JetBlue flight attendants turn the tide; vote to unionize

While teacher strikes dominated the labor news during April, another group of white-collar workers made an important statement when they voted to unionize,

Just like teachers in West Virginia and other states who decided that collective action is the only way to get their voice heard, JetBlue flight attendants voted 2661 to 1274 to join the Transport Workers Union (TWU).

John Samuelson, TWU’s president, said that the union vote at JetBlue is “yet another example of the tide turning in America as workers continue to lock arms and fight back to defend their livelihoods.”

Since JetBlue began operations in 1998, management has styled the airline as a new kind of business: one that brings “humanity back to air travel.”

JetBlue, so the story went, would use technology to enhance air travel for customers, and build a direct relationship with employees to make JetBlue a great place to work.

Unions might be needed at other airlines, but at JetBlue, a third party such as a union could only get in the way of this direct and special relationship shared by employer and employee.

Unfortunately, a third party did get in the way of this special relationship, but it wasn’t a union.

Wall Street investors began demanding more profits from JetBlue, and management paid attention to this third party.

To appease Wall Street, JetBlue began looking for ways to cut costs to boost profits.

The company added more seats to their airplanes and reduced the number of flight attendants on them.

It reduced cleaning staff and made flight attendants perform more of the cleaning work.

To save money of health care costs, it dramatically increased the amount that employees pay for their health care benefit.

It also kept flight attendants’ pay well below industry standards set by unionized airlines.

When the company’s own work rules got in the way of its profits, management arbitrarily revised or reinterpreted them without any input from employees, belying the company’s direct relationship with employees.

These grievances along with the fact that JetBlue is an at will employer with no grievance procedures for appealing unjust firings or disciplinary actions made some flight attendants think that they needed a union, and they contacted TWU.

TWU organizers helped the union supporters set up an organizing committee, and members of the organizing committee began circulating union authorization cards asking for a union representation at JetBlue.

When word about the organizing campaign got out last summer, management launched an aggressive counter attack.

In e-mails and direct mailings to flight attendants, the company ignored the fact that its own employees were the driving force behind the organizing campaign and blamed it on outside agitators.

A company email to flight attendants called TWU “an opportunistic and negative third party” and accused the union of criminal behavior.

Labor Press reports that JetBlue worked with the right-wing anti-union groups Center for Union Facts and the National Right to Work (for less) Defense Foundation to carry out its anti-union campaign.

It also hired a union avoidance law firm.

In addition to a barrage of misinformation sent by e-mail and direct mail, anti-union websites purportedly operated by flight attendants popped up urging flight attendants to reject the union.

JetBlue also took a softer approach. In January, one month after union supporters petitioned the National Mediation Board for a union election, the company announced that it was giving all employees a $1000 bonus because of the new tax cut.

But neither the company’s hard line nor its soft approach proved effective.

When the results of theĀ  union election were announced on April 16, 66 percent of the more than 4000 flight attendants who voted, voted for the union.

The next step will be for the union to gather information from members and decide what issues to take to the bargaining table.

JetBlue has already indicated that it may try to delay the negotiations in hopes that the union will be unable to sustain itself.

As part of its anti-union pitch before the election, JetBlue pointed to the length of time it took for TWU to negotiate a first contract with Allegiant airlines, and intimated that a union at JetBlue would face the same uphill battle.

What the company failed to mention is that when TWU finally did negotiate its first collective bargaining agreement with Allegiant, flight attendants got a 33 percent pay raise over the five years of the agreement.

Samuelson said that TWU had no intention of letting negotiations with JetBlue drag on for a long time.

“TWU intends to immediately commence contract bargaining with JetBlue,” Samuelson said. “It is our sincerest wish that the company comes to the table and bargains a fair and just contract with the workers they employ. But if JetBlue refuses to bargain in good faith, this union is prepared to engage in a fight back campaign that will continue until a contract is secured and the inflight crew members are protected.”