In what could become the largest successful, private- sector organizing effort in the last decade, votes will be tallied tomorrow in the Communications Workers of America's drive to unionize about 9,000 US Airways' passenger service agents.
An organizing effort by the CWA fell several hundred votes short of winning a majority early this year. But a new election was ordered by the National Mediation Board after it determined that the Arlington, Va.-based airline had inappropriately tried to influence the outcome.
Mail-in ballots from the airline's reservation, ticket and gate agents will be counted by the mediation board in Washington.
The count comes at the height of the airline's difficult negotiations with its pilots over proposed cost cuts that would make it more competitive for low-cost, discount flights.
An agreement with the pilots would clear the way for serious negotiations with the carrier's other unions, including those representing flight attendants, machinists and other ground .
Nearly two-thirds of the company's 44,000 workers already are organized, and the airline is not likely to welcome the prospect of contract negotiations with yet another union.
In the past, passenger service agents have rejected attempts by several different unions to organize them. But CWA representatives are hoping that recent cuts and job losses will spark more enthusiasm for union representation.
This year alone, the airline has eliminated 1,300 jobs -- many of them full-time passenger service agents -- as it closed reservation centers and ended flights to nine cities. The cuts included 210 workers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, or one-fourth of the 860 full- and part-time gate workers, ticket agents and mechanics working there for US Airways.
The CWA says that since 1994 passenger service agents have made more financial sacrifices than any other US Airways employee group, suffering an average loss of $20,000 in benefits, pension concessions, salary freezes and paid leave. In addition, many full-time positions have been downgraded to part-time jobs.
"There have been terrific changes at the airline," said Jeff Miller, a spokesman for the 630,000-member CWA, which represents workers in the telecommunications, broadcast and health care industries as well as customer service employees. It does not represent any airline workers.
"They're aware that other employees, who belong to a union, are involved in discussions with the company, but they've had no voice whatsoever," Miller said about US Airways passenger service agents.
Wages below average
Between 1989 and 1994, US Airways lost a staggering $2.3 billion, prompting the airline to make severe cuts. In employee meetings this year, US Airways Chairman Stephen M. Wolf acknowledged that wages and benefits for some groups there fall below the average for major airlines, but he said the company hopes to deal with those inequities.
"The company got itself in deep, deep trouble in the early '90s, and there were a lot of cuts," said US Airways spokesman Richard M. Weintraub. "There are groups way below parity and Wolf has said that needs to be addressed."
In contrast to its passenger service agents, US Airways' pilots' wages and benefits are significantly above those of other major airlines. The airline had hoped to reach some agreement to reduce those costs before Tuesday, when it must affirm a $14 billion contract with Airbus Industrie for 120 new jets, with an option to purchase 280 more.
If it can't mint a deal with the pilots, US Airways has said it will miss out on an Airbus price guarantee that expires Tuesday and will be forced to slash the size of its Airbus order. Ultimately, the company says it may be forced to shrink to a regional carrier if it can't singificantly reduce its costs.
Talks with US Airways' 4,800 pilots have been dragging on for more than a year. It's not clear what impact, if any, those negotiations have had in the CWA's efforts to organize the passenger service agents. In general, other employees at the airline have not been sympathetic to the pilots, the carrier's highest paid workers.
Eligibility is key
More than half the eligible passenger service agents must return an affirmative ballot for union representation to be certified. Ballots not returned by eligible workers, or not properly signed, are counted as "no" votes.
Of the 9,272 agents eligible to vote in the last election, 3,996 cast ballots for the CWA's proposal. In addition, nearly 200 voted for CWA but failed to sign ballots as required and another 200 submitted write-in ballots for another union. Because furloughed workers were dropped from the list, 8,778 workers were eligible to vote in the latest election.
Miller said the union launched a major organizing effort with US Airways workers. "It looks very positive," he said.
During the last major successful union drive, in 1987, the International Association of Machinists organized 12,000 passenger service agents at Northwest Airlines. Agents at TWA are the only other group of unionized passenger service workers.
Pub Date: 9/28/97