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American Airlines hired Patt Gibbs to serve peanuts with a smile, but when the feisty union leader faced the likes of Robert Crandall, she couldn’t play nice anymore.
By Sally Giddens |

The noise in the conference room had reached a decibel level that Ralph Nader would no doubt call harmful. And it wasn’t because this meeting was at the American Airlines corporate headquarters next to the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. No, planes were not causing this ruckus, not directly anyway. The source of the noise was in part Patt Gibbs. Once again Gibbs, as president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), found herself involved in a battle between one of her union members and management. This was a grievance session, nothing terribly out of the ordinary, but Gibbs was getting nowhere with the management representative. Abruptly, she announced that she would just have to go over this guy’s head to get something done. He was right on her heels as she stormed out of the room, continuing his end of the screaming match-When Gibbs whirled around to meet him head on, she hit the guy in the chest with her coffee cup and spilled coffee all over the place.

This fast-paced, hot-tempered, but relatively innocuous scene was soon known by the American rank and file as the “coffee cup incident.” The fallout from the little scuffle was anything but innocuous: American tried to suspend Gibbs for the incident, the press picked it up, and eventually it sounded as if Gibbs was the flight attendant’s version of Michael Tyson. The clash took place in 1986-just before Gibbs began intense labor contract negotiations with American-and it would take more than two years for the incident to be resolved.

No, Patt Gibbs doesn’t act like a flight attendant, and she doesn’t look like one either, Short and solid, she has an absolutely no-nonsense appearance. A runner and cyclist, she exudes strength from handshake to eye contact. You can tell by looking at her that if she had really wanted to hit that American management representative, she wouldn’t have bumped him in the chest with a coffee cup-she could have flattened him.

“I don’t fit the flight attendant image,” Gibbs says, “and I take a lot of heat from the constituency for that.” Gibbs says some of the union members simply want to be led by someone who “looks like a flight attendant. I always come back with the question, ’Do you want someone who looks like a flight attendant, or do you want someone who is qualified to do the job?’”

Gibbs is definitely qualified for the job. She performed ably enough last December to break American’s stubborn hold on a two-tier pay plan, which Gibbs’s arch-opponent Robert Crandall, chairman of American Airlines, had instituted in 1983 to cut costs. She has been head of APFA six different times. She has negotiated five major contracts for the union, and each of those contracts was successfully ratified by the constituency the first time out.

The APFA union member is very different from that stereotypical blue-collar union worker ready to go on strike at a moment’s notice. Flight attendants, remember, are “hired to be nice,” as Gibbs puts it. But you can’t sit at the bargaining table with management, Gibbs says, be nice, and get anything in return.

Gibbs may have learned some of her lessons in toughness from Crandall. Though he never sits in on labor contract negotiations, Crandall is closely involved in every aspect of the company. During most of her contract negotiations, Gibbs faced Crandall’s chief negotiator Charles Pasciuto, who retired this spring from American after twenty-one years as one of the most brilliant labor contract negotiators in the country. No, Patt Gibbs couldn’t get anything from these guys by simply being nice. And she learned her lesson a long time ago.

Three months after she started flying, Gibbs, who grew up in a middle-class family in Springfield, Missouri, got involved in union work, but it wasn’t by choice. When she started flying with the airlines, her goal was to be in management (later, she got her pilot’s rating and entertained the idea of applying for a pilot’s position with American). But one evening, out of curiosity, she went to a union meeting in the Transport Workers Union hall in Dallas at Love Field. She says she was one of five people who showed up.

“All of the other people there were very, very senior,” Gibbs says, “and they were so happy to see someone voluntarily come that they decided to elect me as one of the officers.”

Shortly afterward, Gibbs got a phone call from the chairperson, who told her that she was going on a medical leave and that Gibbs would have to take over in her absence. A stewardess (all flight attendants were women in those days) had a grievance hearing coming up and Gibbs would have to represent the employee.

“I said, ’First of all you must be mistaken, because I did not join the union.’ And she said that they had paid my dues and joined me up. I said that I didn’t want to join up, but she told me, ’Well you are, and you are the officer, and you have to go and do this because I am not going to be here.’ That was that,” Gibbs says.

