned to the MEC as the Denver captain representative. Within two years, Ferg would capture de facto control of United’s MEC, able to command more support than MEC Chairman Dick Cosgrave. When Cosgrave’s term ended in 1980, Ferg became chairman.

“As Denver LEC Chairman Ferg had access to a broad spectrum of pilots passing through our training center,” recalls Charles J. “Chuck” Pierce, who would serve as MEC secretary-treasurer during part of Ferg’s term as chairman. “He gave me the impression of someone who was very calculating and never did anything without a reason. He was a hard-hitter relative to ALPA, expressing dissatisfaction with where the national organization was going, and for taking a harder line with the company. Obviously, history showed that wasn’t the real John Ferg! But there was always something about him I didn’t quite trust.”

Although current ruminations about Ferg’s career bear an obvious bias owing to his joining management before the strike, they have an ominous tone nevertheless. Jerry Pryde, who served as MEC chairman before Dick Cosgrave and who subsequently went on to become ALPA’s first vice-president at the end of the O’Donnell years, recalls being very worried when Ferg won election.

“I didn’t really consider him the type of person United had historically been represented by,” Pryde says without hesitation. “We had been at odds on many things, particularly on the way United’s management was running the airline. I was in Washington as first vice-president, but I continued to fly the line so I pretty much kept in touch. I was aware of many things that he was involved with that other people didn’t know. John Ferg, in my mind, never was a union person.”

Future strike leader Rick Dubinsky, who would later break with Ferg, swims against the general tide by remembering him positively.

“I was a believer in Ferg,” Dubinsky admits. “He was militant, he said all the right things, and I’m not so sure at that point he wasn’t honest in what he was trying to achieve. I wasn’t privy to the mechanics of how his alliance with Ferris solidified, except for one little anecdote John told me about. John got the royal treatment from Ferris, really introduced to the high corporate life, keys to the washroom and limousines and that kind of symbolic stuff. I remember John saying of Ferris: ‘He thinks he has me right in his pocket,’ and he tapped his shirt pocket in pantomime. ‘Yep, he’s got me right where I want him!’”

Jerry Pryde and other senior ALPA leaders worried about Ferg’s increasingly chummy relationship with Dick Ferris, whom we have met before. Ferris was young and articulate, and the pilot group liked him—a lot! So much in fact, that they gave him an “honorary” ALPA seniority number. Ferris had learned to fly after becoming United’s CEO, and he tooled around to various domiciles in a Learjet Model 24, favorably impressing the pilot group with both his plans for the future and his airmanship.

How many United pilots of that era knew that E.L. Cord had actually done the same thing a generation earlier? In Cord’s case, flying his own Stinson Trimotor convinced him that there was really nothing much to flying, which justified cutting his pilots’ salaries. Cord never went flying unless the weather was perfect, and his own personal pilot always came along in case the weather turned sour. Ferris’s flying was a lot like Cord’s, which was a bad omen. But oblivious to these portents, John Ferg, once he became MEC chairman, made Ferris’s ALPA number real, rather than honorary. Should he ever choose to do so, Dick Ferris would actually be able to fly the line!

Ferg’s relationship with Dick Ferris bears analysis within the United context. Following Bill Arsenault’s recall in 1975, the next two MEC chairmen, Jerry Pryde and Dick Cosgrave, resumed a moderate approach to dealing with the company, which had traditionally characterized the United pilot group. Because of the “placidity factor” referred to by Don Nichols, the rank-and-file United pilot generally remained passive, thus inhibiting new initiatives by the MEC under normal circumstances. But this procompany passivity among pilots was beginning to wear thin, largely because United had become a stagnant carrier. As the largest airline in the free world, United got scant consideration from government regulators awarding new routes. Instead, smaller airlines got the route awards and consequently most of the growth.

As the 1970s came to an end, the typical United pilot, for all his managerial mentality, could look elsewhere and see five-year captains sitting in the left seats of other carriers. Meanwhile, the sight of graying pilots still holding only second officer bids was common on United. Although they liked and respected Eddie Carlson, Dick Ferris’s mentor and predecessor as United’s CEO, his tenure had done little for the United pilots’ stagnant promotion list. When Dick Ferris took over, full of “piss and vinegar,” most United pilots found his pitchmanship irresistible, thus making Ferg’s activism possible.

