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Labor Relations at Southwest Airlines

Explorer C

I became an Employee of SWA in December 2005.  However, as an attorney in private practice, I represented SWA in labor and employment matters for over 34 years before becoming an Employee.  Often, when people would learn that I represented Southwest Airlines, they would ask, “How does Southwest manage to remain non-Union?”  I would chuckle and explain that, in fact, Southwest is the most heavily unionized airline in the industry.  (We currently have ten collective bargaining agreements covering over 85% of our approximate 34,000 Employees.) 

But why was I so often asked this question?  I believe it is because there has been so little labor strife at Southwest.  But what is the explanation for such a remarkable labor relations history?  I believe it is attributable to two factors: (1) commitment to positive labor relations at the highest level of Leadership; and (2) our positive Employee Culture. 

Southwest Airlines began flying in June 1971, and I began representing Southwest in May 1972.  During those early years, I was privy to discussions at Southwest concerning what approach Southwest would take with regard to Union representation of its Employees.  Lamar Muse, the first operating CEO and President of Southwest, was of the opinion that we should not expend time and resources in an attempt to remain non-Union.  Lamar’s reason for doing so was both pragmatic and financial.  We were small and broke.  In Lamar’s opinion, if we were to be successful at remaining non-Union, we would have to lead the industry in wages and benefits, something we could not even begin to do.  Lamar also expressed the opinion, based on years of dealing with Unions at other airlines, that if Unions were voted in by our Employees, we could build and manage successful relations with them.  Herb Kelleher, recently retired Chairman of the Board at Southwest, believed that it was important for our Employees to have a voice.  He also strongly believed that we should not be adversaries, but rather partners, with any labor organization representing our Employees.  Although Lamar is now deceased and Herb is retired, there is still today at the highest levels of Leadership at Southwest a commitment to sustain and nurture the sound relationship we have with our labor organizations.

There is yet another factor that contributes to positive labor relations at Southwest: our Culture–how we view and treat our Employees.  At Southwest, our Employees come first; our Customers come second; and our stockholders come third.  The rationale is pretty simple.  If we treat our Employees right, they’re going to treat our Customers right.  If our Customers are treated right, they will come back and our stockholders will benefit.  Moreover, if we are committed to the proposition that we are going to treat our Employees right, then it follows a fortiori that we should treat the labor organizations that represent them no differently. 

My role at Southwest falls under the Labor & Employee Relations Department, and the mission of our Labor & Employee Relations is to promote effective and respectful relationships with all of our Employees, as well as the Unions and Associations who represent our Unionized Employees.

Of course, this sounds great in theory, but the challenge is in execution.  It requires a daily commitment to do the right thing in our dealings with our Employees and the labor organizations that represent them. 

  • To disagree without being disagreeable. 
  • To avoid character assassination and vilification when things don’t go our way. 
  • To learn to listen, not just for the sake of being courteous, but with a goal of genuinely understanding and evaluating another point of view.  
  • Learning to appreciate the value of loyal opposition. 
  • To learn that we are not always right. 
  • To be willing to compromise and appreciate the value of joint resolution of disputes. 
  • To understand that a short term “win” at any cost can be destructive to a longterm relationship.


I believe Southwest and the labor organizations representing our Employees share two common goals: (1) to adequately and properly provide for the safety and economic wellbeing of our Employees; and (2) to keep our Company healthy and prosperous.  In these times of everincreasing costs and volatile fuel prices, it is a difficult challenge.  But we feel more confident knowing that our labor organizations are partners with whom we can join hands in this effort.

In summary, we value the relationship we have with our Employees and the labor organizations that represent them.  We believe that this relationship has contributed to the remarkable success of Southwest Airlines.  We are, after all,  in a Customer Service business that depends for its success upon our Employees.  As Colleen Barrett,  has often said, “We are in the Customer Service business.  We just happen to fly airplanes.”

In the entrance lobby at our HDQ building in Dallas, Texas, there is an inscription etched in glass that eloquently describes how the success of Southwest Airlines is attributable to our marvelous Employees: 

The people of Southwest Airlines are the creators of what we have become–and of what we will be.  Our people transformed an idea into a legend.  That legend will continue to grow only so long as it is nourished–by our people’s indomitable spirit, boundless energy, immense good will, and burning desire to excel.  Our thanks–and our love–to the people of Southwest Airlines for creating a marvelous family and a wondrous airline.

(See a video from Herb in our video blog section.)