Labor Relations in the Aerospace Industry

Labor relations in the aerospace industry has changed dramatically in recent years, but there are a wide variety of proactive actions employers can take now. Having weathered enormous turmoil through the COVID-19 pandemic, this industry has learned to minimize the impact of outside forces even as companies had to endure furloughs, layoffs, reductions in benefits and more.   As a result, today, many employers in aerospace are facing workers who are disengaged, and may be lacking skills or leadership. 

What this tells us is that aerospace employers are now operating in a prime setup for labor unions to aggressively pursue union contract concessions during negotiations, and to increase membership through union organizing campaigns. To remain free of unions or to protect a company's reputation through union contract negotiations requires a carefully constructed employee communication strategy that addresses employee needs and labor-wise leadership training and development. Considering the current union activity and the words of aviation and aerospace employees, there is plenty of information available today to guide employers in developing a response to unions and strengthening positive employee relations during this period of conflict.   

Aerospace: What's in a Name?  

As of August 2022, aerospace  companies employ 1.7 million people in the United States, of which 1.2 million are in production and nonsupervisory positions.. It's a large and complex  industry, that represents a wide variety of skillsets at all levels, from highly skilled propulsion systems integrators to part-time test engineers. It's significant to note that aviation and aerospace industry sectors are unique in that they each have a different focus, but they also are not entirely distinct. A machinist, for example, may manufacture parts in either sector. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has aircraft mechanics and service technician positions in the "air transportation" industry and the "support activities for transportation" sector.  

The aerospace industry is considered the business that designs, manufactures and assembles aircraft, spacecraft, and missiles. It consists of aerospace engineering and operations and product and parts manufacturing. Many positions are aerospace engineers, machinists, mechanical engineers, and machine tool operators. The variety of engineering disciplines include workers in aerodynamics, aircraft design, aeronautics, astronautics, flight systems testing, rocket and wind tunnel, and satellite design and manufacturing, to name a few. Aerospace is a high-tech industry concerned with flying air and spacecraft in the earth's atmosphere and space. Its high-tech characteristics are important when discussing organization by unions such as the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM).

During COVID-19, aerospace industry workers were laid off in large numbers due to fewer orders coming in. Many of those who continued working accepted pay cuts and reductions in benefits and adjusted work schedules. Since then, inflation has cut into wage increases. While aerospace engineers rate their happiness higher than other employees, the same is not true of machinists and machine tool operators in lower-level positions. Machining is a stressful job, and that makes safety a top concern. Many workers in aerospace are concerned that they are increasingly competing with advanced technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI). 

The 2021 Facts & Figures U.S. Aerospace & Defense report prepared by the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) examined the changes and challenges the industry experienced and continues to experience.  

  • Workforce reduction of 87,000 due to the pandemic  
  • 2.09 total workers employed to account for 1.4 percent of total employment in the U.S.   
  • $104,577 average A&D industry wage and benefits, which are 41 percent above the national average  
  • Reduction in civil aviation customers led to drastic cuts in spending on aircraft, spare parts, and related products, leading to the workforce's downsizing, only mitigated by government support.   
  • The labor unions are pushing the U.S. government to protect union jobs via many legal and regulatory changes.  

There is a big difference in pay between aerospace and aviation. In 2021, aviation positions such as airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers made an average annual wage of $201,610. Ticket agents made an average of $49,440. Mechanical engineers made $98,470, and machinists made $52,500.   

The aerospace sector experienced a significant decline in employment during the pandemic but this trend began much earlier, with 600,000 scientific and technical aerospace jobs lost in the past 13 years. The Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry recommended "that the nation immediately reverse the decline in and promote the growth of a scientifically and technologically trained U.S. aerospace workforce…" adding that "the breakdown of America's intellectual and industrial capacity is a threat to national security and our capability to continue as a world leader."    

Are your aerospace workers vulnerable to union organizing? Find out now!

Reading through the 2021 Aerospace and Defense report, many issues concerning employees are discussed, including job security and access to training. A survey of engineering students rated the aerospace industry low for its physical work facilities, inability to offer what they see as exciting and meaningful tasks, lack of opportunities for professional development and growth, and lack of supportive and encouraging management.    

Inadequate leadership development makes it more difficult to overcome challenges in aerospace. The Commission recommended that resolving the crisis will require government, industry, labor, and academia to work together. This gives labor unions a higher profile in the industry, especially in apprenticeships and employee training.    

