The Secret of Southwest Airlines

A while back, someone asked me how Southwest Airlines (founded in 1971 as Air Southwest) had been able to remain non-union all this time, given that the airline industry is one of the most heavily unionized sectors of the economy.  I had to break the news to him that Southwest is not only unionized, but is, arguably, the most unionized (87 per cent) of any of the national carriers.  Surprise, surprise.

What made this fellow believe Southwest was non-union was the fact that he’d never heard of Southwest going out on strike and because “the employees always seemed so nice.”  While the implication that union workers were “less nice” than non-union workers was mildly insulting,  I explained to him that Southwest Airlines was renowned for its exemplary labor relations (including a generous profit-sharing plan).

In a 2008 in-house article, Joe Harris, a labor lawyer for Southwest, explained that the company’s harmonious employee relations were no accident.  “At Southwest, our employees come first; our customers come second; and our stockholders come third,” he said.  “The rationale is pretty simple. If we treat our employees right, they’re going to treat our customers right.  If our customers are treated right, they will come back and our stockholders will benefit.”

Given Southwest’s successful track record (as of 2009, it was the largest airline in the world, based on number of passengers carried per year), it makes you wonder why more companies haven’t adopted a similar philosophy.

As for the issue of “niceness” or “attitude,” that’s one of many weird myths that continue to plague unions.  I can’t count how many people, over the years, have complained to me that union jobs encourage workers to behave rudely “because they know they can’t be fired” (another myth).  But politeness—or the lack of it—has nothing to do with union membership.

Next time you encounter an impolite Walmart employee, convenience store clerk, tow-truck driver, waiter, ticket-taker, fast food worker, auto mechanic, taxi driver, house painter, parking attendant, roofer, bank teller, carpet-cleaner, etc., just remember that these people don’t belong to a union.  They’re simply people who are impolite.

Unfortunately, labor unions tend to be misunderstood.  People fail to recognize that a workers’ collective is really nothing more than a hands-on lobbying group, drawing its strength from common interests and common goals.  Without organized labor, working people would be in free-fall, totally at the mercy of their employers.  Most bosses simply can’t abide paying their workers one nickel more than they think they deserve….and, alas, what they think they deserve is usually driven by self-interest.

It’s human nature.

What would a Bill Gates or Warren Buffet do if he were strolling in a public park, and happened upon a $5 bill lying in his path?  Would he pick it up and pocket it, or would he look at the crumpled-up bill and think, “Hey, I’m a multi-billionaire.  What’s another five bucks going to mean to me?”  Answer:  He picks it up.  Money is money, and no one wants to part with it or pass up an opportunity to get more.  It’s human nature.  Labor unions are simply the barrier by which working people avoid getting steamrolled.

Consider the minimum wage.  It is presently $7. 25 per hour.  At that rate, if you work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, and never miss a single day, your annual pre-tax salary is $15,080—not exactly what one would call a “livable” income.  But without the minimum wage, meager as it is, employers would be playing off one desperate worker against another.  Without the minimum wage, the economy would become an unrestricted buyer’s market.

Indeed, it would resemble a reverse auction.  Who’s willing to work for $6.85 per hour?  Who will do it for $6.50?  Who will do it for $6.00?  Do I hear $5.75?  Do I hear $5.50?  If you don’t believe it, just look at how restaurant owners treat Mexican immigrants. Many of them don’t even pay them minimum wage.  Why?  Because they know these people will work for less and they see it as an irresistible opportunity to save money.

Regrettably, over the years organized labor has allowed itself to become demonized and caricatured.  Instead of decent wages and benefits being celebrated as a boon to the economy and testimony to an enlightened society, corporations have managed to turn the tables.  Like sleight-of-hand artists, they have diverted our attention elsewhere.

Instead of us being furious at the manipulators of the economy—those who grow increasingly wealthy while the middle-class continues to be chipped away—they’ve tricked us into being angry at working people.  They’ve gotten us to resent the wage-earner who makes $45,000 a year.  If you didn’t know better, you’d think the world had been turned upside down.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net



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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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