USAir fleet workers vote to unionize

May 18, 1994|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Sun Staff Writer

USAir workers who load and unload aircraft voted overwhelmingly yesterday to unionize, giving the airline another headache as it tries to work its way out of a financial morass.

But because none of the three unions competing to represent the 7,687 fleet service workers received a majority of votes, a runoff election will be held this summer to determine whether the United Steelworkers of America or the International Association of Machinists -- the two top vote-getters -- will represent the USAir workers.

The election runoff will delay any involvement by fleet service workers in the current negotiations between USAir and its unions over restructuring the airline. But the Arlington, Va.-based carrier will be forced later this year to negotiate with yet another union as it struggles to cut costs.

"With the tumultuous atmosphere at USAir these days, workers feel they need to have someone stand up for them," said Chris Fotos of Avmark Inc., an Arlington aviation consultant firm. "But any additional organizing at USAir is going to complicate their efforts to reduce their cost structure."

Since 1989, USAir has lost more than $2.2 billion, including $200 million in the first quarter of this year. The airline is seeking pay cuts and work rule concessions from unions representing its flight attendants, pilots and machinists.

The ballots counted yesterday by the National Mediation Board showed that 5,096, or two-thirds, of the eligible fleet service workers favored unionization, far more than the 50 percent required.

"USAir fleet service workers will definitely have a union, and that's a real victory," said Howard Scott, a spokesman for the Pittsburgh-based Steelworkers.

The Machinists and the Steelworkers received 1,813 and 1,746 votes respectively. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters finished third, with 1,533 votes. Four votes were cast for other unions.

Faced with declining membership nationwide, the three unions had competed intensely for the right to represent the USAir workers. The contest was one of the largest union representation elections in recent years, according to the mediation board.

The organization movement gained momentum last fall when USAir announced plans to lay off 2,500 employees, the majority of whom were nonunionized ground workers.

Those layoffs prompted fleet service workers and representatives of the airline's 9,400 passenger service agents -- including ticket counter and gate workers and reservations clerks -- to vow to unionize this year.

"Management has shown repeatedly that nonunion workers will take the largest cuts when concessions are needed," Mr. Scott said yesterday. "They're in a very vulnerable position."

The Steelworkers also have asked the National Mediation Board to schedule an election this summer for the passenger service agents, though no date has been set. No other unions are seeking to organize those workers.

The fleet service workers and reservation and ticket agents are the largest nonunionized groups among USAir's 45,500 employees. In 1990, the Teamsters narrowly lost a bid to organize the fleet service workers. But the layoffs last fall gave unions the edge they needed.

During the past five years, the U.S. airline industry has lost more than $13 billion. With competition growing from discount airlines, major carriers have been restructuring and laying off workers.

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