Southwest suspends workers for attending a union meeting

Transport Workers Union Local 555 has set up a Go Fund Me account to raise money for more than 100 of its members who were suspended by Southwest Airlines for attending a union meeting.

“On December 8 and 9 Southwest Airlines issued unpaid suspensions ranging from 45 to 90 days to more than 100 of our Brothers and Sisters for attending regional union meetings in Southern California and Orlando, Florida,” reported Local 555 on its website.

Local 555 represents 11,000 Southwest Airlines baggage handlers and other ground workers.

The union and Southwest Airlines have been negotiating a new contract for four and one-half years. The two sides entered mediation in 2012 to resolve the dispute, but no progress has been made.

Despite the company’s record profits, Local 555 members have not received a raise in three years.

Local 555 called union meetings on November 18 in Southern California and November 20 in Orlando, Florida to discuss the negotiations and options for moving forward.

Some union members used personal leave time as is permitted by their collective bargaining agreement to attend the meetings.

Southwest Airlines alleges that those who used their leave time to attend the meeting were engaging in an illegal strike and suspended them.

Lou Mang, a 13-year Southwest ramp agent in Burbank, California and a union station representative, was one of those suspended.

“This 90-day unpaid suspension will devastate my family,” said Mang, who works double shift overtime twice a week to meet his family’s expenses.

One of Mang’s sons is in college, and Mang is worried that the loss of pay from his suspension will mean that his son won’t be able to return to college when the new semester begins in January.

“I feel our contractual rights have been totally violated and don’t understand why we are being punished and suspended,” said Mang. “I also don’t understand why the company is doing this cost wise; they are paying for the cost of temporary workers, hotels, etc. when we are all ready to work. We feel helpless and we feel we have done nothing wrong. It just seems very unfair.”

Eric Rosales, a 14-year Southwest ramp agent at John Wayne Airport in the Los Angeles area, said that he was surprised when he was suddenly pulled off the job and interrogated about use of his personal leave time. He said that the interrogation made him feel like a criminal.

Rosales and his wife have a six-year old daughter. He said that the suspension has been stressful for the whole family.

“Rent is a terrifying thing to think of, and we’ve called the bank to talk about our car payment,” said Rosales. “Thankfully, we had already bought a couple of Christmas presents for our daughter before this happened and she doesn’t ask for much; I think she knows we don’t have it right now.”

Rafael Zavala, an eight-year Southwest cargo agent in Ontario, California, didn’t even attend the union meeting, but was still suspended.

Zavala took personal time off to take care of his two children, so that his wife could attend the funeral of a co-worker.

TWU International President Harry Lombardo said that the international, which has contributed $25,000 to the Go Fund Me account, would stand behind the suspended workers.

“In this union, one local’s fight is everyone’s fight,” said Lombardo. “I’m tired of watching the airline industry get rich on the backs of working people. It’s time to fight back.”

While Southwest has avoided negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement and has frozen ground workers’ wages, the company  reported a record-breaking $584 million in profits for the third quarter of 2015.

“We are very pleased to report outstanding third quarter 2015 results marked by a 63.1% year-over-year increase in net income, excluding special items,” said Southwest’s CEO Gary Kelly to investors.

Kelly added that low fuel prices are the primary reason for the record profits.

USA reports that during the third quarter, Southwest paid $549 million to shareholders through dividends and stock buybacks.

Lombardo said that the suspensions were further proof that the current bargaining structure in the airline industry is unfair to workers.

“Companies are raking in record profits, CEOs are doing better than ever, and air travel has never been more expensive,” said Lombardo. “Yet the people who get up and go to work every day to make sure those flights get off the ground – pilots, mechanics, flight attendants, ground crews, you name it – are struggling to support their families.”

Lombardo added that under the current bargaining structure, airlines have no incentive to bargain in good faith.

“The game is rigged, and I won’t stand by and watch as Southwest Airlines – or any company – continues to exploit the hardworking men and women of this union,” said Lombardo.