At some point after the onset of deregulation in 1978, Dick Ferris and John Ferg made a deal. If Ferg would move the United pilot group toward liberalized work rules through a major contract revision, Ferris would use this form of “giveback” to “grow the airline.” More pilots would then advance to captaincies, and when United soared into a brave new future, Ferris would do right by the pilots whose generous concessions had made it all possible. Presumably ALPA’s example would leave United’s other unions no choice but to follow.

The only problem with this rather straightforward deal was that it flew in the face of nearly half a century of pilot work rules—particularly the idea of flat monthly salaries, which Ferris advocated. John Ferg wasn’t the first MEC chairman gripped by managerial fever, nor to fall victim to management blandishments. Attempts to “chisel” (as old Dave Behncke used to say) on a hard-won contract to gain some purely local advantage had a long history. To understand the gravity of this issue, we must take a brief look at the “givebacks” that characterized the recessionary early 1980s, and the instrument through which these contract concessions were often made—the “side letter.”

The basic technical trick that underlay ALPA’s four golden decades of collective bargaining success was Dave Behncke’s original and absolute rejection of any form of flat monthly salary. By basing pilot pay on a complex system of “piecework,” under which compensation depended upon the type of flying and equipment, ALPA and the airline piloting profession prospered. The early private airmail operators inherited this piecework pay system from the old Post Office Air Mail Service, and they didn’t like it. It was cumbersome, expensive, and required a lot of record-keeping. These early aviation entrepreneurs were also smart enough to see that eventually somebody would use the piecework pay system to “jack up the house,” as Dave Behncke put it.

Naturally, the private airmail operators preferred to pay their pilots a flat monthly salary. It was simpler, and when faster more productive equipment came on the line, management (not pilots) would derive the benefits. The private operators’ effort to substitute a flat monthly pay scale for the old Post Office system was the root cause of ALPA’s formation. Eventually, Dave Behncke threatened a nationwide strike over flat monthly pay scales in 1933.2 When serious collective bargaining finally got under way in 1939, the original operators’ fear of the “house jacking” technique proved justified.

This “piecework” approach to collective bargaining, coupled with government regulation, meant that when one pilot group got a contractual advantage, it inevitably flowed to other groups. The technical name for what Behncke called “jacking up the house” was “pattern bargaining,” which meant that a single pattern of pay became the standard for the whole industry. Under government regulation, the airlines could pass along costs to consumers, so management had little incentive to resist “pattern bargaining.” The drawback to “pattern bargaining” was that in a time of concessionary contracts, it would also serve to ratchet pay and working conditions down. Industrywide bargaining (the polar opposite of pattern bargaining), which management sought and ALPA resisted after World War II (thus precipitating the TWA strike of 1946), would work to ALPA’s advantage in a deregulated environment.

Unable to secure industrywide bargaining, and increasingly buffeted by ALPA’s skill at using pattern bargaining to fine-tune contracts across the nation, management occasionally won concessions and givebacks through local “side letter” modifications to existing contracts. In one notable case during Charley Ruby’s term, the pilots of Piedmont signed a “side letter” that completely gave away the third crewmember on the B-737—and then kept it secret! Fearful that individual pilot groups would succumb to various blandishments and give away hard-won contractual principles for some local plum, ALPA began to require the same kind of national approval of “side letter” modifications that were required of a contract. As late as 1984, Hank Duffy would complain publicly that ALPA’s national officers were frequently unaware of “side letter” givebacks and that once granted they were “hard to undo.”

Of course, the economic downturn of the early 1980s, coupled with the adverse effect of deregulation, caused the avalanche of “side letter” givebacks. Eventually, the 1984 BOD meeting in Bal Harbour Fla., would adopt stringent measures to keep individual MECs from giving away the shop. Henceforth, “side letter” negotiations would require the “physical or monitoring presence” of an ALPA national representative, plus formal notification of any changes generated by such an agreement. The game John Ferg played with Dick Ferris in the early 1980s triggered this unprecedented attempt by ALPA’s national officers to look over the shoulders of local negotiators.

