US Airways workers join union Service agents vote for Communications Workers of America

10,000 employees affected

Organizers call it biggest private-sector victory of past decade


September 30, 1997|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

The Communications Workers of America, capitalizing on cuts at US Airways that have hurt nonunionized workers, won the right yesterday to represent the airline's 10,000 passenger service agents.

Mail-in ballots tallied by the National Mediation Board in Washington gave the CWA 463 votes more than it needed to be certified to represent the largest group of nonunionized workers at the Arlington, Va.-based airline. Of the 8,772 ramp, reservation and gate agents eligible to vote, the union was required to obtain 4,387 to win. The final tally was 4,850 votes.

Only employees who were on the payroll on April 21, 1996, were eligible to vote.

Union organizers called it their single largest, private-sector victory in the past decade. They said yesterday that their efforts were helped by growing pro-labor sentiment, as evidenced by public support for the Teamsters in their August strike against United Parcel Service.

The count came as the airline tried to reach an 11th-hour agreement with its 4,800-member pilots union so the company could affirm by today's deadline a $14 billion contract with Airbus Industrie for 120 aircraft, with an option for 280 others. The company has said that it is unable to conclude the deal without a cost-cutting agreement with its pilots and that without a new contract, it would be forced to pay far more for the aircraft later.

Negotiations were continuing last night in Washington.

A deal with the pilots would pave the way for serious talks between the airline and its other unionized workers, including flight attendants and ground workers. The CWA is expected to push for talks to begin as soon as possible.

In January, the CWA lost an attempt to organize the passenger service agents, but the National Mediation Board ordered a new election after determining that the airline had inappropriately tried to influence the outcome.

US Airways has filed a lawsuit, saying the board's decision violated both the First Amendment rights guaranteeing free speech as well as the Railway Labor Act, which governs negotiations between the airline and its workers. Yesterday, the company issued a statement saying it would comply with legal obligations stemming from the latest union election while it pursues its legal challenge.

A spokesman for the airline declined to comment further.

In the meantime, CWA said it will elect a bargaining committee and begin focusing on the issues. "The biggest key thing is job security," said Ron Collins, vice president of the CWA's Local 2101 in Baltimore. "These employees haven't known where they're working from week to week."

With the highest costs in the airline industry, US Airways has continued to downsize in recent years. This year alone, the airline eliminated 1,300 jobs -- many of them passenger service agents -- as it closed reservation centers and eliminated flights. The cuts included 210 full- and part-time workers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

The CWA contended that the service agents have suffered an average loss of $20,000 in benefits, pensions concessions, salary freezes and paid leave. In addition, full-time positions have been downgraded to part-time jobs.

"The airline still will have flexibility," Collins said. "But these workers finally will have a voice."

The 630,000-member CWA represents workers in the telecommunications, broadcast and health care industries. It does not represent any other airline employees.

The CWA recently organized 5,000 professional and clerical workers at the University of California. Before yesterday's nTC election, the most successful private-sector organizing drive occurred in 1987, when the International Association of Machinists organized 14,000 passenger service agents at Northwest Airlines.

US Airways stock gained $1.813 yesterday to close at $42.688 on the New York Stock Exchange.

Pub Date: 9/30/97

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