IAM Picks Up 19,000 at United Airlines
Source Dave Anderson
Date 99/05/01/21:58

/* Written 8:03 PM Jul 19, 1998 by in igc:labr.all */
/* ---------- "IAM Picks Up 19,000 at United Airli" ---------- */
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Date: Sun, 19 Jul 1998 18:09:34 -0600 (MDT)

July 18, 1998

Passenger-Service Workers at United Airlines Vote to

In the biggest unionization victory in the private sector in two
decades, about 19,000 reservations takers, gate agents and ticket
sellers at United Airlines will become members of the International
Association of Machinists, federal officials announced Friday.

Federal labor officials announced that a majority of United's passenger
service workers had voted to unionize, following a year-long campaign in
which the machinists emphasized that United's profits had rebounded
while the country's largest airline had maintained a wage system in
which thousands of its 93,000 workers earned less than $15,000 a year.

The organizing drive was unusual in its scope and logistics because it
involved campaigning in 16 reservations centers and a total of 113

Union leaders said the triumph demonstrated that labor's stepped-up
recruiting efforts were paying off and that service sector workers and
white-collar workers were fertile territory for organizing.

Martin Malin, a labor relations specialist at Chicago-Kent Law School,
said, "Obviously, it's a tremendous boost to organized labor
particularly in light of the AFL-CIO's big emphasis on organizing more

The unionization vote was also unusual because it came at a company that
is often described as the nation's largest employee-owned corporation --
employees own slightly more than half the shares.

The employee stock ownership plan was set up in 1996 by management with
the cooperation of the pilots and machinists unions, with the goal of
solidifying United's finances and increasing workers'job security. But
the employer stock ownership plan left many nonunion passenger service
workers fuming because they received fewer shares than the unionized
workers and because the plan created a three-tier wage system, with the
lowest tier, more than 40 percent of employees, receiving fewer vacation
and sick days and a less generous health plan than other workers.

"The most interesting thing about this story is that the ESOP created an
appetite for union representation," said Christopher Mackin, president
of Ownership Associates, a firm in Cambridge, Mass., that advises
companies on employee stock ownership plans. "This is a lousy deal that
was cut. These passenger-service workers had a sense that we own a
substantial amount of this place, and everybody else is represented, and
we're not."

Officials at United, a Chicago-based company that is a subsidiary of
UAL, insisted that they did not oppose the unionization drive.
Nonetheless, many United workers said their supervisors argued against
the union, although these workers acknowledged that United, perhaps
because it is largely employee-owned, did not fight the union with
nearly as much vigor as most employers.

"We applaud the IAM for an effective campaign," said John Edwardson, the
president of United Airlines. "Now that employees have made their
choice, we will work with the IAM closely and cooperatively to negotiate
a fair and equitable contract."

The Railway Labor Act governed the unionization effort and required that
more than half of all the passenger-service workers mail in ballots
supporting unionization. There were 17,938 eligible voters and 9,485
cast their ballots for the machinists and 34 for other unions. Union
officials said 1,000 other workers hired since March 21 will be part of
the bargaining unit.

According to statistics compiled by the AFL-CIO and the National Labor
Relations Board, the machinists victory is labor's biggest
private-sector victory since 19,000 workers at the Newport News, Va.,
shipyard voted to unionize in 1978.

"This win is a great harbinger of labor's new vitality and appeal," said
John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO. "It shows that even in an
employee-owned company, workers need unions to ensure they have an
effective voice in dealing with management."

The most enthusiastic voices in favor of unionizing were workers in the
lowest-paid tier, who usually start at around $6.50 an hour and can
climb to a maximum of $8.60, without ever being able to reach the $18 an
hour earned by experienced first-tier reservations takers and gate
agents. The third tier applies to workers hired after the stock ownership
plan went into effect in July 1994.

"The union will mean better wages and better health insurance," said
Marie Scott, a reservations agent in Denver. "The pay scale is
ridiculous. In June, I was the highest-generating revenue-person
in my department. I made $685 in sales in an hour, and I was making just
$6.65 an hour. It's a joke."

Many experienced first-tier workers also backed the union, often saying
they feared that without a union contract, United might cut the pensions
and health insurance promised them after retirement. Many first-tier
workers also complained that their job was made far harder by the high
employee turnover generated by the low pay the third-tier workers

As Sweeney has prodded the nation's unions to do more organizing, they
have looked for large pools of workers who would respond tot heir
message, and, not surprisingly, many unions have focused on the
passenger-service workers. They are the only part of an industry that is
not already unionized. In addition, the passenger-service workers have
often lost their jobs or seen their benefits reduced as a result of
downsizing, mergers or an airlines' financial squeeze.

"These workers are so concerned about the volatility of this industry
that it made unionization extremely possible," said Tom Juravich, a
professor of labor relations at the University of Massachusetts. "It's a
real victory to succeed in a multi-site organized drive like this. It's
very difficult to do, even if the employer isn't fighting you all out."

The machinists sought to unionize the passenger-service workers in 1991,
but failed in that effort. Labor leaders and experts said the machinists
won this time around because they threw more organizers and money into
the effort, because workers have warmed up to organized labor and
because nonunion workers have grown more disenchanted.

"For a while, unions had a bad rap but it's starting to change," said
Eileen Oberg, a $8.02-an-hour reservations agent in Suisun, Cal. "The
union will even the playing field and give everybody a chance to make
decent wages. It's not fair that I sit next to a person who makes $17 an
hour and we do the same job and I have the same work ethic and I have no
chance of reaching that salary range."

Last year, Communications Workers of America succeeded in unionizing
10,000 workers at U.S. Airways, and they are confident they will soon
unionize 15,000 such workers at American Airlines. The communications
workers began trying to organize the United workers last year, but the
machinists outhustled them.

copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

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