In the beginning, John Ferg’s proposal to grant Dick Ferris drastic contract concessions to get United growing won support from many junior pilots. Felicitously labeled “Blue Skies,” these work rules concessions would add about two days per month to each United pilot’s flying. In return, Blue Skies raised pilot pay, but in a way that would have given old Dave Behncke fits—a version of flat monthly salaries.

Before Ferg took over as MEC chairman, Dick Ferris began pushing contract concessions using a variety of techniques. Arguing that the flood of postderegulation “new entrant” airlines required a drastic response, Ferris warned United’s pilots that if they did nothing, the airline might actually fail. Ferris was an acknowledged master at the art of “road shows”; so good in fact, that on the eve of the strike in 1985, United’s MEC urged pilots to boycott them.

“There wouldn’t have been a strike if we hadn’t kept the guys away from those sessions,” says Doug Wilsman, the captains’ representative from Los Angeles, whose respect for Ferris’s persuasiveness led him to organize the boycott.

Once John Ferg became MEC chairman in 1980, Ferris had an ally instead of a watchdog. Using every tactic at their command, Ferris and Ferg jointly painted a picture that was alternately bleak without Blue Skies and rosy with it. Flying around to various pilot domiciles in his Learjet, Ferris wowed the assembled pilots with visions of rapid captaincies. For pilots who could not make the meetings (which skeptics referred to as “Dog and Pony Shows”), Ferris installed VCRs in crew lounges. The videotaped wisdom of Dick Ferris, with John Ferg cheerleading, was omnipresent.

Another factor in the selling of Blue Skies rested on Ferg’s appeal to a growing dissatisfaction with J.J. O’Donnell’s leadership. Ferg’s reputation as a fiery rhetorician accelerated during Operation USA in 1980, and he became quite adept at exploiting rank-and-file anger over the “giveaway” of the third crewmember by the 1981 Presidential Emergency Board. Ferg could be particularly vitriolic on the crew complement issue, which as we have seen was plaguing ALPA and causing the United pilot group (which stood increasingly alone in supporting it) to feel aggrieved at other pilot groups.

Deregulation also played a role in the selling of Blue Skies. Although United’s pilots had loyally toed the line in opposing deregulation along with the rest of ALPA, their boss, Dick Ferris, was one of its foremost supporters. During Dick Cosgrave’s MEC chairmanship, Ferris’s arguments gathered steam, and quiet support for deregulation grew among rank-and-file United pilots.

“Because United was so large, the CAB [Civil Aeronautics Board] was giving routes to everybody else, and we suffered dramatically,” says Rick Dubinsky, who served as Cleveland first officer representative under Dick Cosgrave in the late 1970s. “United pilots found themselves with 15-year flight engineers, while the Piedmonts of the world were rapidly moving seats. Ferris said: ‘Take the shackles off us, and we are going to kick ass, because United is the 500-pound gorilla who’s going to take its resources and pent-up energy and go out in a nonregulated industry and grow!’”

The Ferg–Ferris alliance both reflected and helped to mold a new militancy taking root among the previously “placid” United pilot group. This transformation took place rapidly, a quite surprising about face for a pilot group whose distinguishing characteristic had heretofore been cool detachment. In the aftermath of the 1985 strike, with United pilots wearing their militancy on their lapels, displaying a bewildering array of “battle stars” under ALPA tie-tacks and pins, they self-consciously saw themselves as the profession’s “Prussians,” the tough guys who had put it on the line and rescued real pilot unionism from its debilitating slide. But in the early part of Ferg’s MEC chairmanship, United’s pilots stood a chance of going in exactly the opposite direction, perhaps even leaving ALPA entirely! The celebrated three-day walkout by the United delegation at the 1980 BOD meeting in Los Angeles raised just such a possibility. It was the final factor in the coming of Blue Skies.