The grievance concerned a flight attendant who had spilled coffee on her light blue, all-wool summer uniform while flying through turbulence into Chicago. She had arrived in Chicago at midnight on Saturday night and departed at 8 a.m. Sunday morning, so there was no way that she could have gotten her uniform cleaned. The flight attendant had been suspended for three days without pay for having a dirty uniform. That sounds pretty harsh, but it was typical, Gibbs says, of management-employee relations in 1962. “We walked into the hearing and the base manager came out and asked me who I was. I told him, and he said, ’I’m glad you could make it. Have a seat and we will go in and have the hearing.1 So I sat outside while the grievant and the manager went in and had the hearing.”

While she sat, she started looking through some little books the union had sent her, and she eventually got to the section on grievances and found out that as the grievant’s representative, she was supposed to be in that hearing presenting the facts and the arguments as to why this flight attendant shouldn’t be disciplined for the action, But by the time Gibbs realized what was going on, the hearing was over and her grievant had lost.

Gibbs wasn’t about to stand for that. In those days flight attendants were trained to call anybody in management by their last name, Mr. So and So, even though the flight attendants were always called by their first names.

“Of course, he was calling me Patt,” Gibbs says. “So, I decided to get brave and I said, ’Listen, Ed, you got away with this this time, but it will be the last time that you make a fool of me, and I intend to win this grievance now and I will.’”

Well, Gibbs did win that grievance, arguing that “Ed” had denied her grievant representation at the initial level of the hearing. The flight attendant got her three days’ pay returned.

It was this earlier “coffee incident” that set the ball in motion. After that, Gibbs’s mission on behalf of flight attendants began in earnest. She soon learned that the FAA and OSHA didn’t get involved in issues regarding flight time and duty time limitations or any kind of health and safety issues.

“I realized that for flight attendants the union really is the only way that they get any kind of protection,” Gibbs says.

In the Sixties, all attendants were called stewardesses, and they were supposed to be young and good-looking adornments for the airline. They were required to retire at age thirty-two. So they couldn’t get old, and they couldn’t get married, couldn’t be black or male, couldn’t have babies.

“You really couldn’t be a human being in those days,” Gibbs says. She says many flight attendants are still guilty of “buying into management’s brainwashing” regarding appearance. “Why are they there? To evacuate the airplane. So do you want someone who can open the exit, or do you want someone who looks good in a uniform?” Gibbs asks.

Gibbs has faced sharp criticism both from management and her union constituents for the tactics that led to an agreement last December between American and the union, averting a potentially crippling Christmas strike. Says American’s vice president of corporate communications, Lowell Duncan: “Obviously, as a leader of the union, Patt did do a lot of things that were not in the best interest of the company or the employees.”

Management is still trying to get used to Patt Gibbs, and no wonder: some of her strategies had never been used before in American’s labor disputes. At the onset of the contract negotiations, APFA took a no-strike position. Then, as the talks moved into the winter months, while the company was in a pared-down, lean employment situation with few replacements on hand and with the heavy holiday travel upon them, Gibbs called for a strike vote. To management’s surprise, she got a successful strike vote, and then called for 13,000 flight attendants to walk off the job in a two-day show of solidarity beginning December 23. Management and Gibbs still differ in their estimates of how many flight attendants would have participated in the strike. But we’ll never know who was right because that strike never happened. APFA and American settled the contract dispute just three hours before the walkout would have begun.

Although the company claimed during that period that it did not lose any revenue, Crandall later announced that third-quarter 1987 losses were a result at least in part of the proposed strike. The sting from that didn’t last long, though: Crandall recently announced that American’s parent AMR Corporation’s earnings were up 244 percent in the first quarter of 1988 from the same period in 1987. AMR earned a record $68.4 million in that period. But last December, Gibbs was threatening Crandall where it hurts most-in the bottom line.

“Once you make an impact on the economic side of the company,” Gibbs says of her strategy, “then they are going to have a vested interest to try and end that battle.”

