The secret to Southwest’s success? Putting workers first

Although still considered something of a plucky upstart, Southwest Airlines turns 40 this year. While we don’t advocate that Southwest bring back cheesy 1970s-style uniforms for their flight attendants, both consumers and the airline industry as a whole would do well to examine Southwest’s labor practices. Southwest has never been shy in pointing out that they’re different from their competitors, including airlines like Delta with less-than-stellar track records on workers’ rights. In a special 40th anniversary issue of Southwest’s Spirit magazine, the airline pointed to labor-management collaboration as one of the “40 Lessons to Learn from Southwest.”

Lesson Number 28 from Southwest is “Put the worker first.” As Spirit notes, “Southwest is the most unionized airline, with 85 percent of employees in unions.” From sharing in profits to sharing tasks between flights, workers and management have a history of working together to make Southwest a model company.

The airline survived the Great Recession without furloughing any employees. And Southwest also bucked the trend in jobs more recently. In 2010, the company hired 2,188 new employees. What’s more, the company believes that when valued employees are given a place at the table, they’re better able to serve their customers. Thus, one of Southwest’s key lessons: “Employee relations lie behind the secret to Southwest’s Customer relations. Well-treated Employees translate to well-treated Customers.”

This isn’t just company spin either. The arguments made in Spirit magazine have been validated by industrial relations scholars as well. Up In The Air, a book authored by airline industry experts Greg Bamber, Jody Hoffer Gittell, Thomas A. Kochan, and Andrew Von Nordenflycht, found that “high-quality employment relationships predicted high levels of service quality, labor productivity, aircraft productivity, and operating margins” (84). True to form, the partnership between unions and management at Southwest has increased productivity, fostered labor stability, and created a company that consistently outperforms its competitors. Southwest also offers workers extensive training, some of the highest wages in the industry, and support for life-work balance. (For more on Southwest’s employment practices, see Up In The Air pages 87–96. To purchase, click here.)

It’s no wonder over 143,000 people applied to work for Southwest last year.

Over the years, other airlines have taken on a number of practices first implemented by Southwest. We hope that’s an indication that respect for workers’ rights and commitment to collaborative labor-management partnerships are the next airline trend.

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This entry was posted on Monday, June 13th, 2011 at 4:25 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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