The biggest concern is similar to other highly technical industries - the skills gap. The IAM is leveraging this concern by calling for union-certified apprenticeship programs and training programs and a variety of government efforts, like strengthening "Buy American" requirements and encouraging manufacturers to require FAA's Aviation Safety Action Program." People completing the apprenticeship programs get jobs in unionized companies and become union members. Union-supported apprenticeship programs are also union membership feeder programs.   

The IAM Proposal for a U.S. Aerospace Strategy titled Rising Potential says, "The industry needs stronger collaboration between unions and industries to continually recruit and upskill workers to meet the industry's demands for today and tomorrow…. Labor unions like IAMAW champion for its members to have a voice on the job and offer the means for them to upskill as they keep pace with changing market demands."   

Unhappy on the Job in the Aerospace Industry  

Labor union activity is occurring on many fronts in the aerospace industry. They are informative as to the issues on which aerospace workers are focused.  

  • In February 2022, 300 union employees at Collins Aerospace in Troy, Ohio, picketed outside the company after rejecting a proposed contract. The union employees were locked out of the workplace. The employee grievances included claiming the company wanted to take a future pension away for future hires and believing they didn't have a large enough wage increase due to inflation. The company requires bargaining units to have active contracts in place for employees to work. This would presumably be due to the sensitive nature of the work and the need to minimize risks associated with unhappy employees. The employees say they want to go back to work under the old contract.    
  • In April 2022, employees at Eaton Aerospace picketed in various areas of Jackson, MS, in advance of labor negotiation. The workers said the company is trying to reduce their benefits and wages and make overtime mandatory. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) also issued a complaint that Eaton had violated the National Labor Relations Act in nine ways. The NLRB allegations include intimidation, retaliation, discharge, unilateral changes modifying the contract, promises of benefits, and disciplining the union president.   
  • In July 2022, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace (IAM) District 837 voted to strike at Boeing after rejecting the company's contract offer. The statement issued by the IAM spokesperson said Boeing had taken away a pension and would not agree now to compensate employee 401(k) plans despite the company making large profits. Boeing responded by saying it would activate a contingency plan for continuity of operations.    
  • In July 2022, more than 100 JetBlue Ground Operations Crewmembers conducted an appreciation rally at JFK in New York. Hosted by the Machinists Union organizers, which ground crews want to join, the IAM Air Transport Territory General Vice President Richard Johnsen said employees are "tired of sitting on the sidelines," and they deserve as much respect as managers and executives. The proposed solution: Gaining the protections of a union contract. It's important to note that Tristan Dutchin attended. She is one of the founders of the independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU) and a lead organizer. The rally made it easy for employees to sign union authorization cards on the spot.    
  • While the aviation industry has significant differences, workers are closely related to aerospace workers. Delta flight attendants are the only flight attendants not unionized at a major airline. The rest belong mostly to the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA). Delta's flight attendants are now gathering union authorization cards in the hopes of getting a supermajority that leads to a union election.   

Shameka, a Delta flight attendant, says, "I would like to have a seat at the table when it comes to negotiating my work group, my compensation, my work-home balance, and the only way to accomplish this is to bring our collective power to the bargaining table."    

  • There are numerous union organizing campaigns in progress. IAM has major campaigns occurring at JetBlue, JetStream Airlines, and Swissport, with plans for another "huge organizing campaign" during fall 2022. Four unions are collaborating to launch the organizing campaign to make it harder for Delta to avoid unionization because there will be four labor unions to address instead of one.   
  • The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers had reached a deal in April with "historic pay" increases for 5,000 Lockheed Martin Corp workers in Fort Worth, Texas. Now it has started talks with Boeing Co's defense unit. The IMA union has also been negotiating a new contract for Southwest Airlines Co's customer service agents. The employees have reached a tentative agreement twice, and they both fell through. The last agreement, voted down by Southwest workers in May, included a 15% increase in pay over three years and a signing bonus.   

A variety of labor unions represent aerospace employees.  