But she says the union did consider the company’s position. The company maintained that it couldn’t afford an up-front instant merge, which would have brought all of American’s flight attendants to one wage scale-and both pilots and ground crews had agreed to ten-year merges of two-tier systems. An instant merge would have spawned a cash-flow problem, Gibbs says, since that would have more than doubled the low end of the wage scale.

“We were not out to bust the company. That is the dumbest thing you can try as a union leader, because the end result is you put yourself out of a job, too,” Gibbs says.

But Gibbs did play hardball. When AMR Corporation moved its shareholders meeting from Dallas to Raleigh, North Carolina- which some say was an attempt to keep the union from making a “Patt Gibbs show” out of the meeting-Gibbs and the APFA bought stock, rented a plane, and went to Raleigh-Durham to the stockholders meeting. There, Gibbs says, she was able to get some answers to financial questions that she couldn’t get in the normal bargaining process at the table.

Then there was the pamphlet incident in March of 1987, when Gibbs sent off-duty flight attendants to distribute pamphlets to passengers at the D/FW Airport. The APFA had a permit from the airport board to distribute the information, but American took exception to some of the phrases regarding “reckless disregard for airplane safety.” Twenty flight attendants who passed out the pamphlets were dismissed in short order. The flight attendants were eventually reinstated with back pay, but the incident still lights a fire under American management. And with that move, Gibbs didn’t make her union brothers over at the TWU, which represents the maintenance workers, too happy either. But Gibbs sees it all as just a part of playing with the tough guys.

“A lot of people have rude awakenings in these contract bargainings. It was a tough battle, and it tested everyone’s strengths and weaknesses-the leaders as well as the followers. That was where I took the greatest hits as a leader because I pushed the people to the limits I thought we could take. And I was right,” Gibbs says.

To help her play hardball with the big boys, Gibbs started attending law school in West Los Angeles several years ago, commuting from her home in Roanoke, north of Fort Worth, twice a week. Her bargaining opponents had that training, and Patt Gibbs wanted to argue from equal ground.

So why, after her major symbolic victory of breaking Crandall’s two-tier wage, did Gibbs’s constituency vote her out of the union office last March? Ironically, supporters of Michael Kelliher, the new president, say that union members don’t like the contract. Although the two-tier wage system will be phased out, they say the new contract Gibbs got is just not that good. During the six-year pact, flight attendants will get annual salary increases based on their current salaries, but they won’t be getting any big raises during that period. And critics claim that the new contract, which provides for averaging attendants’ flight days, means flight attendants will fly more days for less money.

And then there is the abolition of that two-tier scale. Critics say Gibbs won only a minor victory since the junior, B-scale workers merge into the A-scale after eight years, meaning that approximately 1,500 B-scale workers will benefit in the duration of the contract that Gibbs negotiated. Curiously enough, some members of the new regime at APFA, headed by Kelliher, were also running the union when that two-tier wage system was pioneered by Crandall in 1983.

Yet, Gibbs’s critics flounder when they try to explain why the flight attendants ratified the contract if it was indeed so weak or why, year after year, when it’s time to negotiate a new contract with management, the union turns once again to Patt Gibbs,

Joann Peters, an attorney who has done union-related legal work for the flight attendants for more than ten years, says that consistently, when contract negotiations are approaching, when the flight attendants know they need someone tough, they call on Patt Gibbs. After the contract has been ratified and union members perceive that they can get by with someone less abrasive, Peters says, they vote Gibbs out of office.

By the time the current union contract expires, it’s doubtful that Patt Gibbs will be around to tough it out in another round of negotiations-at least as president of APFA.

When the votes were tallied on March 22, 1988, Gibbs was voted out of office, but she was not out of a job. As a flight attendant with some twenty-six years of experience, her salary from American is $50,000 a year. So she went back into training to reenter the flight attendant ranks. Last month Gibbs graduated from law school. She plans to take the California bar exam this summer, then return to Dallas and prepare for the Texas bar. She has been offered a position in a labor consulting firm opening an office in Dallas-a firm that promises to cause a stir in this largely non-union town. And she’s had several offers from law firms in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Washington.

Patt Gibbs probably serves coffee to passengers with amazing aplomb, but it’s doubtful that she’ll remain a flight attendant for very long.