01 May 2010

1981: "I'M AN ACKER BACKER" pins are on everyone's lapels.
1985: "I'M AN ACKER BACKER" pins are in everyone's trashcans.

For years labor negotiations at Pan Am were always cordial and easily managed by both managers and union representatives who both passionate about the near-imperial status of their airline. Labor strife? That's below us. Strikes? That's below us here an Pan Am, too. Usually new labor agreements were hammered out at some local bar down the street from Pan Am's landmark New York City headquarters building. But that changed from 1981. Was it the airline's new chairman, smooth talking Texan C. Edward Acker? Was it the infusion of the employees of National Airlines in 1979? Was it deregulation?

Historians argue about where the fall of Pan Am begins, but there's no arguing the dismal financial record that continued even with Ed Acker at the helm. In 1982 Pan Am set an industry record with a half-billion dollar loss for the year- of course today, in the paraparetic state of the US domestic airline industry, that's a good year. Loss after loss mounted as Pan Am found itself lacking decent domestic feed (even after the acquisition of National Airlines) and under siege from more savvy competitors both domestically and internationally. Acker pushed through pay cuts which at first were readily agreed to by the employees of Pan Am and agreed in principle to what was called a "snapback"- after a given period of time, the pay scales would be restored. Acker reneged on the snapback and court litigation started flying.

Of course, it's not just losses alone that sank morale at Pan Am. In 1984 Acker's negotiating representatives (led by Raymond Grebey- the guy who precipitated the baseball players' strike in 1981) did an remarkably efficient job at angering the various union leaders. And then there was an internal consultants' report commissioned by the board that blamed the airline management for an inability to confront its mounting problems.

First to break ranks and offer concessions was the pilots' union. But their lead wasn't followed by the other unions of the airline. The Transport Workers Union were fed up dealing with Grebey and walked out February 28, 1985. With the mechanics walking out in the first strike in Pan Am's history, the other unions, including ALPA, followed suit.

It was the strike the broke the morale of Pan Am for good.

Friendships ended as some returned to work after only a week- death threats were exchanged between those returning and those manning the picket lines. Pilots returning to work would get spit on by former friends, flight attendants found themselves socially alienated whether they stayed on strike or returned to work. By the time the strike was officially over as each union group hastily signed new contracts, the airline would be littered with the corpses and carcasses of broken friendships, damaged work relationships, and simmering resentment not just at fellow employees but directed at C. Edward Acker and his management team.

Growing up, Pan Am was one of those airlines that was in a category all of its own and I remember following the events at Pan Am in the newspapers. Pan Am wasn't just an American icon, Pan Am was THE American Icon. Ever since the 1920s under Juan Trippe and his successors, Pan Am was the defacto "other" State Department of this nation as it carried the US flag on the tails of its jetliners worldwide. Aviation enthusiasts talk about Braniff or TWA and their overseas destinations and operations, and while those airlines had substantial contributions to the history of US aviation and commerce, it always paled in comparison to the rich history implied by that famous blue globe.

The strike at Pam Am damaged that image. The shine, the luster of what was an iconic airline of what it was to be American and the expression of that history wasn't what it was after the winter of 1985. It wasn't the beginning of the end. It was another step on the road to the airline's shut down in 1991 but for a lot of folks like myself who grew up with the mystique of Pan Am, it was a big shock.

Source: Skygods- The Fall of Pan Am by Robert Gandt. Palawdr Press, 1989.

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