The United contingent’s walkout at Los Angeles both outraged and worried other BOD members. The United pilot group was beginning to exhibit the same kind of long-term disaffection that had characterized the American Airlines pilots in the early 1960s. Was John Ferg bidding to become the next Gene Seal, the American master chairman whose poisonous relationship with Clancy Sayen lay at the root of that group’s secession from ALPA? The historical parallels were ominous: in the early 1960s, the putative cause of the American group’s disaffection was ALPA’s crew complement policy; by the early 1980s, this issue’s forlorn offspring still troubled United. If a dedicated leadership group on United was inclined to exaggerate ALPA’s failures and thereby exploit this growing disaffection, things could get disastrously out-of-hand, much as they did on American in 1963, or so J.J. O’Donnell thought.

“The story of that 1980 walkout actually started earlier, when the United MEC passed a resolution to study the feasibility of pulling out of ALPA,” O’Donnell declared in his 1991 interview. “They later expunged it from their records, but we had some good friends on the United MEC who kept us apprised. Henry Weiss thought it was a serious threat at the time. He said, ‘John, you’ve got to visit the United MEC, let them take their pound of flesh. We can’t afford to let United pull out of ALPA.’”

After much dickering, O’Donnell secured Ferg’s permission to address a regular MEC meeting in Chicago in early 1980. Upon arrival, Ferg kept him waiting all day.  “I flew up that morning; it was cold and snowy in Chicago. I was supposed to go on at two o’clock,” O’Donnell remembered angrily. “Ferg went through the MEC meeting, had the committee meetings, everything else, and I didn’t get to go on that day.”

That night Ferg took O’Donnell to dinner. Reflecting the United pilots’ growing dissatisfaction with ALPA, Ferg threatened to lead a “restructuring” of ALPA that would reduce the national organization to relative impotence. Such talk, often bordering on outright secession, had been a staple at United grousing sessions for years. But in 1980, O’Donnell feared words might give way to action.

“Because I was in enemy territory, I had one drink and watched Ferg get pretty well sauced,” O’Donnell recalled later, although Ferg had no reputation for overimbibing. “At the end, he starts blurting out: ‘We’re going to set up a separate Airline Pilot Confederation. Eastern and TWA are going to come in, and American! We’ll send you a percentage of our dues; you can handle legislative in Washington, but we’ll handle everything else.’”

How genuine was United’s 1980 threat to secede from ALPA? It has been the subject of debate ever since, but ALPA’s national leadership took it seriously at the time, which Rick Dubinsky believes was warranted.

“I don’t think the average United pilot had thought that far down the road, but Ferg was looking forward to separating us from ALPA as early as 1980,” Dubinsky says flatly.

The mere possibility of such a breach brought O’Donnell scurrying to Chicago to head it off. When O’Donnell met with the full United MEC the next day, the anti-Ferg minority rebuked Ferg for not allowing O’Donnell to speak the previous day and moved that he be put on immediately at the beginning of the 9 a.m. session. This motion provoked a heated debate, during which O’Donnell had to patiently tolerate a long harangue from Ferg, basically on crew complement, but other things, too.

“The failure of ALPA financially, the failure to do things in Washington, the failure to establish negotiations, the failure to get a single national seniority list,” O’Donnell recalled Ferg’s laundry list with a snort. “National seniority list! Hell, we tried that in 1958; I was on the committee that studied it. We couldn’t get anybody interested.”

Because of what O’Donnell considered the dire threat of secession, he felt he had no choice but to quietly take these attacks and endure Ferg’s humiliating treatment. Once O’Donnell got the speaker’s rostrum, he emulated Andrew Jackson during the “Nullification Crisis” with South Carolina during the early 1830s. Although boiling mad and threatening privately to lead the U.S. Army south to hang nullification leader John C. Calhoun (who was, coincidentally, Jackson’s own vice-president during his first term), “Old Hickory” adopted a public tone of calm reasonableness in his celebrated “Proclamation to the People of South Carolina.” Like Andrew Jackson, O’Donnell controlled his anger while he argued for the ancient advantages of union, declaring that the strength of numbers outweighed any temporary gains that might come from independence.