  • International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM)  
  • National Association of Air Traffic Controllers (NATCA) (affiliated with the AFL-CIO)   
  • Transport Workers Union of America (AFL-CIO)   
  • Teamsters Airline Division (IBT) 
  • United Auto Workers (UAW)
  • Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA)
  • IFPTE Local 2001 (affiliated with the AFL-CIO)   
Aerospace CAD

Emotionally Detached and Miserable  at Work: Aerospace Job Dissatisfaction

A Gallup survey found that employees in all industries are unhappy, including aerospace:

  • 60 percent of global employees say they are emotionally detached at work  
  • 19 percent of global employees say they are miserable  
  • In the U.S.,50% of workers reported feeling stressed at their jobs daily  
  • In the U.S, 41% are worried daily  
  • In the U.S., 22% are sad  
  • In the U.S., 18% are angry  

Despite the fact that employers have tried to accommodate employee needs for things like flexible schedules and work-life balance, a large percentage of workers remain disengaged and unhappy. Gallup researchers say it takes more than policy changes like fewer hours and a different work location. As IRI Consultants advise clients, what matters is the employee experience, referring to how employees are managed, coached, and treated. The number one reported cause of dissatisfaction with the job experience is unfair treatment at work which reflects a culture that lacks respect, community, and recognition. Unfair treatment can be many things, including a perceived inconsistency in compensation, bias, favoritism, and unfair corporate policies.   

Job dissatisfaction is also caused by workloads that are too heavy, lack of clear communication from managers, lack of manager support, and unreasonable deadlines. Gallup's survey found that the leader accounts for 70 percent of the variance in team engagement. There is a clear conclusion that better leadership can best address employee satisfaction.   

Jim Harter, the chief scientist of workplace management and wellbeing at Gallup, told CNBC, "The role of the manager is really important in wellbeing. Their first job is to make sure the work-related things are right — people know what their role is, they get recognized when they do good work, they feel cared about at work and have a chance to develop in the future, and they can see where they're headed in the organization. If you can get those sorts of things right, you start building trust. And when you have trust, you can open the door for having broader discussions around wellbeing." Other critical leadership skills include holding meaningful conversations with employees about goals, personal strengths, and the employee as a person.   

A Case Study in Leadership Communication  

The YouTube video Boss Threatens to Fire All Machinists is a real-world example of the importance of leadership communication. A machinist discusses his manager's lack of support for the machinists, saying he has a master's degree in mathematics but no practical machining experience. The machinist says the manager understands "spreadsheets and power points" but doesn't know how to actually make anything.   

One day the manager called all the machinists into the conference room when they usually met on the shop floor. The manager asked the employees if they had seen the new 3D printer. The machinists said it did a decent job but was "by no means an industrial printer." The manager passed around a plastic part made with the 3D printer, saying, "Engineering is unhappy with how long it's taking you guys to make your parts, and if you don't speed it up, these 3D printers are going to replace you."   

With that one statement, says the machinist, the manager lost all credibility and respect from the entire team.  

The machinist goes on to explain the threat was ridiculous because the department was responsible for making very precise parts out of steel, so the idea the parts could be made out of a "hobby level 3D printer" was ridiculous. You could imagine how the machinists with 20+ years of experience reacted when told a 3D plastic printer could replace them and the skills they spent their whole career developing. The machinists didn't appreciate the manager devaluing their skills. It takes a high level of skills to take a piece of metal and form it into complex machinery. "We knew he couldn't do what he said, and our boss's ignorance didn't change what was true," said the machinist.   

The machinists returned to work, furious about the slap in the face. They believed they had an incompetent boss and an engineering team that couldn't comprehend what the machinists did because they also had no practical machining experience. Machinists would get a part that had three or four operations in steel with tight tolerances and have to program it, set it up, run it and inspect it in one day. For two weeks, the machinist team joked about taking the part to the manager and having him print out a plastic part.   

When the owner found out what happened, the manager was fired.   

Says the machinist, "To this day, that was the worst display of leadership I have ever seen. I don't know of any leadership success stories that involve disrespecting and threatening your workers as a form of motivation. If our boss at the time had inspired us to push the limits of what's possible and given us the tools to be faster and more efficient, that would have been a message that resonated with the machinists, and that would have been something I could have respected."   

Managers should be inspiring people to utilize all the tools they have at their disposal and not threaten them by saying they will be replaced by technological advancements. Words matter, and they should always be labor-wise words.   

