Unions Push To Regain Lost Ground in Contract Talks at Airlines

In contract talks for cabin crews at major airlines, unions are pushing to regain lost ground. After multiple rounds of concessions and bankruptcies following 9/11, airline workers are working longer and harder for lower wages and benefits. Photo: Jim West | www.jimwestphoto.com.

In contract talks for cabin crews at major airlines, unions are pushing to regain lost ground. After multiple rounds of concessions and bankruptcies following 9/11, airline workers are working longer and harder for lower wages and benefits.

Pensions have been decimated, leading to fewer retirements. Slashed turnover means low-seniority workers stay on the bottom for many years.

“I’m working 25 percent more hours, I’m away from my family even more days, and I’m still not making what I did in 1998,” said Kim Kaswinkel, a Philadelphia flight attendant.

Airlines haven’t quite stabilized but unions are beginning to show signs of life after almost a decade of giveaways.


Several unions at Southwest have finished contracts this year. Thom McDaniel, president of Transport Workers Local 556 representing flight attendants, says the five-year contract ratified in May includes annual 3 percent raises for three years. Subsequent raises will be based on profitability.

The TWU also improved health care for retirees, increased company 401(k) contributions, won greater flexibility for commuting and attendance, and even won $1,200 for new hires in training—remarkable in an industry where trainees generally must spend four to six weeks unpaid.

Most airline employees are not in as good shape. Other airlines have consistently lost money for years. Management and government officials blame the unions—though Southwest is profitable while workers there make more than their colleagues.

Workers at US Airways have been through two bankruptcies since 9/11 during which a bankruptcy judge rammed through concessions. The company merged with America West. Both flight crews were represented by the Pilots (ALPA) and both cabin crews by the Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), but the pilot groups had such a conflict over merging seniority lists that the US Air group forced a representation election that displaced ALPA for a new independent union.

Mike Flores, AFA president at US Airways, said, “We expect better work rules, hours of service, and better RIGS,” minimum daily pay. “Are we going to get our retirement back? No. That’s just corporate America.” But the union has won back pay and credit for “deadheads,” non-working flight legs.

Kaswinkel is concerned that the union isn’t doing enough to build the power to win. The union isn’t doing the crew room blitzes, emailing, leafleting, and uniform pin and bag-tag visibility campaigns it should be, she said.

“We need to tell our members, ‘this is what we need from you to get what you want,’” she said.




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As Delta works to complete its merger with Northwest, the Northwest unions are working overtime to bring non-union Delta workers into the fold. Minneapolis baggage handler and Machinists (IAM) member Kip Hedges says, “The passenger service workers have been making progress and the Northwest baggage handlers are rock solid. We can turn airline jobs back into career jobs.”

Atlanta-based Linda Sorenson has been working to bring a union to Delta for more than a decade. She tells Labor Notes, “We have Northwest employees in the lounges talking to Delta flight attendants so they can hear what it’s like to work with a union, and we’re on a roll in Atlanta.” The base there is home to half of Delta’s flight attendants.

Hedges says the AFA and IAM have never collaborated as closely as they are now, pointing to combined buttons and T-shirts and joint activities.

Both unions will hold off on filing for elections until the National Mediation Board moves to make airline elections more like those in other industries. Under the current system, abstentions are counted as votes against a union. The AFA hopes the new rule will be in place by March.

Although American Airlines didn’t go through bankruptcy, the threat wrung concessions from the workforce. To regain ground, the Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), which represents just American employees, scheduled a November 18 “simulated strike” to commemorate the 16th anniversary of the union’s last strike. The union designated some flights where attendants wore “Got Guts” pins—signifying the flight would not be happening if the strike were real.

“Our goal is to reach an agreement before self-help, but if push comes to shove we will take that step,” said APFA President Laura Glading. The soonest APFA could strike is early next year.

Cabin crews at United, represented by AFA, took enormous concessions after 9/11 and are negotiating to reverse those losses. They are holding “Strike Preparedness Power & Action” seminars at 14 bases in the U.S. and abroad under the slogan “Whatever It Takes.”

A coalition of flight attendants at United AFA is demanding more transparency and democracy in their union. They released a statement expressing pessimism about the outcome of talks: “AFA’s opening proposal was just to get us back to where we were pre-bankruptcy and the opening proposal from United Airlines was wholly concessionary. The only way to change that dynamic is to have a trusting relationship between the leadership and the rank and file.”

The NMB is holding a public comment period on the rule change for organizing in the airline industry. You can add your opinion by emailing legal [at] nmb [dot] gov. Joshua DeVries is a former US Airways flight attendant and AFA organizer.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #369, December 2009. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.


stripey7 (not verified) | 12/25/09

Either the email provided for public comment to the NMB is being overwhelmed with messages, or there's something wrong with it. I got a "been in the queue too long" failure notice in response to my message.