“It was an awful beating, and I just stood there and took it for two and a half hours,” O’Donnell later recalled of that 1980 MEC meeting. “But I was really prepared by Henry Weiss, Jack Bavis, and Jerry Pryde, who was at the meeting, probably the best MEC chairman United had ever had, along with Dick Cosgrave, those two are number ones! I got a standing ovation from the MEC, which knocked me off my feet. John Ferg stood up and shook my hand after the speech and says to the MEC, ‘That’s why he’s president!’”

O’Donnell’s bravura performance at the MEC meeting, along with the considerable help he received behind the scenes from an antisecession faction led by Hal Osteboe and Jim Engleman, temporarily scuttled Ferg’s plans, whatever they were, for either outright secession or a new “confederation.” But Vice-Chairman Pat Austin disputes that Ferg had ever set up any formal “secret study committee.”

“Ferg made O’Donnell wait around longer than I thought was proper,” recalls Austin, a Ferg ally who was nevertheless embarrassed by his rudeness. “I definitely remember the episode, but J.J. was clearly overreacting. There was no big secret campaign to get out of ALPA.”

“There were enough people like Doug Wilsman and Hal Osteboe on United to stop it,” O’Donnell insisted in his 1991 interview. “When the committee report was finally finished, Ferg wouldn’t let it come to the MEC because it said they could solve their problems from inside of ALPA.”

But Ferg was gnawing on a big problem for ALPA, as even O’Donnell admitted. Deregulation, then in its first full year of operation, was causing small new-entrant airlines to spring up like dandelions after a rain. What did the United pilot group have in common with these new groups? Although many were becoming affiliated with ALPA, their airlines competed ruinously with the established carriers, and their wages and working conditions had a depressive effect.

“It could have been the little pebble that destroyed ALPA,” O’Donnell admitted later. “The small carriers’ pilot groups could not exist by themselves. John Ferg said there was a conspiracy in Washington to deprive the United pilots of their fair share, they weren’t getting enough resources. They were paying about $4 million in dues then, and they were getting back probably a million and a quarter. A million goes to Washington, and the other two million is spread out amongst these smaller airlines.”

O’Donnell countered Ferg’s argument by citing the necessity of using ALPA’s financial resources to sustain and organize the pilot groups of these new-entrant airlines. Transplanting ALPA to these new-entrants served everybody’s long-term interests, O’Donnell contended, and the price in lost dues money was small indeed when compared to the damage they might do if they remained outside ALPA. O’Donnell struck a responsive chord, actually converting most United MEC members, and Ferg, too, remarkably.

Logically, if United was to benefit from deregulation (as the Ferg–Ferris alliance vowed it would), new-entrant carriers would be inevitable. Organizing these new-entrant pilot groups was the obvious way to safeguard existing contracts—by bringing everybody else up to the major carriers’ level. Later, one subordinate cause of the 1980 Los Angeles walkout was the United pilots’ belief that the BOD had not given O’Donnell sufficient support in organizing Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA), the non-ALPA carrier that would later merge into USAir, now US Airways.

O’Donnell’s promise to meet regularly with the United MEC to keep it apprised of how its money was being spent defused the secession issue. In all probability, United’s MEC would not have supported it in early 1980, even if O’Donnell had not acted with such alacrity. Ferg, still in his first year as chairman, did not have firm control over the MEC on this issue. But this setback did not derail Ferg’s drive toward secession for long. At the 1980 BOD meeting later that year, Ferg would be in a much stronger position.

As we have seen, the crew complement issue finally came to a resolution through Operation USA and the PEB that followed it. But in the months leading up to Operation USA, the United pilot group was arguably becoming the most militant in ALPA, with crew complement as the principal cause. Certainly, John Ferg deserves some credit for this transformation of the United pilot group. By repeatedly stressing that the third crewmember meant jobs, talking about “solidarity,” and urging ALPA to “act like a real labor union,” Ferg in some sense midwifed the rebirth of the United pilot group’s militancy. The walkout that this militancy precipitated at the 1980 BOD meeting in Los Angeles profoundly startled everybody. But J.J. O’Donnell could see it coming as the various committees shaped up.