Aerospace worker

What Aerospace Employers Can Do Now

So many aerospace employees are not engaged, and that is understandable. After massive layoffs, job insecurity, a need for upskilling, and a labor shortage, employees are not feeling loyalty, trust, or engagement. There are many takeaways for employers from the state of the industry based on the union activity to date, planned union activity and frustrations expressed by employees at all position levels.  Here are the top takeaways for the near future:

  • Employees want a voice - Shameka, the Delta flight attendant mentioned earlier, told the  Guardian, "We put up with so much when it came to short-staffing when it came to being abused by passengers, verbally and physically," she said. She argued she would have liked to see a better sick policy so workers could afford to take a day off for rest and recuperation amid the stressful working environments they found themselves in. Aviation and aerospace employees want a say in how they work and in organizational policy decision-making.    
  • Train employees – The employees working with advancing technologies in aerospace want upskilling as needed, and employers must offer new hires relevant skills training to attract talent in a tight labor market. Employees need to remain prepared for the future. Coupled with this is a plan for career opportunities to improve employee retention. Employee training needs can include customized training in various areas that include job skills training, corporate policies, communication training, benefits programs, etc. Determine the workforce's most pressing training needs and begin with those.   
  • Maintain a state of union readiness - All aerospace companies must maintain a state of readiness for union activity by maintaining a continuity plan and a pre-strike contingency plan. This applies to both union and non-union companies. Unions can disrupt businesses even at non-union companies through corporate campaigns.    
  • Recognize the growing influence of independent labor unions- The independent and traditional labor unions are working together to increase their power and influence.  
  • Train and develop leadership in employee engagement – It can't be said enough times that managers and supervisors in aerospace need to master the skills that build employee engagement. These include emotional intelligence, honesty, transparency, communication skills, coaching, setting and sharing goals, collaboration, giving and receiving feedback, helping employees with career planning, and employee recognition.   
  • Communicate with employees – Maintaining quality communication with employees is one of the most important steps aerospace employers can take to improve the employee experience. Employees need to fully understand job expectations in great detail; know leaders have an open-door policy (i.e., does the employee feel comfortable expressing burnout or work-life balance issues to a manager); feel respected at all times (i.e., remember the machinist case study); and the status of compensation, benefits, and scheduling in relation to competitors, to name some top areas.  
  • Train leaders to be labor-wise– So many times, aerospace industry employers face a union organizing campaign because their managers are not properly trained in talking with employees about unions. They may not understand employee rights under the NLRA, the TIPS and FOE rules, or what constitutes an Unfair Labor Practice (ULPs). In other words, their labor relations skills are weak.  
  • Strengthen safety policies and procedures – Safety of course is always top-of-mind in a manufacturing environment, and aerospace is no different. Today's confusing array of shifting health and safety policies may make this an excellent time to collaborate with employees to develop more structured policies, giving employees a voice in the real world of their workplaces on earth and in the sky.   
  • Ensure employees have the right resources – A common employee grievance in aerospace is that they are expected to complete their job responsibilities without all the resources needed. An employee survey can provide information about the tools, information, and technologies aerospace employees need access to in order to succeed.  
  • Strengthen leadership understanding of employee work – Do your managers really understand what their employees do each day? Do they fully understand the typical workday and the skills required of those they supervise? In aerospace, leaders need a comprehensive view of what it takes to get the job done.  
  • Review all Human Resources policies – Review policies impacting employees, including leave time and compensation. Delta Airlines became the first U.S. airline to pay flight attendants for boarding time. The AFA-CWA is saying that management is doing this as a direct result of organizing. It is much better to get out in front of labor unions and develop policies that make sense in the current environment and based on what employees are expressing as issues.   

Aerospace Industry in Turmoil   

While the aerospace industry may be in turmoil, it is also an opportunity for employers to make changes that build strong positive employee relations. This is the time to make a sincere effort to engage employees beginning by improving communication and giving employees a voice. Employees are alienated when they believe employers are not listening to them.   

Aerospace employers should assess  vulnerability to potential union organizing or strikes and protests, their own employee communication processes, and employee-related policies. Speaking honestly, even the various government and industry associations make it clear there are no simple answers, especially to filling positions requiring technical skills. That's all the more reason to partner with labor relations consultants who can help management get to the heart of the issues as quickly as possible.    

Contact our team of experts at IRI Consultants for a collaborative approach to turning workforce turmoil into positive employee relations.  

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About the Author Mike Lake

Mike is a mission-driven senior executive with the expertise to swiftly assess public policy and corporate threats and develop multi-disciplinary campaigns that achieve results. Mike brings 30+ years public and private sector experience in building consensus among key audiences, protecting brand and reputation, coordinating internal and external stakeholder groups around a core vision, enhancing team performance, and aligning organizational purpose through advocacy and community engagement.