AMR Pilot Leader Bates Held an Impossible Job
DALLAS (TheStreet) -- The surprise is not that Dave Bates stepped down as president of the pilots union at American (AAMRQ.PK) last week, but rather that he lasted for two years.
Bates resigned under pressure on Thursday, after pilots voted to reject a tentative contract offer he had backed.
"I thought it was the best deal we could get," he said Sunday, in an exclusive interview. "When the members decisively rejected that, they were voting for a change of direction.
"I thought it was best to step down and let (union leaders) select someone who more accurately reflects what the members wanted," he said. "I didn't want a divisive battle."
Few jobs are more difficult than leading an airline union down the concessionary path that bankruptcy demands. In general, union leaders who manage this task are quickly cast aside, although some do manage to make it to the end of the bankruptcy process.
Bates was a leader who realized that a union succeeds only if the company employing its members also succeeds. His predecessor, by contrast, reveled in an adversarial relationship and eschewed compromise and, as a result, failed to accomplish anything at all.
The future seemed promising when Bates took over as president of the Allied Pilots Association in July 2010. "I came in with the intent to return our pilots to where we needed to be in the industry," Bates said. "I never wavered from that until American filed for bankruptcy."
Unfortunately, even then, American was losing money and spiraling towards bankruptcy. As a result, "we could never come together," Bates said. "The agreement we were offered was not one I was going to bring to members."
In October 2011, the airline publicly announced a contract offer, but the chance of approval was so slight that the union did not call for a vote. As Dallas Morning News American beat reporter Terry Maxon wrote at the time, "We may be at the point now where management has gone as far as it can with a deal that doesn't go nearly far enough for the pilots to approve."
Soon after the contract effort failed, American sought bankruptcy protection. In bankruptcy, a company can impose a contract. "In bankruptcy things are taken away from you by the force of law," Bates said. "Under these conditions, the job of a union leader is to protect as much of our contract agreement as possible."