At BOD meetings, committees composed of delegates do the basic work and then make recommendations back to the general session. While that body theoretically has the last word, in fact the committees do the critical work. Each committee usually has an experienced core of pilots who have previous experience in ALPA affairs and who are able to lead their less knowledgeable colleagues. Typically, at that time, more than half the nearly 300 delegates at each BOD meeting were attending for the first time.

Each delegate gets assigned to at least one BOD committee, but an old policy allows voluntary switches, which ALPA’s president cannot control. As O’Donnell saw the list of names switching to the critical crew complement committee at the 1980 BOD convention, he sensed trouble.

“To be honest with you, I would take a critical issue and shift it to a particular committee which we were sure had solid citizens,” O’Donnell admitted in his 1991 interview. “At the time of this BOD meeting, United had 27 members on the MEC, so that meant at least one or two United guys were on each committee. Well, on the floor anybody can shift committees, and I could see, by the guys United was shifting to crew complement, that we had problems. They were radicals and crazies.”

When the committee dealing with crew complement came in with a report that dissatisfied the United contingent, they walked out. Actually, the United group had walked out on a previous ALPA BOD, in 1974 at Kansas City, over the failure to be granted a recess. But that trivial episode lasted only a few hours. In Los Angeles, their walkout was longer and far more threatening, with the United delegates leaving en masse, checking out of the hotel, wives, baggage, and all. But the walkout was not about seceding from ALPA, according to Chuck Pierce.

“Our intent was never to leave the Association,” Pierce says. “It was to demonstrate our anger with the BOD and particularly the actions of the Delta pilots. Pat Austin and I were the last to leave the hotel; we paid the bill and made sure our message got delivered to O’Donnell correctly and not by innuendo. Our last conversation was with Jack Bavis [O’Donnell’s executive administrator]. I believe now that our walkout was abrupt, arrogant, and too extreme. It led to the average United pilot being viewed as someone who is willing to tell the rest of ALPA how things should be done but isn’t willing to listen to somebody else’s opinion.”

For three days, nobody knew where the United pilots went or whether they would return. Henry Weiss and J.J. O’Donnell were visibly upset, preoccupied to the point of distraction over the walkout. For Henry Weiss, the episode seemed like an ugly replay of the American Airlines split 17 years earlier.

“I was greatly concerned,” ALPA General Counsel Henry Weiss admits. “I felt that whatever the intention of the walkout, which was like a military operation, with the whole MEC getting up and leaving as one man, that the longer it continued, the more likely it was that what may have started as a maneuver might become translated into a reality. It was simply unacceptable for the United pilots to be separated from ALPA for any length of time. I told J.J., ‘You and I better go looking for these people and work out some kind of understanding.’”

Rick Dubinsky confirms Weiss’s fears.

“If it had gone one more day,” Dubinsky believes, “we would have been gone.”

For the next three days, Weiss and O’Donnell scoured Los Angeles, looking for the United delegates without success. Only Rick Dubinsky remained at the BOD hotel to act as United’s representative. Why Dubinsky?

Although Rick Dubinsky bore a surname famous in labor history, he was not related to David Dubinsky, founder of the politically powerful International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Rick Dubinsky would eventually become well-known in ALPA because of his leadership during the 1985 strike, but in 1980 he was just a first officer representative from Cleveland of middling seniority, or so it seemed. But ALPA insiders understood very well that by the United pilots’ choice of Dubinsky to represent them, they were sending an unsettling message. Carrying himself like a middleweight boxer, Dubinsky brought to mind a character in an old Bowery Boys movie, the grim kid who’d never shrink from a street fight. But did that mean secession was imminent?

“There really wasn’t a consensus in favor of leaving ALPA,” Dubinsky explains, “but a significant number of United pilots would have gone home and worked for decertification.”

O’Donnell later speculated that Ferg had the support of slightly more than half his MEC, with the views of United’s rank-and-file a mystery. But only MEC members were at Los Angeles, so they were O’Donnell’s first concern.

