I have been writing for a while about the new labor challenges Southwest Airlines is facing--an unusual problem for an airline known for its relatively tranquil relations with its unions. And yesterday brought fresh signs--literally--that the problem is not going away.
The first big sign of imminent challenges came in December 2011, when Chairman and CEO Gary Kelly wrote a letter to employees warning about the carrier's labor cost "challenge" because of the cost cutting the airline's competitors had made or were making in Chapter 11 bankruptcy court restructurings. Southwest "can’t have lower overall operating costs if our labor costs aren’t lower,” he wrote at the time. “We can’t have lower labor costs if we aren’t more productive."
I wrote about the issue again in October, after Southwest and its Transport Workers union asked for federal mediation to help negotiate a new contract, in large part because of a roadblock over Southwest's desire for more outsourcing of the ground handler jobs. With negotiations with several more unions scheduled to to begin later in 2012, the inability to reach an agreement with the TWU seemed like an ominous sign.
Well, that TWU contract still is not resolved, and yesterday the unions members began informational picketing and leafleting at 16 airports in 12 states.That does not make for a good visual for Southwest, as you can see on this Dallas Morning News blog post showing the picketing near Love Field.