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.

American Airlines passenger service agents win union vote

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.”


Outsourcing creates problems at American; passenger service agents prepare for union vote

The New York Times reports that outside contractors hired by American Airlines did not know how to install airline seats that subsequently came loose during flights in October. The loose seats caused unscheduled landings and dozens of planes  to be grounded for safety reasons.

American, which filed for bankruptcy last year,  has been outsourcing more of its work as part of its bankruptcy restructuring plan.

In addition to outsourcing work like the seat installation, which had been performed by unionized maintenance workers, the company has recently begun to outsource work done by passenger service agents.

The passenger service agents are currently non-union employees, but a union representation election for the agents is scheduled to take place beginning December 4.

When American filed for bankruptcy in November 2011, it had $4 billion in the bank. According to one analyst, the bankruptcy filing was an offensive strategy designed to weaken union members bargaining power.

“(American’s bankruptcy) is not a defensive move, but an offensive bankruptcy where they go after their labor groups to reduce costs,” said Avondale Partners airline analyst Bob McAdoo to the New York Times. “They have a great franchise and lots of cash.  They are not being forced into bankruptcy here.”

American used its bankruptcy filing as leverage to get unions to agree to changes to their collective bargaining agreements.  American negotiated new consensual agreements with the Transport Workers Union, which represents maintenance staff, and unions representing its pilots and flight attendants.

American originally planned to reduce its maintenance workforce by 14,000, but TWU managed to save nearly half these jobs. Still the consensual agreement that TWU members eventually ratified will result in the loss of at least 7,000 maintenance-related jobs.

To get the work done with 7,000 fewer maintenance workers, American planned to outsource more work.

One of its outsourcing projects was the re-installation of seats on planes whose seating pattern was being reconfigured, so that some seats on these planes would have more leg room, and American could charge more for them.

New York Times reporter Christine Negroni after reviewing American’s internal documents, reported that American was aware that its contractors did not know how to install the seats, and acknowledged that incorrect installation was a contributing factor when the seats came loose during flight, putting passenger safety at risk.

The loose seats caused the grounding of dozens of American’s 757s and at least one 767.

When the loose seats were first reported in October, American implied that union workers may have been engaging in sabotage; after backing away from that allegation, the company offered what Negroni calls “an evolving set of explanations,” including clamps that didn’t work, spilled soda and dirt, and “a defective part.”

Negroni also found that Timco, one of the contractors working on the seat re-installation project, used students from the National Aviation Academy in Bedford, Massachusetts to perform some of the installation work.

Larry Pike, president of TWU Local 567 told Negroni, “You can’t have just anyone doing that maintenance. You can’t pull over in the sky and fix something if you hear something go thump.”

While American was cutting corners on maintenance work, it was also outsourcing customer service work just as the busiest travel season was getting underway.

In August, about 700 agents at the company’s call center in Phoenix were laid off. Agents at airports began getting layoff notices in November. American transferred some of their work to outsourcing contractors.

“My last day was Tuesday (November 13), and they put us out on the street with nothing,” said Sylvia Solis, a former passenger service agent at Miami International Airport. “The outsourced people don’t know how to check in an infant, and they think JFK is London. They do not have the slightest airline industry background.”

According to Renee Similien, who worked the first class check-in counter at Logan Airport in Boston until she was laid off, American laid off agents like herself, who earns about $50,000 a year, and replaced them with people making $9 per hour and no benefits.

Agents who remained on the job had their pay and benefits reduced.

The agents with the help of the Communication Workers of America began organizing a union well before American commenced its bankruptcy proceedings.

Shortly after, American filed for bankruptcy, agents filed a petition with the National Mediation Service, which oversees union elections in the transportation industry, seeking recognition of CWA as the agents’ bargaining representative.

American has done everything it can to prevent the election from taking place, but in October, a federal appeals court ruled that the union election could proceed.

While the union election is scheduled to begin on December 4, American has said that it will appeal the lower court’s ruling to the Supreme Court.

CWA points out that since American filed for bankruptcy it has spent $200 million on legal fees and expenses related to the bankruptcy. It has also paid the law firm Paul Hastings LLC $19.5 million to renegotiate existing union contracts and prevent passenger service agents from unionizing.

Union supporters say that the bankruptcy has revealed American’s disdain for its workers. “The company is not on our side,” said Ted Tezino, who works at American’s Southern Reservation Office and supports the union. “It’s time to stand up for ourselves.