Members of two unions who work for United Airlines on March 17 joined together in solidarity to picket United’s San Francisco Airport terminal. The workers were demanding industry-leading collective bargaining agreements that reward workers for their role in helping United achieve record-setting profits.
United wants its workers to accept a long list of concessions even though the company reported $7.3 billion in profits in 2015, the most in the company’s history.
United’s workers made sacrifices when the company was facing tough times. United promised them that it wouldn’t forget their sacrifices when good times returned.
The picketing union members want United to make good on that promise.
“We’re not going to roll over. We’re going to fight for what we deserve,” said Scott Abrahamson, a machinist at United’s maintenance base in San Francisco and a Teamsters shop steward. “We’re going to regain what was taken from us during the company’s bankruptcy.”
United declared bankruptcy in 2002 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington DC forced the airline industry into a tailspin, but that wasn’t the only rough patch for United.
A decade earlier, the company was struggling to keep afloat.
To keep the company in business, union workers in 1994 agreed to allow United to become the US’ largest employee-owned enterprise.
As a result of that agreement, union workers took pay cuts of between 12 and 15 percent. United employees also agreed to purchase 55 percent of the company’s stock.
When United filed for bankruptcy a decade later, workers had their pay cut by 14 percent and lost their pensions.
Workers also lost millions of dollars when United’s stock, which workers purchased to bail out the company, was rendered worthless by the company’s bankruptcy.
United emerged from bankruptcy in 2006, and in 2010 was doing well enough to buy out one of its competitors–Continental Airlines. The merger, for the most part, was completed in 2013.
As part of the merger process, United began negotiating new collective bargaining agreements with its union employees. The new agreements were supposed to bring both Continental and United workers together in united collective bargaining agreements that covered the new company’s various bargaining units.
The Teamsters, which represent more than 9000 United mechanics, and AFA-CWA, which represents 15,000 United flight attendants, have both been negotiating a new post-merger collective bargaining agreement.
“United Airlines is doing well,” reads a statement on AFA-CWA’s Our Contract website. “These are not concessionary negotiations. These negotiations are about putting three work groups (United, Continental, and Continental Micronesia) together to complete this merger and move United forward. It’s been three years, and it’s been long enough. It’s Our Turn and It’s Past Time.”
Instead of rewarding its workers with their fair share of the company’s record-setting profits, United has been seeking more concessions.
For example, United wants to reduce the workers profit-sharing benefit by 67 percent.
At the same time United is looking to cut its workers share of the company’s profits, it is spending $3 billion to buy back its own stock. The buy back will increase the value of United’s stock, enriching its executives and major stockholders.
In addition to reduced profit-sharing, United wants its union employees to pay more for their health care, and it wants to reduce overtime pay for mechanics.
United also wants to create a two-tiered wage system for new-hire mechanics and reduce their sick leave and vacation days.
For flight attendants, the company wants changes to scheduling and work rules that will make their schedules less flexible and reduce their free time.
A federal mediator has intervened to help move the collective bargaining process along, but so far to no avail.
In October, United abruptly cut off negotiations with the Teamsters and made what amounts to a take-it-or-leave-it offer.
When Teamsters voted on the offer, 93 percent of them rejected it and authorized a strike.
“We voted down United’s proposed contract and authorized a strike because United betrayed us,” said Jay Koreny, a 29-year mechanic at Dulles Airport in Virginia. “We sacrificed so much, including our retirement security, to save United and help it come out of bankruptcy and earn record profits. . . I hope they’re ready for a strike, because we sure are.”
Negotiations between AFA-CWA are still ongoing.
Both unions have been engaged in a series of actions like the one at the San Francisco Airport aimed at winning a fair contract.
AFA-CWA’s next day of action will be April 21.
The Teamsters have taken the first step toward striking by petitioning the National Mediation Board (NMB) to release the union from its mediated negotiations. A decision by the NMB on the Teamster’s petition is pending.