Supreme Court Upholds $45.5 Million Fine Against Union

The U.S. Supreme Court refused Feb. 25 to overturn one of the largest fines against a labor union, a $45.5 million penalty against the Allied Pilots Ass’n at American Airlines for civil contempt for failing to quickly end a 1999 sickout that forced the airline to cancel thousands of flights.The APA has already put $20 million in escrow against the possibility it would have to pay the fine. But the union estimates the total fine would exceed its assets by approximately $10 million.

APA made it clear that if the company tried to collect the fine the union would consider it a very unfriendly act. “The next step is going to be a management decision,” said APA spokesman James Philpot. Philpot noted that American was “in the middle of lots of important discussions” with the pilots on a number of issues, including the proposed acquisition of Trans World Airlines Inc. and the purchase of 20 percent of U.S. Airways as part of the U.S. Airways-United Airlines merger.

The fine may be the largest in American labor union history. A Virginia judge fined the United Mine Workers union $64 million for its actions in the Pittston Coal Co. strike in the early 1990s, but the fine was tossed out in a unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993.

U.S. Dist. Court Judge Joe Kendall in Dallas ordered the fine in February 1999, less than 48 hours after the airline filed suit against the union. Kendall cited the union for not ending a sickout that had forced American to cancel more than 6,000 flights, stranding thousands of passengers and crippling the airline’s operations nationwide. American estimated the job action cost the airline $1.2 million for every 100 flights it was forced to cancel, for an estimated total of $250 million. In holding the union in contempt, Kendall encouraged the union membership to “remember this fiasco the next time they have union elections.” The union has since elected new leaders. At one point in his contempt order, Kendall went so far as to describe the pilots union as extortionists little different from the mob families in New York.  The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Kendall’s fine last year. American agreed to forgive the fine as part of a new contract agreement with APA last fall, but the contract proposal was rejected by the union membership in Sept. [Wash. Post 2/26/01]