Getting Crucified for Stating the Obvious: TWU “Demotes” John Conley


Last week at the Phoenix International Airline Symposium, the air transport division director for the Transport Workers Union, John Conley, participated on one of the panel discussions. Nothing unusual here. The Symposium has been lucky to have John participate for a number of years.

He is one of the few union leaders that you can talk to who doesn’t couch everything in obviously jaded political terms — and if you know John, a former professional football player for the Dallas Cowboys, you also know that he is not afraid to speak his mind on how he sees the world — however hard that may be for other people, including union members, to accept.

But more often than not, his view of the world is usually pretty spot on — in terms of the airline industry as a whole, and particularly in terms of management/union relations.

But apparently, the upper echelon of the TWU hierarchy doesn’t like people speaking the truth.

Today, Trebor Banstetter reports in the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram’s SkyTalk  that John has been put on “administrative leave” by Jim Little, the TWU’s international president.

We got a copy of the memo.

“Effective Tuesday, April 1, 2008, I am placing Air Transport Director John M. Conely on administrative leave from his current position as Air Transport Division Director. Brother Conely will continue working on his other operational assignments.

Until further notice all administrative functions associated with the Air Transport Division will temporarily handled by International Secretary-Treasurer Joseph C. Gordon including staff assignments.”

First of all, it would be nice if Jim could spell John’s name right. It’s CONLEY.

Second, as Trebor reports, and as we’ve just had confirmed by a couple of readers, the reason for this “demotion” is because of comments that John made last week at the Symposium.

During the panel discussion he participated on, which also included Lehman Brother’s analyst Gary Chase, John talked about the effect that $100 a barrel oil could have on airline finances.

As Trebor wrote Friday, (and I heard with my own ears)

“Look, we’re at $100 crude,” said John Conley, air-transport division director at the Transport Workers Union, which represents ground workers at American Airlines as well as some employees at American Eagle, Southwest Airlines and other carriers. “I don’t know that it bodes well for us being as successful [in negotiating new contracts] as we had once hoped.”

Conley appeared on a panel at the International Aviation Symposium in Phoenix. Several industry insiders said that the price of fuel, which is the No. 1 cost for airlines, could devastate the industry.

“This could very well be a seismic-shift year,” Conley said. He said the environment “could be an opportunity to consider not being as intractable as folks have been in the past.”

Analyst Gary Chase of Lehman Bros. pointed out that the run-up in fuel is having a greater impact on airline costs than a typical recession.

“With fuel, it’s like this is three recessions at once,” he said. “And then, we also have a recession.”

Just to add to what Trebor wrote — one of the other options that was brought up during this discussion was the concept of making more compensation tied to company performance — so that fluctuations as a result of industry cyclical activity could be more easily managed by the airlines.

So when John talked about the potential for not being as “intractable” as they had been in the past — it was referring to the fact that perhaps it was a good time to look at different ways to approach contract negotiations. To try and come up with solutions that were perhaps more flexible.


The other thing that bothers me about this is that the Symposium is specifically geared to encourage discussion of the problems facing the industry in a conversational, informal format — rather than a postured and “official” manner.

There are no formal “speeches,” no PowerPoint presentations, and no structured format.

If folks who participate in the Symposium are going to be “demoted” because they contribute positively and constructively to a frank discussion — rather than merely mouthing union rhetoric that would render their appearance a waste of everyone’s time — then this threatens the very reason why the Symposium exists.

But apparently the TWU and its President, who can’t even apparently spell John’s name right, have decided to “demote” him.  Demote him — for simply speaking the truth. And for talking in a rational way about the situation that now confronts management and labor — as airlines look at $100 a barrel oil.

Yes, well, for this, the TWU and particularly its President, Jim Little, are awarded a PlaneBuzz Buzz Bomb.

Shame on you.

8 thoughts on “Getting Crucified for Stating the Obvious: TWU “Demotes” John Conley

  1. Richard F

    Why is organized labor so dead set on a collision course with management? Do they not understand that the very viability of their parent companies (and hence, jobs) are on the line?
    We need reasonably-headed people like Mr. Conley now more than ever.

  2. Holly Hegeman

    I couldn’t agree with you more. John is not only one of the more level-headed ones out there in terms of the “big picture” but, as someone wrote to me last night, he’s one of the most thoughtful guys you’ll ever meet. He’s not doing what he does for personal glory or political gain. He does it because he genuinely cares about his members. I had a chance to talk to John before he spoke on the panel last week, and I can tell you that he was very upset. Why? Because he was on his way to Hawaii, where he was going to meet with TWU members who worked for Aloha.
    And he, as did all of us, knew what was going to happen on Monday. And he was really, really, down about what was going to happen to the airline’s employees.
    This whole thing is an example of union politics at its worst.

  3. Carl

    It is shameful that Mr. Conley is being crucified in this manner. Union members should appreciate the honest outlook he provided to them, rather than bolstering their hopes only to be disappointed by the outcome. The overzealous rhetoric being used by other labor leaders will eventually wear thin as airlines are simply not going to be able to deliver the compensation they demand in this market.

  4. TWU Intnl-President

    Ms. Hegeman,
    I was forwarded comments you made in your recent publication of Plane Buzz regarding Mr. John M. Conley. As a reporter with such an impressive resume I am surprised by your lack of research on the facts.
    • John Conley was not demoted. (The administration of the ATD is an assignment, and manages the budget and staff assignments of Division)
    • I did not spell his name wrong- Attached is my memo to the locals, and a e-mail generated by one of the locals who misspelled his name on their e-mail to the members.
    • Since the article in the Ft worth Star Telegram published last Friday. We have been overwhelmed with E-mails and calls voicing outrage regarding the comment, they felt his comments were inappropriate at this time.
    I have always encouraged our staff to be forthright with our members on the state of the industry, and John can attest to that! For the record I have personally sponsored (Mr. Randy Babbitt) the International Airline Symposium for a number of years. Up until now I have also been very open to the “Working Together” concept at American, and have stated so in writing and in interviews. The question I have to ask is “Why is management so dead set on a collision course with organized labor?” when it was organized labor who ultimately saved this company?
    In the future Ms. Hegeman, it would be a little more professional as a reporter if you checked out your facts before you make accusations.
    In closing, I expect to see a full retraction of the many misstatements that you have made. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions. Thank You.
    James C. Little
    James C. Little – International President
    Transport Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO

  5. Holly Hegeman

    Jim, I am very well aware of who you are, and it was because of that fact that I was so disappointed with your action in regard to John. But I think this is a conversation that needs to take place privately.
    As for retractions, there is no need for any retractions.
    This is not the place to discuss these issues. We will be in touch. I look forward to talking to you.

  6. Holly Hegeman

    Jim, I am very well aware of who you are, and it was because of that fact that I was so disappointed with your action in regard to John. But I think this is a conversation that needs to take place privately.
    As for retractions, there is no need for any retractions.
    This is not the place to discuss these issues. We will be in touch. I look forward to talking to you.

  7. Pro.17

    Wow Holly!!! Talk about double standards!!! Wasn’t it you who blasted Mr. Little first in a public manner? Why now is this not the place to discuss these issues? Is this how it is with reporters – they spew whatever they want and should not be held accountable. I think you do owe Mr. Little a public apology – you did afterall crucify him in public without the facts. Oooh, not a smart move.
    You will be in my prayers.

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