Passenger service agents at American Airlines voted to join the Customer Service Employees Association, a union affiliated with both the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the Teamsters (IBT).
For the 9,000 passenger service agents who worked for American before the airline merged with US Airways, it was the culmination of 19 years of hard work and struggle to have their union recognized.
“I’m proud to remember everyone over the years who worked so hard for our union voice, who never gave up in the face of adversity, and who gave their blood, sweat and tears so that we would have the opportunity to celebrate this victory today,” said Ken Grunwald, a long-time union supporter and an employee of American for 23 years. “It’s a victory for all American Airlines employees! I’m so excited to think that we will finally be able to negotiate a legally binding contract. We now all have each other’s back.”
Now that American and US Airways have merged, there are about 14,5000 passenger service agents working for the new American Airlines. Many work in call centers helping customers make reservations and providing other services. Others staff the airline’s counters and gates at airports. About 2,300 of the agents work at home making reservations.
Prior to the election, agents who worked for US Airways were members of the Customer Service Employees Association IBT/CWA.
In all, more than 11,000 employees from both American and US Airways participated in the election. The final vote tally was 9,640 voting yes for the union and 1,547 voting no.
Of those participating in the election, 86 percent voted yes. Of all the passenger service agents at new American, two-thirds voted yes.
Most of the new union members work in the South, and CWA President Larry Cohen in a message to members said that the new American election was the “largest labor organizing victory in the South in decades.”
Many of those who supported the union understood the importance of this victory for Southern workers.
“You can’t live in the South and make a decent wage unless you are in senior management in a corporation or belong to a union,” said Eula Smith, a passenger service agent who works in Charlotte. “We need this.”
For those like Smith who have worked for American during the last two decades, the yes vote was hard won. Passenger service agents are the only group of American employees eligible for union representation whose union was not recognized by the company.
Nearly 20 years ago, some agents realizing the benefits of being a union member contacted CWA and began working to form a union.
They lost a union recognition vote in 1998, but a core of activists stayed intact and formed a union that fought for workers’ right without being recognized by the company.
Another union election was held in 2013, but at the time, American had declared bankruptcy, and the hostile environment created by the company resulted in another, albeit narrow, loss.
With American’s bankruptcy finally resolved and the merger with US Airways complete, the union group was able to put together a winning campaign.
“Many hundreds of activists have spent thousands of hours over the years to get us to today’s election result,” said Janet Elston, a passenger service agent out of Dallas. “They never wavered and never, ever gave up. We have finally achieved what most thought was impossible: union representation for our work group. Now we’ll begin a new working relationship with our company, with a legal binding contract.”
Passenger service agents at US Airways also had to fight for their union.
In 2004 passenger service agents at American West voted to join the Teamsters despite a fierce anti-union campaign by the company.
A year after the union victory, American West merged with US Airways.
When the merger took place, the Teamsters represented about 1,800 passenger service agents at American West and the CWA about 4,700 at US Airways.
At the same time that the two companies merged, the two unions of passenger service agents merged to form the Customer Service Agents Association IBT/CWA.
Teamster leaders called the yes vote at American a big victory for both American and the former US Airways workers.
“With our partners in CWA, the Teamsters are leading the way in protecting airline professionals involved in the biggest airline merger in history,” said Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa. “Our union is dedicated to fighting on behalf of workers in this volatile industry. Our new members at the combined American-US Airways now have two of the strongest airline unions in their corner.”