Workers pursue union after layoffs at USAir

December 17, 1993|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, VA. -- Hundreds of furloughed USAir workers vowed yesterday during a "Christmas pink slip" rally outside the airline's corporate headquarters to unionize the beleaguered carrier's largest group of workers.

If successful, the move to organize 17,000 ticket agents and fleet service workers, who load and unload planes, would force USAir to negotiate a potentially difficult contract with yet another union, even as it struggles to make its first profit in four years.

During the hourlong rally here, 200 fleet service workers and passenger service agents chanted "unfair, USAir" and decorated a Christmas tree with pink slips, symbolizing those that 1,800 agents received last week.

Facing losses and intense competition from discount airlines, USAir Group Inc. said in October that it would lay off 2,500 employees between November and mid-1994. Most of those job cuts would come among the customer and fleet service agents, who are not unionized.

"The company is going to cut where they can cut," Todd Nicodemus, a 28-year-old agent at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, told the gathering. "We're just the group that's not unionized."

During contract negotiations last year, unionized workers -- including pilots, flight attendants and mechanics -- received guarantees against layoffs in exchange for major concessions.

A spokesman for USAir, however, denied yesterday that the company had targeted the nonunionized employees.

"We're not picking on them because they're not unionized," said David Shipley. "It's just a basic fact of life that we are finding a smarter way to operate the ground side."

The 2,500 layoffs, expected to save $200 million in 1994, signaled the start of a restructuring seen as necessary for the company's expensive hub-and-spoke operation. USAir is fighting to compete with carriers like Southwest Airlines, whose operating costs are substantially lower.

Mr. Shipley said a recent study showed that USAir, which has lost $1.2 billion since 1989, can operate more efficiently in many instances with part-time employees rather than full-time workers, particularly at its hubs, where peak-and-valley-type traffic results in considerable downtime for ground workers.

While the airline is laying off 1,800 agents, it is adding almost 1,000 part-time employees, he said. Furloughed employees are being offered part-time positions first. Those jobs provide benefits similar to existing ones for all agents hired before March 1992, Mr. Shipley said.

Mr. Nicodemus said he had been offered part-time work in February, when his furlough takes effect. But his salary would drop from $33,000 to roughly $20,000 a year, he said.

Yesterday's rally was sponsored by the United Steelworkers of America, which is vying with several unions to represent the agents.

A union representation election could come as early as April, forcing USAir to enter contract negotiations next year if a union were certified.

With union membership declining nationwide, organized labor has competed fiercely for members. Yesterday, the Steelworkers ran a full-page ad in USA Today that read "Santa Claus Just Got Bumped at USAir."

In a letter to all its employees yesterday, USAir lashed back, saying the "Steelworkers have a lot of gall claiming that they can offer job security when they have lost more than 600,000 dues-paying members in recent years."

Several attempts to organize the USAir agents have failed. Following the merger of Piedmont Airlines and USAir in 1989, thousands of Piedmont employees received USAir wages and benefits that were more generous than those at Piedmont.

"We had such great benefits we didn't want a union," said Larry Joines, a customer service agent at National Airport outside Washington.

But the current planned furloughs are giving unions the edge they need to organize.

"If I was in a union, I wouldn't have lost my job," said Fredric Nickell, a fleet service employee who received his layoff notice just months before he was eligible for early retirement.

Mr. Nickell had become somewhat of a celebrity as one of the first rescue workers on the scene following the March 22, 1992, crash of a USAir jet into Flushing Bay at LaGuardia Airport.

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