Dubinsky knew where the United pilot group had gone and that they had not left Los Angeles. With the crisis growing steadily worse, Henry Weiss finally met with Dubinsky, after several fruitless cab rides to various hotels where Don Skiados, ALPA’s Communications Director, thought the United pilots might be.

“I asked Rick Dubinsky, ’Are you here to further a separation of the United pilots from the Association?’” Weiss recalls of their discussion. “He said, ‘Oh no, I’m an ALPA man.’ So we arranged a meeting between myself, O’Donnell, Pat Austin, and John Ferg. I was a little surprised that Rick was not invited to participate.”

In fact, Dubinsky’s absence from the meeting evidenced a degree of internal opposition to Ferg, which would become significant later. Although known as one of the “Ferg Dogs” (a tongue-in-cheek internal nickname that arose from jokes about Ferg’s ability to “sic his dogs” on opponents), Dubinsky was in the beginning stages of doubt about Ferg, particularly his advocacy of separating from ALPA. Dubinsky’s reluctance to throw out the baby with the bathwater would spread among United’s MEC until eventually the whole idea reached the stage of denial.

“We worked out a face-saving agreement,” Weiss declares, reluctant to be more specific about the details that brought the United pilots back into the fold at Los Angeles. “Years later, John Ferg and Pat Austin invited me to dinner. They said, ‘You know, when we walked out, that was only a maneuver.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘that wasn’t the flavor I got.’”

The exact terms of the deal worked out between O’Donnell and Ferg remain something of a mystery, but its general outlines are clear. The United pilots would return symbolically to the BOD meeting by sending three delegates, a captain, a first officer, and a second officer representative, each bearing proxies for their group. But the rest would stay away to dramatize their unhappiness.

As for the coming concessionary contract, which would be known as “Blue Skies,” Henry Weiss sums things up succinctly: “Ferg made it clear that he was not any longer going to allow ALPA policy to hinder him in making a deal with United.”

In one way or another, J.J. O’Donnell would have to accept Blue Skies and agree to whatever deal Ferg worked out with Ferris. In so doing, O’Donnell paid a huge price politically, for to say that the average delegate attending the BOD meeting was outraged at the United pilot group considerably understates things.

“The fact that the United MEC walked out of the convention brought us to a complete halt for three days,” remembers Northwest’s Skip Eglet, who was elected executive vice-president at the meeting. “O’Donnell, during that time, appeared to do nothing except grovel at their feet to try to get them to come back. It really hurt him with the rest of the Association.”

O’Donnell, worried about the consequences of United’s disaffection, saw himself as doing what his job required. He also felt a genuine sympathy for United’s pilots, which transcended the mere political fact that they had supported him before and would do so again during the 1982 presidential election.

“I had to take the heat and listen to their arguments,” O’Donnell says. “They said, ‘We’re the big guys, we provide most of the money, and everybody dumps on us.’ Which was kind of true. They felt they weren’t being listened to by the Association, that was really their biggest bitch. I satisfied the United MEC by courteously listening. If I hadn’t felt they had legitimate grievances, I wouldn’t have busted my hump to keep them in.”

So from the end of the October 1980 BOD meeting, Ferg had control of the situation. He would cut his deal with Ferris, confident that O’Donnell could do nothing to stop him. While the negotiations that would eventually result in Blue Skies progressed, the outcome of the third crewmember controversy went badly from the United pilots’ perspective, thus strengthening Ferg’s hand even further. The cycle of LEC elections brought several more Ferg supporters to the MEC in early 1981, thus placing him in a commanding position internally. Only a few ALPA activists were now bucking the “Ferg Dog” tide, one of whom was Harlow B. “Hal” Osteboe, a respected “nuts and bolts” type who would eventually win a first officer representative’s position on Council 12 in Chicago.

“Following the Los Angeles BOD meeting, Ferg made a concerted effort to get his people elected locally, particularly in Los Angeles and Seattle,” recalls Osteboe. “That meant he had solid support on the MEC for Blue Skies, and there was absolutely no question in my mind that because of the walkout, J.J. was going to have to sign the Blue Skies contract.”

