American Airlines customer service agents ratify first contract

After a union organizing campaign that lasted 19 years, customer service agents at American Airlines ratified their first collective bargaining agreement with the US’ largest airline.

In a vote conducted by telephone and the internet, 73 percent voted yes for the new agreement, which covers 14,500 counter and gate agents at airports and phone center and home-based reservation agents.

The Dallas Morning News reports that the new collective bargaining agreement makes American’s agents the highest paid in the airline industry.

“For many employees, the ratification of this contract was far more meaningful than I could have ever imagined,” said Ken Grunwald, a bargaining committee member and reservations agent in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Many members called to tearfully explain that the wage increase alone would impact their lives in an overwhelmingly positive way. The day-to-day lives of employees will be improved dramatically.”

Grunwald said job security concerns have not been completely resolved by the agreement. This and other issues can be addressed, he said, “if we work together and continue to support and respect each other.”

The ratification vote came 14 months after American’s customer service agents voted to join the American Airlines Passenger Service Association, which is affiliated with the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT).

The route to that final vote was long, circuitous, and encumbered by detours.

Passenger agents at American approached CWA in the mid-1990s and asked for help in forming a union. Low pay and general disrespect by their employer motivated them to do so.

The resulting organizing drive led to a union representation vote in 1998. The union supporters lost. Only 44 percent of the workers voted to join CWA.

At the time, the election was held under a special labor law established for the railway and airline industries. The law known as the Railway Labor Act required at that time that in order for a union to be recognized, a majority of workers–not a majority of voting workers, the common way that democracy works–had to vote in favor of the union.

Despite the loss, a core of the American workers continued to stay active and formed a membership union–a union not recognized as a bargaining representative by an employer–that affiliated with CWA.

The union helped workers file and pursue grievances; it advocated for workers’ rights at American wherever and whenever possible, and most of all, it continued to organize.

The union received some encouragement when fellow customer service agents at US Airways voted to join CWA in 1999, and the union members at American were confident that they could win another union election.

But on September 11, 2001, terrorists murdered 3000 people at New York City’s World Trade Center by crashing airplanes into the building.

The event set the airline industry back on its heels. Ridership declined precipitously, revenue dried up, layoffs ensued, the workers who remained feared for their jobs, and sentiment for a union ebbed.

But gradually the airline industry recovered, and after years of financial decline and bankruptcies, the industry began to make a comeback, made possible in part by sacrifices that the airlines’ workers made, including those at American.

As ridership revived and revenue increased, laid off workers were brought back on the job.

American like other airlines began to prosper again, but there was a sense among workers that the company was unwilling to share its prosperity with its workers.

That led to another union organizing drive. In 2011, CWA petitioned the National Mediation Board, a US government agency that manages labor relations in the railroad and airline industries, for a union election.

American tried to stall the election and had some success.

In 2012, American shocked its employees by filing for bankruptcy. At the time, it appeared that American, which had $4 billion in cash on hand, was using the bankruptcy courts to get out of its collective bargaining agreements with it unionized pilots, mechanics, and ground workers.

Despite the bankruptcy proceedings, the union moved ahead with its organizing campaign, overcame American’s stalling tactics, and secured another union representation election.

This times, the election rules had changed. The National Mediation Board ruled that only a majority of voters–not a majority of workers–needed to vote for the union for it to be recognized.

In January 2013, the results of election were announced. Union supporters lost again. This time by only 151 votes.

After the defeat, the union of passenger service agents at American remained intact and continued to organize.

Later in the year, US Airways announced that it would buy American, which was still in bankruptcy proceedings.

The deal if allowed to go through would create the largest airline in the US. To make the deal happen, the US Justice Department needed to approve the merger.

Management at US Airways needed the support of its unions and those at American to make the deal happen.

Among other thing, US Airways promised that management wouldn’t interfere in any union elections that took place after the merger.

Customers representative agents at US Airways were already unionized. Among them were agents who previously worked for Air West, who joined the Teamsters in 2004. When US Airways and Air West merged in 2005, CWA and the Teamsters merged their unions into the Association of Passenger Service Agents.

After the 2013 merger between US Airways and American was announced, a union representation election for all customer service employees including those who worked for US Airways was held in 2014. The new American management, which had formerly been US Airways management, kept the promise of neutrality and didn’t interfere in the election.

This time, 86 percent voted to join the Passenger Service Association CWA/IBT.

A year later, the two sides negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement and the workers ratified it a few months later.

Now the challenge will be to build on the initial success and develop the union’s capacity to enforce the agreement and make progress on the issues that weren’t resolved in the agreement.

A post on the CWA website said that the union’s ability to do these things will depend on building “a strong steward network” of local leaders and activists.

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