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 the  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.”



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.