Roger Hall, chairman of United’s Negotiating Committee, received his marching orders from the MEC shortly after the 1980 BOD meeting. By early 1981, reflecting Ferg’s successful politicking at the LEC level, the Negotiating Committee was composed entirely of new members, something of a departure for United’s pilots, who had a history of continuity on this important committee. But the new committee’s inexperience was mitigated somewhat by the fact that Hal Stepensky, an ALPA staff negotiator with 20 years of service, would assist them. The technical details of Blue Skies would be worked out quickly once Hall and Ferg, who were allies at the time, got their signals straight. Although Hall had been Ferg’s personal choice to conduct the negotiations and had resigned from the MEC to take the committee chairmanship, he was nevertheless troubled by Dick Ferris’s influence over Ferg and the process that surrounded the coming of Blue Skies.

“John Ferg became enamored with Dick Ferris; and before Blue Skies was done, they developed a very close relationship—too close, in fact,” Hall believes. “Ferris was doing a lot of nice things for John, picking him up at the O’Hare terminal and spending the evening at lavish dinners. John loved it, and there was no doubt Ferris was trying to buy Ferg. Ferris was very charismatic, and he could charm anybody. He wanted flexibility so he could go out and fly aggressively in the marketplace. Ferris came to the Negotiating Committee and said, ‘You guys can either give me relief in the work rules so I can buy airplanes and make United grow, or you can choose not to and we can continue as a stagnant airline, or even retrench a little.’”

For Roger Hall, a reserved engineering graduate of Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., Ferris’s proposals had obvious personal appeal. At the time, he was still only a B-727 first officer, after 17 years with United. Hall knew that Ferris’s proposal extended the scope of contract negotiations beyond the envelope ALPA had previously found acceptable, so he referred the matter to the MEC itself.

“What Ferris wanted was not the Negotiating Committee’s decision to make,” Hall believes. “It was a matter for the MEC and ultimately the entire pilot group to decide. Our attitude was that we really didn’t know where this thing was going. So when Ferris came to the MEC to make his pitch, the Negotiating Committee also went and just listened.”

Ferris proposed an ongoing type of contract that he said would address what United needed to expand. While the contract would have an amendable date, negotiations would continue on a regular basis, with constant meetings to solve problems that might arise. Ferris’s proposal made a certain sense, for there were so many uncertainties in what he eventually might need to “grow the airline” that until the pilots actually started living with Blue Skies, predicting its effect was nearly impossible.

“If the pilots had a problem with Blue Skies, he would take care of it,” Hall recalls Ferris promising. “He sold the MEC on the concept, and this is where his personality came into play. The man was extremely dynamic. So the direction we were given as a committee was to go off and negotiate the kind of agreement Ferris wanted. It seemed plausible and workable at the time.”

In return for substantial work rules concessions, which added about two days of flying per month for each pilot, Blue Skies called for a series of 6 percent pay raises sprinkled at intervals throughout the life of the contract, payable henceforth as flat monthly salaries. The actual dollar amount of concessions in Blue Skies is difficult to assess, but best estimates measured them at about 15 percent.

Things moved rapidly. By March 1981, Roger Hall’s Negotiating Committee had worked out the basic agreement. In August, the MEC gave its approval to Blues Skies following an 83 percent favorable ratification vote by the United membership at large. Negotiations on certain aspects of pension funding would drag on into 1982, but by September 1981, Blue Skies was an established fact. Everybody was pleased. Dick Ferris publicly declared “a new partnership between United and its pilots.” Peace, harmony, and satisfaction reigned. The millennium seemed to have arrived. What could that curmudgeonly 17 percent of United pilots have been thinking about when they voted “no” on Blue Skies?

Everybody was about to find out.

1 See “Jets and Thin Ice,” Flying the Line, Ch. 23, particularly pp. 251–53.
2 See “The Perils of Washington,” Flying the Line, Ch. 7, particularly pp. 62–67.

To Chapter 16

Back to Contents