In mostly silent, sign-carrying pickets, they have shown up by the dozens to some United public events, such as the corporate annual meeting in New York and a media tour of its new network operations center in Chicago's Willis Tower. Last week, the union announced that its members had voted to authorize a strike.
"I am well aware that the negotiations to reach a joint collective bargaining agreement have been long and frustrating," wrote Fred Abbott, United senior vice president for flight operations in a letter to pilots July 2. "The union will continue to claim that the company is dragging its feet in reaching an agreement. This is simply not true. It is in all of our interests to reach agreement now."
Groups at United seeking joint contracts with the airline include flight attendants, mechanics, passenger service agents, ramp and fleet workers, and dispatchers.
AMERICAN AIRLINES: In 2003, American's flight attendants, pilots and ground workers agreed to pay and benefit cuts, along with changed work rules, to help AMR Corp., the parent of American Airlines, avoid a bankruptcy filing. But the airline company eventually succumbed, filing in November.
American originally said it needed $1.25 billion in annual savings by cutting some 13,000 jobs. Since then, it has been working with its unions on contracts that would result in somewhat less severe cuts.
American's unions are all negotiating parallel tracks. In April the unions, representing some 55,000 employees, cut contract deals with US Airways in hopes of an American-US Airways merger. The deals aren't much more lucrative than ones proposed by American Airlines, say officials from the unions and US Airways. The difference, they say, is that working for a healthier merged airline, one able to compete on equal footing with the large flight networks of United and Delta, would provide longer-term job protection.
Their desire for a hookup with US Airways got a boost this month, when American Airlines CEO Tom Horton clearly signaled in a letter to employees that the time was right for airline management to begin considering mergers. He had previously said talk of a merger should wait until after American emerged from bankruptcy.
Unions are also negotiating another track, talking directly with American Airlines through the Chapter 11 bankruptcy process. They want to strike deals before the court potentially voids contracts and allows the company to impose new terms, which is a loss of control union officials fear. In recent weeks, the airline has been able to reach deals with several unions, including pilots who will start voting Wednesday on a tentative contract, and the last two of seven work groups represented by the Transport Workers Union. TWU, the union slated to take the brunt of the job losses, includes such workers as mechanics, ground workers, dispatchers and flight-school instructors.
"These are still concessionary and painful deals, but we continue to fight in real ways to lessen the impact of these changes on our members and their families," TWU International President James C. Little said in a recent statement.
But flight attendants have not reached a deal with the company.
"I believe our recent tentative agreement with the (pilot union), and agreements with the TWU, will prove to be an important turning point in our mission to put American back in the lead," Horton wrote to employees in a letter.
Waiting on a ratification vote by pilots, a judge is scheduled to decide Aug. 15 on whether to void existing contracts for all groups: pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and ground workers.
SOUTHWEST AIRLINES: Southwest Airlines merged with AirTran Airways in May 2011.
Pilots at Southwest and AirTran easily integrated seniority lists in November, usually a long and difficult process. A pilot's position on a company's seniority list can determine career aspects such as earnings, days worked and in which city a pilot is based. In announcing the integration, Southwest Airlines Pilots' Association President Capt. Steve Chase called the ease and speed of the deal "remarkable and rare in our industry."
Indeed, Southwest generally has good relations with labor groups. Flight attendants, too, ratified an integrated seniority list this year.
But last month, Transport Workers Union Local 555, which represents 8,400 ramp, operations, provisioning and freight agents nationwide at Southwest, distributed leaflets to passengers at Chicago's Midway Airport asking for support in opposing what it says is Southwest's plan to outsource jobs and use temporary workers. Contract negotiations have been ongoing since July 2011.
"As has historically been the case, relations are good with Southwest," said Jamie Horwitz, spokesman for TWU, which represents flight attendants and ground workers at Southwest. But there are issues with integrating AirTran with Southwest and Southwest's expansion to flying internationally.
More problematic, he said, is that the airline would like to use outsourced workers to do some of the ground worker jobs, such as baggage handling.
Southwest spokesman Paul Flaningan said talks with ground workers are "very fluid" and it would be premature to comment. "Talks are ongoing and we are still in the process of exchanging proposals with TWU 555."
Harteveldt, the airline industry analyst, said that although major airlines have significant union issues right now, he doesn't expect widespread problems for fliers.
"American Airlines is proving right now that despite the issues between management and labor, its employees have stepped up to the plate," Harteveldt said pointing to American's decent on-time performance and other operational factors that affect fliers.
"Smart employees realize that if they take action against a customer, the customer is going to be inconvenienced, but the airline and their jobs suffer," Harteveldt said.
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