Southwest Airlines Co., the proud owner of a company culture that values fun, hard work and an unorthodox mindset, is contending with an unaccustomed challenge: hostile public disputes with its labor unions.
Waves of employees are picketing and waving anti-Southwest placards while unions representing more than two-thirds of the workforce called on Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly to step down this month. Additionally, the carrier’s head of labor relations, Randy Babbitt, announced his retirement late Tuesday.
The acrimony is fueling concerns about higher expenses as many employees fight for their first pay raises in years. The airline says it needs productivity gains and new work rules after losing much of its advantage in operating costs over American Airlines Group Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc. and other larger rivals. Southwest is also fending off ultra-discounters like Spirit Airlines Inc.
While Southwest is no stranger to tough contract negotiations — more of its employees belong to unions than at any other U.S. carrier — what’s new is the degree to which those labor groups are going public with details of the talks.
Southwest began operations in 1971, flying to three Texas cities with three planes. Today, it carries more passengers on domestic routes than any other, operates 719 aircraft and has 53,200 employees.
Read more: St. Louis Post-Dispatch